Universities Destroy My User Experience

I’ve recently noticed two ways that higher education spoils my life. The first is more annoying, the second is probably more serious. They are: the tech and the system.


The tech at universities is designed for grown ups. I teach small children. It’s simple really. I have no problem with universities having fantastic technology that supports their students’ learning*. But why does it have to be foisted upon me and my children. I’m sure Moodle does a grand job in its place. And all those other ones – Blackboard, Fronter and the like. But they’re so hard to manage – they require a full time position to keep parents engaged, encourage teachers to create meaningful online learning and to reset student passwords. I don’t know many primary schools who can afford that full time job. Then there’s all the training – how do I teach my teachers how to use it properly, given all the other training needs. 




I have to say that I didn’t even bother with Moodle. I had seen how it looked and thought how firstly my staff as users and then my children would suffer a poor experience. Not all teachers can be picked up from a poor leaning experience – they look at the failing tech and it confirms all they ever thought about computers. This is mainly down to the design – not only does it look wrong, but it’s designed for a different kind of productivity – primary school teachers are productive when they are having lots of 1:1 interactions with children in their class during the day, whereas students and lecturers at university interact with the knowledge, which can be held by the VLE. And of course VLEs (like Moodle) have come from universities originally, sidled into secondary schools where they are just about manageable and on, in their predictable way, into Primary schools where we know no better. Until now.



The alternative is Google and other web2.0 tools. Yes I am a Google Certified Teacher, so I am biased, but when I did collaborative data analysis with my staff a few days ago, they got it instantly – with no prior training. They collaborated on the same, secure Google spreadsheet at the same time, initially made mistakes but learnt from each other and from myself, getting the job done. The same had happened with Calendars a few days earlier. I couldn’t imagine being able to do the same things so efficiently and smoothly with the clunky systems that Moodle have to offer, or indeed Excel.


Other alternatives also exist. Textease is a brilliant suite of tools that work a bit like Microsoft Office, but start from where the children are. Similarly 2Simple produce some great software for very young children

The System is based on university success. Nations crave it. Lord Mandelson said it (when he was in power). Sir Ken Robinson declared it in 2006. And so on… The problem I have is not that some of the children will go to university and some won’t. It’s the stuff that comes the other way. And the thing is – it starts with the children who won’t go to university.

Opt in or opt out. It is not a choice for the primary child. You have to go to school. Parents can now be prosecuted if you don’t. By contrast, you don’t have to go to university. It’s a choice – a choice that takes considerable financial risk if you’re at or below the median** salary. Much of the primary school teacher’s effort can be taken up by ensuring motivation. This is not an issue at university – a student goes there by choice. And that student can fail the course if they don’t put the required effort in.*** So of course the concept of failure creeps back to secondary schools, where you can fail at ‘A’ levels and GCSEs, even though it goes all the way down to ‘G’ now. Apparently 6% of students don’t get a ‘G’ grade in maths and over 40% don’t achieve ‘C’ – the grade at which a GCSE becomes useful. This then finds its way into primary schools where you can fail by not reaching a ‘Level 3’ in the level 3-5 SATs, or where, if the school labours the point you can fail by not achieving the level 4, or not making 12 points progress. Some 11 year olds can’t opt out of this. They have no choice. They have to fail.


Failure hurts. It’s good to get use to that pain. But is 11 the right age? And is it even 11? Recently my own son started in a Year 3 class (aged 7) and was given a test in his first week. Of course he had been tested prior to that – there are assessments in Year 2, but I remember him coming home and talking about the ‘special booklet’ he had done that day – the teachers were keen to exert any stress with the concept of being able to fail at a test. Not so in Year 3. A test was sat. In reading skills I believe. We await the results with bated breath.

Is seven the right age to learn about failing in tests?


*although I suspect much of it is about guarding the knowledge so they can charge more money from it, rather than actually encouraging their students to learn.
**Never trust a set of data unless you know the range, median, mean and mode
***Unless they’re studying English. Or history.

First reflections on the impact of calendar training


Today I gave some training on using Google Calendars.


