129 posts categorized "GlowScotland"

October 18, 2010

[ #ediff ]: I'm neither right nor wrong: Technology Futures in Scotland, a braindump

Our group's brainstorm of Glow from a student perspective
Discussions about how attention, finance and effort get spent on educational technology at a national level in any country all too often get drawn into a "We're right, they're wrong" play-off.
It's been hard trying to formulate some thoughts after a meeting I was invited to last week by the Scottish Government. In Scotland, on the back of one day, at least, I felt the beginnings of a crack of enlightenment in some frank, sometimes painful discussions about where Scotland's educational technology line of vision might head in the future.

The discussion was conducted under Chatham House Twitter rules, in that the points from the discussion could be made public, but the person from whom they emaninated not. It meant that we were able to call it as it was, challenge and question each other for more detail. It does, though, make blogging about the experience tricky. I've been stung too often in the past from people with agendas, journalists who want to just make stuff up and those who oh-so-wisely but oh-so-naively believe it, by those who hear but do not listen.

There are some good roundups of the content of the day, and some of the discussions:

Instead of duplicating those points, I think I'd like to dump some perhaps unrelated thoughts that came up through the afternoon discussion I was part of, looking at learning from a student's perspective and thinking about what that might mean for a national technology for learning strategy.

1. Do we need Big IT doing stuff for us, can we just do it ourselves, or is there a sweet spot somewhere inbetween? With me on the day was Andrea Reid, a Quality Improvement Officer from the south of Scotland, and in her summary of the day she quotes one of her students, summing up a latent tension any centralised or national technology initiatives hold:

I was with a group of P7s and part of their group getting over a high wooden wall, with no footholds ( about 12 feet). It was one of those team efforts where everyone had to get to a platform on the top, and I promptly interfered and gave advice. One boy took himself out of the group and wandered off to the side – completely adamant he wasn’t getting involved. Eventually he came over and said to me – “Look when you stop helping us I’ll get involved.” Point duly taken I backed off and he worked with the others to get everyone over in a really fast time. His leadership and collaboration with the others was outstanding. At feedback later his comment to me was "When you learn to trust us to solve our own problems, you’ll find we can do it and even if we can’t we’ll have tried our best". Clever boy, who had been really hard going in class previously – disengaged and hard work. Big lesson for me…

The assumption that Government knows the problems that need solved and then goes in to sort it all out is one that has blossomed in the last dozen years or so. But, as we hit these times of austerity, it's the lack of cash to go around that's forcing (or allowing us to take advantage of) an attitude of "it's not what your country can do for you, it's what you can do for your country".

Does Government not have to think about how it goes about Big IT, and whether it goes about Big IT projects at all? There were as many of us wanting to see an increased role of an open marketplace as having more investment in the state-run Glow learning platform, in a "where would you put your money" exercise.

2. National technology for learning projects that are about connecting learners, parents and schools seem to have forgotten something: Facebook has all the mechanics required to do this, and the critical mass to make discovery of others easier. Facebook might only be useful for the adults and older students amongst our learners, but where it fails, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin etc come to fill in the gap. Could we not harness the open market better, rather than trying to compete against them?

3. "Safe" is the (wrong) key word of most national learning technology initiatives. In Scotland, the 'safety' of Glow has been over-stated, and has been used as a crux by some to avoid delving into the issues that Facebook and other social networks and virtual worlds bring in the real world, both for adults and for children.

4. No online service should ever be so unintuitive and hard to use that it requires training to learn how to open it, let alone how to harness it for deeper or more collaborative learning. Design is vital, and has been ignored - is still ignored - in national education technology projects. Get BERG to do it right.

5. The underlying problem for national education technology has nothing to do with technology. We're solving the wrong problem by throwing money at training and code, when the real problem lies in collaboration itself. Collaboration across age, stage and school subject gets more difficult from nursery onwards. Nursery is the fragile balance between schooling, play and life-learning that we should struggle to maintain throughout formal education. Until we get to grips with how to better plan learning, particularly in secondary education, then the vast majority of "collaborative" technology is a wasted effort. We should be looking at how we can have more schools consider their curriculum through the lens of a learning wall, how they can generate truly student-led learning.