The training had two useful outcomes:
  1. It showed how useful online Calendars are and everybody grasped the basics of how to add events.
  2. It got everyone together in the same room to sort out some important rotas for the year.
I began planning the training back on August 25th when I wrote this blog post about my ideas for this training. Soon after I hit a snag with my decision making, when I’d been trying to kill too many ICT birds with one stone – I had ended up taking one step forward for every two steps back. I then decided to use videos as my main vehicle for the instruction. I even included a second video to really go over how to create repeated events, in case staff didn’t quite get it. I used Google Sites as the repository for the training:
What was really interesting was the the whole ‘I’m not going to talk approach’. I’m so used to presenting with
  • a little preamble,
  • a spot of humour,
  • some theory,
  • practical application,

that it was really weird just letting my video do the talking – we didn’t even watch the video as a group (which would have been a bit embarrassing).


Rather each teacher had headphones and watched it individually – there was an eerie silence around the place. Then, as people started to get it there was a slow murmur as people sitting near to each other explained or clarified their thinking about the task in hand or the instructions. Then the volume grew as the first events started appearing on the calendar and some people started to realise that they may miss all the best slots. This point was perhaps the most tense – a slight tone of anxiety creeping into the odd voice here and there. But finally everyone realised that we’re all colleagues still and began talking constructively about what slots to fill in. Within half an hour the training was finished, the calendars were done and staff were on there way to do stuff elsewhere.


What’s good for the staff now is that they all have a common framework and understanding of how Google Calendars work, with an expectation of being able to use them productively in the future. What’s good for me is that I’ve got the bulk of the rotas sorted without having to traipse around the school.

Divergent decisions


Sometimes the ideal way forward isn’t the most time appropriate.


I realised this morning that the best way of enabling my staff to collaborate on Google Calenders to set up the school rotas for the year would be to set up a Google Apps for Education account and do it within there. Then I could have each individual user logging into the school calendars and updating them together in the same session. The steps that led to that realisation included setting up the current school calendars to be shared with the e-mail accounts of each of the staff members (that’s the screenshot above). But unfortunately that would include setting up each of those e-mail accounts with an iGoogle account, which is time-consuming and pointless because most staff wouldn’t log on to iGoogle if they’re not already in the habit of using it. Hence I needed a Google Apps for Education account to tie it altogether. And of course that takes a few weeks to set up, because Google have to check that you’re actually an education establishment and not a company looking for a free-ride.


A few week that I didn’t have.


And three hours that I’d spent effectively wasting my time.


Each decision I’d made had led to at least two problems needing to be answered. Two more decision to be made. It was a network of ever-increasing complexity that, if I’d have the time, might have worked well, but the thing is that this particular opportunity will have lots its effectiveness if I don’t have it ready by Wednesday 1st September. I needed to get something sorted.


So I took a step back and looked at the best way to make my choices converge to a solution that would work. The ideal solution would have had staff working collaboratively to create the rotas in a way that will be continued throughout the year. The time appropriate solution is to cut-out the ideal methods of collaboration and just get the rotas done.


So I now have two gmail accounts – one called paganelschool@gmail.com and the other paganelteacher@gmail.com. The first holds the calendars, the second is what all the teachers will log on with to adjust the calenders. It’s not ideal because I’d prefer each teacher to log on with their own account – but as I’ve explained that isn’t possible yet. Maybe later on the year, I’ll be able to tie these things together with a Google Apps for Education solution and get closer to my ideal solution.


Next I will post the video I made to explain to the teachers how to add things to Google Calendar.

Creating Rotas Collaboratively

I’ve been experimenting with Google Calendar to make our systems more efficient. This term I’m turning to the school rotas.

Why Rotas?

It sounds a boring task, and it is, but getting the rotas right at the start of the year is essential to having an efficient year. It saves all those pointless conversations where people have to negotiate room usage and avoids all those embarrassing situations where two people, each with a class of 30 children, turn up at the Hall only to have their expectations and lesson plan dashed. Getting rotas right means the administrators in the office, who bear much of the difficult conversations in school can work confidently within the frameworks given to them. As these people often have the dual role of also being first contact for visitors it helps them stay positive and happy. The visitors also pick up on this mood and the school’s reputation improves.


Everything gets better with good rotas.