6. National collaborative technology projects assumed that the gatekeepers - parents and teachers - think sharing is a good, worthwhile activity. Sharing is a good thing, and is the lifeblood of great creative ideas (no hyperlink to prove it - there's a ton of literature and evidence out there; start off with my delicious links if you like). But vast swathes of teachers don't think so. If there are still relatively few teachers sharing on weblogs, for example, it has nothing to do with the weblogs or other choice of sharing tool, and everything to do with their perception that spending some time thinking, reflecting, committing to (e)paper and sharing that with as wide an audience as possible is a futile, useless, time-consuming activity that competes with many others of greater perceived importance. It would be worth £35m working out how to crack that one first.

7. National technology projects have largely failed to delight. The reason games-based learning is so popular in the past four years more than any four year period prior to this is down principally to the exponentially improving field of video game narrative, graphic, motion controllers, augmented reality and storyline. The second key ingredient in helping this culture spread is a committed (but tiny) team of individuals who can help empower teachers to weave their own stories around those video games, and in turn inspire learners to do the same. Had the Consolarium team been peddling ZX Spectrum text adventures in 2010 I doubt there would have been the same excitement and tremendous uptake of a new set of contexts for learning.

Great technology and national condoning and pushing of it have combined to delight.

While social networks, virtual worlds and social media have been delighting growing numbers since 2005, national technology projects have tended to not only fail to condone their use for learning, but to distract potential users - publish here, not there, they try to persuade us. "Facebook is used by teachers for their personal lives, not for learning" I've been told. But I don't play video games to learn, either, yet I and many others are happy to harness them for learning in a different context.

8. National technology projects tend to see decisions made on beliefs and passions, not on transparent data. I want Glow's homepage to tell me:

  • monthly unique visitors
  • segementation of visitor types: teachers, learners, parents, admins, LTS staff etc.
  • number of pages served
  • dwell time
  • number of unsuccessful log-ins
  • bounce rate
  • percentage of returning visitors each month
  • peak user access times
  • key pages served
I then would love to see data-driven decisions taken as to whether certain elements of Glow are working or not, and a weekly or monthly trial of new ideas to see if the public bite. If data is made public then we can see the rationale for decisions, rather than seeing them being made on gut insinct, the legacy of the project's history or who has been involved at any one point. I could ask for that information monthly on a Freedom of Information request. Or we could just see the decision-making process as transparently as it should be.
9. In Scotland we tend to be happy with being the first in the world, not the best in the world. Glow was the first national schools intranet. It might be the last, too. The implication is that an intranet is the best medium through which to connect learners, teachers and parents on a learning journey. Why is it? It may not be.
Is there something less compelling about the International School Bangkok's portal of learning that Jeff Utecht has kicked off, connecting to the world, where every student and teacher regularly contributes their learning to each other (and anyone else who wants to listen in) through freely available and free platforms?
Or what about the part automated, part teacher-produced feedback mechanisms of the Indian Mindsparks platform, letting students learn new concepts and reinforce their classroom learning on their own terms?
Or what about the transformative power of a teacher simply sharing to the world, in the form of video, what he and his students have made over a week: a village on stilts anyone?

Tinkering School 2010 Seniors - Village Building from gever tulley on Vimeo.