I love Google Calendar. I love the way it syncs so well with my phone and with so much other stuff. I also love the way you can collaborate with Google Spreadsheets – 50 people + on the new version it’s pretty impressive. So my initial idea was to generate the rotas by sitting together with the staff and a room full of laptops, type into events into a Google spreadsheet, and then import the data via a .csv file into Calendar. After some initial research and some sterling advice from fellow GCTs Danny Silva and Nic Finelli I soon dismissed this idea. I realised that getting the staff to accurately put their activities into a precise format onto Google Spreadsheets when some off them have had no prior experience of any kind of spreadsheet might be asking too much. It may be a challenge for the future. If you’re interested, the Google help page with the right format for importing into calendar is here.


So instead I’ve set up several calendars that describe everything we do in school. I’m intending to open up the calendars to the staff so they can edit them during the first week, set up the rotas, then I’ll take away their access rights so they can only see the calendars and they’ll be set. I’ll then transfer over the admin rights to the actual staff, so if any changes need to be made in the future they can be made through the staff in the admin office.

The rotas I need doing are:

  • Hall Timetable (mainly for PE)
  • Small hall Timetable (mainly for eating, but some PE)
  • ICT Table (for using our ICT suite)
  • Laptop timetable (for accessing our bank of 16 laptops)
  • Playground Timetable (for agreeing who’s going to be out on the playground over the course of the week)

In addition I created 3 separate calendars.

  1. KS1 Timetable
  2. KS2 Timetable
  3. Assemblies

I still need a 4th Calendar to finish the jigsaw – the Foundation Stage Calendar – but I’m not sure what their calendar looks like and won’t get the details until next Tuesday. I need to have got the bulk of this sorted by then.


The Calendar Menu looks like this – several calendars that I can turn off and on and make available to different people.

The KS1 Calendar looks like this:


And with the KS2 Calendar and Assembly calender looks like this:


What next?

I need to plan how I’m going to explain to the staff how to put their events up. Each member of staff will have a certain number of events to fill in for each timetable, for example 2 for the Hall Timetable, 2 or 3 for the ICT suite. I’ll probably use a video to record that – I quite like Smart boards screen capture video software – it’s simple but effective. I’ll need to remember to invite each staff member to fill in the appropriate calendars too.

Over the next few days I’ll post my explanation video and after the training has been given, show some of the results of what happened.


Albert Rosenfield and Compassion in ICT


Now you listen to me. While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King. My concerns are global. I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method… is love.” Albert Rosenfield, Twin Peaks 1990.


I’ve been able to quote those words pretty accurately for the past twenty years but have only just made the link today between those words and the increasingly positive ICT environment at my current school. It took the help of a blog from @colport entitled ‘I am the ICT co-ordinator, not the technician‘ to do so.


The above blog mentions various twitter comments concerning the rather inept use of ICT by some ICT-illiterate teachers and the consequential effects on over-worked ICT co-ordinators. I too have experienced my fair share of inept ICT use – being urgently called to the other end of the school to rescue an ICT disastor only to find a button hasn’t been pressed or a power lead plugged in. What got me thinking though was that I seem to be experiencing far less of those issues now than I was a few years ago. But why?


Well let’s go through Albert’s words carefully:


1. Now you listen to me.


It has to be said that I am not only ICT co-ordinator, but also a senior leader in the school. That helps with getting things done and changing attitudes. It helps me because I am in the kind of position where people have to listen to me.


However I’ve been in less senior positions in the past and got people listening and my way of doing it is presenting irrefutable data about efficiency savings to governors and SLT meetings. For example, walking into a school and discovering that there was no follow up plans to support the £20000 the governors had invested on the new ICT system, I pointed out (using an interactive excel spreadsheet) that all that equipment would be broken or obselete within 5 years. Therefore the minimum maintenance cost would be 20% (i.e. £4000) per year without taking into account inflation or the need to buy newer better technologies in the future. It’s a powrful argument. Especially if you use different colours on Excel. And graphs.


While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence.


OK it’s not violence I’m talking about now, although I would like to think that in the right context I would be a naysayer and a hatchetman in the fight against violence. I suppose my fight is against ICT apathy. The solution here is actually a range of solutions… Let me explain:


If you have always have the same response to each ICT problem then teachers will not develop. Sometimes I respond immediately, dash down and fix the problem. Other times I give them some suggestions and trouble shooting tips. Sometimes I’ll ask their line manager to sort it out (my fellow senior leaders are not as adept as I at ICT, but are refreshingly keen and give it a go). I try to be emotionally intelligent about my response – consider the person, the way they asked, the time of day, the impending nearness of any observed lesson, that sort of thing. However, I do find that I’m not near the top of the emotional intelligence league at my school. This could be something about being a bloke in a female-dominated environment but that’s another post for another day.