By limiting ourselves to promoting so heavily what we were the first to produce we limit ourselves away from harnessing the great new platforms and communities that others have forged and which are quietly thriving.
10. In 2005 there was little truly great content on the web. In 2010 we're spoiled for choice. Having great content was one of the things Glow was sold on - successfully - in the early days. Like so many other things, the world changed faster than we could have imagined. TED Talks alone prove the huge value we place on world class content but, unlike much of its education content provider cousins, TED found a business model that allows it to make this learning material free, joining its closer cousins MIT Open Courseware et al. As YouTube seeks out new ways to let us rent or borrow content as and when we need it, what role is there left for a tiny national schools intranet as the curator of 'quality' content? Can one group of curators, however greatly qualified and localised in viewpoint, beat the cream of the world's global curators?
11. We don't want to consume content. We want to learn through experiences whose context is relevant and meaninful to me. Too many have told me about their Glow training sessions with this phrase: "We were told that 'this is how you put up your PowerPoints or class notes for everyone to see." The fact is, this is not the kind of learning we want. If someone feels that their learning can be swiftly and easily uploaded to a site in the form of a PowerPoint or worksheet then something is wrong. How can an online experience back up and augment the real world experiential learning we see in some of our best schools? How can that experience each child experiences differently be represented, shared and developed after the fact? It's certainly not through document stores and half-empty forums.
12. We want a sense of audience - sometimes that's beyond our class, school or country. The biggest challenge with any national platform is going to be that word - national. Our students are already empowered to go international every time.

September 22, 2010

Facebook & privacy - research shows approaches that might help young people

Young people do, and they might just care about privacy more than the adults who care for them. That's what I pick up (with all caveats r.e. my reading between lines as well as on them) from the fascinating research on late teens and privacy that danah boyd has published with Estzter Hargittai:

Overall, our data show that far from being nonchalant and unconcerned about privacy matters, the majority of young adult users of Facebook are engaged with managing their privacy settings on the site at least to some extent...

...Based on data collected in early Fall 2009, Pew found that 71 percent of the 18–29–year–old social network site users they surveyed reported changing their privacy settings while only 62 percent of those 30–49 and 55 percent of those between the ages of 50–64 had. While Pew’s practice–oriented data do not measure youth’s attitudes towards privacy settings, the findings do suggest that younger users are conscious enough of privacy issues to take measures to manage which parts of their profiles are accessible.

While the paper is concerned with students in higher education, who have by now left the high school nest, I think there are some conclusions that we could work backwards into high school and even primary school, given that many in late Primary / Elementary are already experimenting with Facebook.

Above all, I'm increasingly aware of how little research we have in Scotland, in the UK and further afield into how young people approach social networking in our countries. Most of what teachers and school-based decision-makers here see is based on "assumptions that all users have a uniform approach to the site and how their accounts are set up are incorrect [leaving] certain user populations especially vulnerable."

I've also observed a marginalisation of any institutional action around how we teach youngsters to use social networking sites effectively in a schooling setting, with the shield of school intranets and virtual learning environments as "safe internets" abounding since 2006 (about the same time Facebook went public).

Notable in the report are some clues as to how we should approach our discussions and learning opportunities around Facebook with young people. Traditionally, in the UK at least, fear has been used as the number one blunt instrument to get young people thinking about privacy. CEOP (the "chop shop") are the UK agency responsible for chasing up and prosecuting instances where children's protection is compromised, yet their voice of "stranger danger" vastly overpowers those that point out the relatively larger benefits of taking some measured risks online.

Let's consider this notion first, as an adult. As an adult running his own company, but also as someone who wants to learn from other's experiences, I have learned and earned more from publishing my mobile phone number (it's +44 791 992 1830) and a safe contact address (i.e. not my home) as well as my general location (Edinburgh, but also other places I might end up day by day through the Dopplr platform).

As a student, what are the opportunities of sharing, though almost definitely not sharing a mobile number? Well, by knowing roughly which network you are part of it helps friends of friends you might socialise or have socialised with outside the structured social spaces one inhabits (school, home life, cliques) to find you and strike up a longer friendship than a happenstance encounter on vacation, at the weekend outing or foreign school exchange. Just an example, of course, which could just as easily have been in the role of Facebook in helping youngsters communicate around their homework or project work of an evening, or the role parents would like Facebook to play in communicating more between school, teacher, students and parents, or the role it might play in sharing learning of five year olds.

Julie Cunningham outlines the hypocrisy of which we're guilty when isolating online privacy in schools without as much effort deemed worth the while offline.

But these arguments, as I say, are all too often drowned out by the far more conservative (and therefore far easier to condone and express in public) attitudes that one should try to limit one's public sharing as much as possible, sharing only with those we know we know we know, the implication having been that we've met them face-to-face. Government officials request features that sound great, like the Facebook panic button, but which actually create more problems for those who really need help. And the argument that employers will not want to see your real life shenanigans online is just too distant a worry for most teens and tweens. That's just not the way the online world works when these youngsters hit late teen-hood and adulthood. We need to educate, not stipulate.

What approaches might work for increasing awareness of privacy management?

One simple approach to helping youngsters get an even better handle on how to manipulate their privacy settings in the way that will best work for them is just to talk about privacy settings. When Facebook prompted their own users to think about their privacy settings with a welcome screen message:

35 percent of users who had never before edited their settings did so when prompted. Facebook used these data to highlight that more people engaged with Facebook privacy settings than the industry average of 5–10 percent (E. Boyd, 2010).

We also learn that “a student is significantly more likely to have a private profile if (1) the student’s friends, and especially roommates, have private profiles; (2) the student is more active on Facebook; (3) the student is female; and (4) the student generally prefers music that is relatively popular (high mean) and only music that is relatively popular (low SD).” Therefore, if we can get friendship groups rather than class groups in school to learn together about these principles,we might stand a better chance of creating a culture of understanding about privacy.

What also shines through this report is that more frequent users of Facebook change their provacy settings more often, engaging more with the concepts of privacy the site throws up:

Experience with privacy settings in 2009
Avoid fear as a means of making young people think about privacy

The main reason we heartily discourage young people from engaging with those they know they know is fear: fear of stalking, bullying or making friends with someone you've never met face to face. boyd points out the shortfall of 'fear' as a tactic for instructing media literacy in youngsters:

While fear may be an effective technique for prompting the development of skills, the long–term results may not be ideal. The culture of fear tends to center on marginalized populations and is often used as a tool for continued oppression and as a mechanism for restricting access to public spaces and public discourse (Glassner, 1999; Valentine, 2004; Vance, 1984). To the degree that women are taught that privacy is simply a solution to a safety issue, they are deprived of the opportunities to explore the potential advantages of engaging in public and the right to choose which privacy preferences and corresponding privacy settings on sites like Facebook serve their needs best. For example, many young people value the opportunities to participate in communities of interest or peer–based production (Ito, et al., 2009). These communities support a wide variety of public practices — they serve as a distribution channel for participants to share artistic creations or promote their bands; they provide infrastructure for participants to learn about their practice or develop new skills; and, they provide a cohort for collaboration. In interviewing teens, boyd (2008) found that some girls who wanted to participate in these public forums were too scared to do so. Fear paralyzed some girls, limiting their engagement with some of the “geeking out” communities that Ito and her colleagues (2009) highlight. Furthermore, by adopting and promoting a gender–differentiated narrative that focuses on women’s safety matters, core issues about privacy that concern both men and women get overlooked. While our data do not allow a direct examination of these questions, future work should examine the role that safety rhetorics and fear play in online participation and practices.

(Emphasis added)

So what are those core issues about privacy that we might be overlooking in our quest to fear youngsters into a media literate approach to networking?

Photo: Private by splorp, shared, publicly, under Creative Commons licence on Flickr.com

September 09, 2010

Education Secretary on the realities of learning platforms: Facebook is your competition

It's heartening to see Mike Russell, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education, cited in the latest Connected Magazine with something that's more akin to what one might have expected to see on this blog. He shares the white elephant in the room for most "education content providers" or platform-makers: you're all in competition with Facebook:

"Our young people are Glow's most demanding customers [Glow is the Scottish Schools national intranet]. They already use tools, such as Facebook, that are better than Glow [ed: insert any virtual learning environment here], so Learning and Teaching Scotland [ed: or any VLE provider or Local Authority] has a big challenge to face. It must strive to ensure that Glow is as good as anything else in the market, and do so with substantially less resources than its competitors. Great imagination is required but by continuing to listen to users and to grow and adapt, Glow will retain its relevance."