Following the event if it’s a one-off I may leave it, but if it is happening persistently I’ll sit down with the person and give them some top tips on trouble shooting. Incidently, years ago when I worked for a now-defunct engineering firm I was taught the three rules of fixing things in British engineering and I do find they genearrly work for Microsoft-based things:

  1. Switch it off and switch it on again.
  2. Switch it off go away and have coffee, then switch it on again.
  3. Switch if off, kick it, then switch it on again.

I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King.


I have a dream that one day all staff will be aspirational with their ICT use. That PCs will live side by side with Macs and that all staff will use the best tech that suits them to achieve the educational goals they have for their children.


No but seriously, the punch is that 2 minute dash to someone else’s room to fix a problem that leaves you that little bit unprepared for your next lesson – it’s that half-drunk cup of coffee at break or the five minutes you get home later that day because of the extra conversation you’ve had about effective ICT use. It’s worth it, because it’s building something bigger.


My concerns are global.


They are. I really do want the whole school to do well, not just my class. At some times of the year other classes are more important than mine – for example at the moment, teaching Year 6 pretty much solely revolves around the leaver’s production, whereas the Reception class are preparing for that important transition to national curriculum. Their learning is more important to the whole school than year 6’s interesting rendition of ‘Say Goodbye’ (by S Club 7)


I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation.


I am quite sarcastic as a person, but have found that with fixing stuff I need to curb my sarcasm. People respond better and they learn to do it for themselves. I still have bad days though and need to work on this.


The foundation of such a method… is love.


Love is quite a contentious word, so I prefer compassion. I must remember that some of my colleagues aren’t geeks. They don’t spend their time nailed to a blog or researching something new. I want the gap between my skills and their skills to narrow and marvellously on the way I can learn stuff from them (like how to be more emotionally intelligent for a start…)


Albert Rosenfield himself


The technician is crucial.


For those of you who don’t know Twin Peaks, Albert Rosenfield was the expert coroner / scientist type chap who supported Special Agent Dale Cooper’s investigations. He was first introduced as a rather abrasive and dismissive expert who has no sympathy for the paucity of knowledge of those who live out in the sticks. In fact he says at one point: “Oh yeah, well I’ve had about enough of morons and half wits, dolts, dunces, dullards and dumbbells… and you, you chowder-head yokel, you blithering hayseed. You’ve had enough of me?” That does slightly remind me of some ICT technicians I’ve met (some, mind – I’ve met loads of great ones). Anyway, as the series develops Albert becomes more and more a crucial part of the team, supporting the investigation and even becoming firm friends with the ‘yokel-sherrif’ he had once despised.


The parallel with our own ICT technician is very similar. He hs become a crucial part of our team. He is my chief buyer and adviser of the best tech to purchase. He has no fear of talking to the sometimes highly rigid LA ICT people, in fact he has led on the development of our Moodle platform, organising training and suggesting the best way to go forward at a strategic level. And that’s on top of the day-to-day operational stuff he does. We only buy him in for half a day a week too. Even more so than any interactions I have made with the staff over the last few years, it has been the interactions we have had with him that have reduced those annoying time-wasting ICT problems that we used to have. We still have them, but things are getting better, not worse.

Google Teacher Academy

I’m quite excited about the prospect of attending the Google teacher Academy in July this year. It’s the first one to be held in London and I got in to it partly on the strength of my video which you can see here.


The video is a bit mad really – you obviously can’t teach telekinesis to primary phase children – it’s more of secondary school job if you ask me.


It also helped to start discovering some well helpful people on the internet who can give advice on technology and the like. Doug Belshaw was one. His blog lives at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog/

Leaps in technology

Some of us are a bit slow in the uptake.

We’re teachers.

We’re a bit slow because we’re so busy doing what we think we should be doing that we don’t take time to make our lives easier.

If only we spent a few moments finding the things that would make our lives easier, then we’d be less busy and teach better.

The pipe is more important than the contents of the pipe.

Today I made my life a bit easier. I learnt how to do Twitter. It took me 10 minutes. Then I learnt how to e-mail remotely into my blog. I’m doing that now from my phone.

Leaps forward in technology – for me anyway…

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