Russell gets this. He's a prolific and interesting Facebook user himself, and really knows what it does (and Glow doesn't, yet). I also know that Andrew Brown, Glow's Director, is one of the best equipped to face the challenge of developing this platform in true competition with Facebook (although he needs to brush down his blog into action again ;-)

Listening to users is vital, and something Glow could actually end up doing a lot better than Facebook. It's got to listen to more young people, every day, and share all this user group and user feedback publicly.

But, if we're to take Russell's sentiment seriously, and I do, it's also got to change attitude quite publicly from the market leader (first in the world, largest intranet etc etc) to the underdog of Facebook, an attacker. It's got to aim for global domination of its space or it might as well give up and go home. It's got to, basically, act more like a startup.

Budget-wise it's a Round C startup, rich, but not out of the starting blocks yet and burning through a lot of cash quickly. It's got about one more funding round (18 months) to explode out there. We need to see the numbers that show it's exploding, too: how many new signups every day? how many unique visitors this month and how much more is that since last month? what is that incredible dwell time people have in the service? what are the exit points (is Glow, without realising it, actually an invisible 'partner' of Facebook?)?

Now, for many reading this post, I'm guessing there will be an 'uh?' or 'eh?' moment. For a few, a few that I hope see it, it will be an "uh-huh" post. There's a ton of work to be done, but I think with the leadership of Russell indicated in this article, Glow might just be entering its most exciting stage yet.

August 15, 2010

ePortfolios & Learning Management Systems: Setting our default to social

Education has for too long defaulted to secrecy, opaqueness and inward reflection on "what education is". It's time to change that default setting.

Clay Shirky points out in his latest oeuvre Cognitive Surplus that the way startups choose to set their 'default' settings is hugely important in defining how users will exploit the technology. When you buy an iPhone or a Mac the default for seeking out wireless is set for you to open: you constantly search for the means to communicate. I've just helped a chap in Auckland airport to turn on his wireless: the PC on which he was working had its system settings default to 'closed' whenever he restarted.

Shirky's (and my) plea would be to set our own personal defaults to social: the benefits of others serendipitously bumping into our content, our ideas and our pleas for help greatly outweigh the perceived risk or inconvenience of 'losing' a piece of ourselves to the vast online wastelands.

For my latest Core EDTalk from New Zealand I was asked to give my own take on ePortfolios, that is, electronic means of students to share the best of their work. Unfortunately, as with all jargon, we bring our on preconceptions to the table of what an ePortfolio is for and looks like. Generally, the teachers and parents I meet believe that they are:

  • for students to use;
  • for showing the best of a student's work;
  • convenient tools for capturing assessments; and therefore...
  • for private use, shared with a closed community of the teacher and/or class and/or school, but rarely the open web.

In the above video, I present my own take that they should be:

  • for students, teachers and parents to use;
  • for showing the workings that led to a final product (it's time we stopped covering up our learning in English, showing our working in Maths - let's get the process of learning out there for all to see, contribute to and build upon);
  • convenient tools for capturing anything that might, one day, relate to some learning - light touch tools such as Posterous are transforming blogging from a web-based technically superior-feeling activity in education to something anyone can do, even when they are offline (you post by email with Posterous, so you can 'blog' when on a plane if you want to, and let Outlook do the catching up when you hit wifi again). ePortfolios for teachers should resemble those useful moments of sharing in the staffroom. For students, ePortfolios should be the messy learning log or journal de bord that, frankly, not enough of them keep on paper anyway;
  • for the whole, open web: otherwise we set ourselves up for nearly only introspective learning with people who share our viewpoints, cultural biases and outlook on learning and life.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that most Learning Management Systems on the market these days and being developed by Education Ministries the world over have their defaults set to 'anti-social': private, closed networks that experts and co-learners in the 'outside' world cannot see or interact with. Sure, you can have an open blog that anyone can read and participate in, but you have to flick the switch first to go open. The default position is closed.

The reasons for this are normally noble sounding enough: safety of learners, the perceptions of teachers and parents are currently too 'conservative' (i.e. they didn't learn like that) to 'cope' with the concept of anyone seeing the work of students. Allanah King in Nelson does a good job asking the difficult (and not-so-difficult) questions of Learning Management Systems in this respect in her post: why would a school spend good money on one?.

But the longer teachers put up with these attitudes, rather than challenging them and asking intelligent questions about the balance of risk in not having students share with the world wide web, the longer we do not have conversations with parents, and invite them to spectate and participate in what learning can look like now, then the longer we will continue to do a disservice to the digital footprints, competitiveness and understanding of otherness in our young people.

If you want to see what ePortfolios might look like when we push the boat out beyond simply writing a blog or sharing different media online through Posterous, take a look at my older post on the fascinating eScapes project - I'd love to know what happened to it since these early days, if anyone can help.

March 07, 2010

Clarifications: Glow, VLEs, School filtering

Whether through over-zealous editing, poor transferal of interview material from me, over compression of complex arguments or the fact that newspapers feel they can only put online what little will fit in the paper edition (and in the case of the TESS, put even less online than in the paper edition), After being misquoted in a national education newspaper, for which the journalist has apologised (thanks), I feel moved to clarify some of the remarks attributed to me.

I also feel obliged to point out the boon that Glow, the national schools intranet, offers, something that will not make as sexy a story as the journos might want but which, frankly, matters a damn site more than their headlines.

1. Is "Glow the modern equivalent of a worksheet"? Absolutely not.

The original quote was lifted and, I believe, altered for Friday's Times Education piece, originally from an interview which coasted onto the subject of Glow and its Virtual Learning Environment. Glow does have a traditional VLE element, but VLEs and Glow as a whole are different. Becta, the UK technology in education agency, has its own take on what VLEs can offer and it is largely based around the administrative advantages:

VLE can help teaching and support staff manage and deliver a variety of daily tasks, including:

  • general class administration and organisation
  • the creation of lesson plans using existing resources
  • assessment and monitoring of students
  • allocation and marking of on-line assignments
  • discussion and support with students on line.

The various interactive tools of VLEs can also support learners with both class work and homework, and can cater for individual learning styles. For example, students can:

  • submit and track their assignments on line via a personal home page
  • contribute to and participate in discussions with classmates and other schools via the various conferencing tools
  • work at their own pace within and out of school – this is particularly beneficial to learners with special educational needs, such as students in hospital or children unable to attend regular classes for health reasons.

In this respect, I feel that most VLEs on the market today are like virtual filing cabinets, places where one can store virtual worksheets, PowerPoints with which to kill even more learners and summative assessment tools to finish off a few more.

Glow offers a VLE, with the summative assessment element hugely stripped back, reflecting Scotland's world renowned work in Assessment for Learning, but it packs in a heck of a lot more.

Most of Glow's impressiveness comes from its participation tools. Take, for example, GlowMeet. It is a game-changer, technologically to some degree but more through the imagination of teachers, Local Authorities and the central education agency managing the project, Learning and Teaching Scotland. In the past few months we have seen conferences between over 600 students and a world-famous author (though virtual book-signing still hasn't caught on), 1000 pupils learning about the Scottish puffin, a circus virtually attending school, and a master printmaker sharing his skill with the next generation.

It is a game-changer in that video conferencing with, say, Skype is a relatively one-to-one experience between classes. Glow encourages one-to-many and many-to-many experiences within a context, and as a result it helps spawn new connections between participating schools with a shared vision, shared outcomes and share culture that would take, relatively speaking, ions on the open, social web.

Case in point: when I was developing 22 international connections a year through blogs, wikis and podcasts at Musselburgh Grammar School I thought I was living the dream. It was just a shame that while we courted enthusiasm and links with schools on six continents, we failed to convince the teachers down the corridor that sharing materials and ideas and conversations online was a worthwhile exercise. Making international connections between learners is actually quite easy. Finding those connections within your own country can be a lot harder.

2. Do people who use VLEs change their pedagogy for the worse? Can VLEs "de-skill" teachers and students?

It can happen - and there's research to support this. The research is from the Higher Education world, but much of the VLE instructivist stuctures of HE VLEs like Blackboard are shared by one of the UK school system's most popular VLE platforms, the Open Source Moodle. The main risk comes from people using the VLE as their only technological tool, mistaking it for a learning tool rather than an organisational one, and not a) being aware of other potentially better tools for certain jobs out on the open web and/or b) not having access to them because of web filtering policies in individual schools or school districts.

This risk of pedagogical down-skilling is therefore very real in any environment where heavy blocking or filtering of communication and learning tools online (e.g. Web 2.0 technologies) prevents their use or prevents students and teachers experimenting to see what their potential uses might be.

Even if web access is opened, there is then a requirement to provide ample training opportunities in the pedagogical changes one might make in the light of these ever-changing toolsets on offer, especially for those who are less comfortable online. Without this, the likelihood, says the research, is that teachers will fall back to the lower, organisational baseline of technology on offer through the VLE.

Again, in Glow, things are a bit different. There is a toolset that is a) already far more than simply organisational, b) opens up both experienced and less experienced web users in the teaching population to learning opportunities afforded by video conference, shared whiteboards and asynchronous discussion through forums, for example, c) actually designed for learning and collaboration, not organisation, and d) constantly developing (since autumn 2009, at least) to offer tools more akin ot those available on the wider web, but with the added value of a Scottish education community (through authentication) with shared values, goals and outcomes.

3. We're missing the real story: internet filtering is our biggest challenge

Glow will gain more power to its elbow, however, when the abilities of teachers and students to incorporate more of the freely available, but currently blocked, content to their learning journeys.

This is not a Glow issue, though, and it's a mistake to blend the issue of filtering with the use of a VLE or communications and learning platform like Glow.

However, Glow's infrastructure offers an enviable world first in terms of reach and depth: not only is there a technical infrastructure, but there is a human one, one that can help set up those lessons of how to navigate the big, wide, wild web out there. To do it, though, we need the courage of Local Authorities to open up their access more and more, and empower this glowing network of trainers, students, teachers and enthusiasts to take the lessons we all must learn on web literacy and pass them on.

The way things are going, though, it looks like Scotland will be the envy of the world for its national intranet and the ugly duckling for its 20th Century approach to modern literacy. While England and Wales take the issue of opening up networks from blocked to managed to student/teacher-managed web access, Scotland's policy document doesn't even mention it - in fact, it copies the English statement word for word and strips out mention of how filtering should be approached.

This is the story. This is the sexy headline. This is the issue that we need to tackle much more aggressively.

I hope this is clear. I hope that it makes enough sense for people, should they wish, to challenge it or support it. I, frankly, want to move on, to explore and challenge this filtering issue. And, no, you can't quote me on that.

February 23, 2010

How Glow will almost certainly shine. Eventually

Andrew Brown
Once more a Glasgow Herald journalist chooses 2% of an argument in his quotation from a McIntosh and leaves out the more positive 98% that he could have printed but would not have made such a 'good' story.

Andrew Brown has indeed engendered "a new mood of collaboration" since he took over the Directorship of Glow, the national schools intranet in Scotland, in November - collaboration was something he, I and what felt like a small band of colleagues at the time felt was missing in so many parts of education. I can't wait to see what he pulls off in the longer term; he's already managing to move on from the hype of usage stats of sign-ins and sign ups and is talking about how he can make things better until a new version of Glow is commissioned later this year.

Here's the full text of what I said in an interview on how Glow may shine once more:

I firmly believe that Glow's biggest challenge is not its usability (Andrew Brown has already made simple, cheap, quick changes for the better in that respect) or cost (it's modest compared to startups trying to do the same). No, the biggest challenge is the approach Local Authorities take in implementing the internet that lives around and within Glow. Most Local Authorities in Scotland continue to operate locked down or highly managed internet access, meaning many of the most educationally useful content and collaboration websites, services and tools are unavailable.

This is not a-typical:
Hours of video archive on YouTube - blocked.
Weblogs where students can publish their work and accept feedback - blocked.
Wikis, where students can collaborate on writing documents together - blocked.
Social networks, where students can not only prune and make acceptable their 'social' face online, but also develop their future professional shop window - blocked.
Skype and other video conferencing facilities - blocked or made unworkable.

Glow was, at the time of its inception, a revolution in offering all of these functionalities at a time when they did not exist, at scale and for free on the open internet. If Glow has failed, it is by default of the tendering process of nearly all Government contracts, by not being responsive (or being able to be responsive) to these changes, not at least, to the degree that a purely commercial venture would have had to be in order to survive.

As these "emerging technologies" did indeed emerge and move more into the mainstream, Glow was still having to train people in the clicks required to do what, in the open market, was quicker and more intuitive to do.

There are four factors that will help Glow seize the day, in the right hands:

1. The new iteration of Glow offers great hope.
First of all, there is potential to offer something more innovative in the very tendering process that leads to the product. Something that demands more responsiveness, not prescriptiveness. Something that demands flexibility, not "deliver what you said you would, or else".

2. There is also technologically a lot more on offer to make something that encourages true lifelong learning.
Currently, it's not clear to learners, teachers and parents where the learning "on Glow" will go when our children leave school. Above all, that online portfolio of work, of students and of teachers, risks being lost when they leave the intranet to head into the Wild World Web. With open source technologies and more interplay between commercial social networks and blogging platforms, for example, there's potential for my portfolio of work, contacts and connections to move with me from school into the world of business, or simply the world of Facebook.

3. Socially people 'get' the point of connecting more than they did even two years ago.
Two, three, four, five years ago I was spending some painful time trying to convince people of the fact that learning knows no national boundaries, and that Glow should not have been about content, content, content. Making connections with people in the education system (and in Glow) and those outside it (and outside Glow) needs to be a key component of any future strategy for Glow.

4. We need local management of Glow to open up.
Local Authorities, the ultimate "deliverers" of the national intranet, either have to be encouraged to open their networks or, quite simply, overruled by central Government to do so. The latter should never have to be invoked. School children and teachers need to be able to access more of the content that is freely available on the web already, through the sites that I've mentioned already. It is not sustainable, when teachers are finding themselves unable to purchase pens and pencils, to spend millions on "content" to deliver online. Glow must not be a "million-dollar textbook". Instead, Glow's role as content provider should be demoted, even made redundant. Instead, Glow should be the connections-maker, a network of trusted links and connections in the same way as LinkedIn is fast-becoming the UK business world's network of trusted business connections.

Likewise, claiming that Glow offers a "safe internet", as some have proffered, is misleading at best, potentially damaging. Glow has the potential to be as risky as the dark corners of a 1970s school building. A platform doesn't remove the risk. Education does. Educating our youngsters and the teachers that have to lead them on this web journey should, in fact, become Glow's top priority of all (see Ofsted Research from February 2010):

Pupils in schools that use ‘managed’ online systems have a better knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe when using new technologies, according to a report published today by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.

‘Managed’ systems are systems that have fewer inaccessible sites than ‘locked’ systems and so require pupils to take more responsibility for their own safety. ‘Locked’ systems make many websites inaccessible and although this ensures pupils’ safety in school it does not encourage the pupils to take responsibility for their actions or prepare them for dealing with systems that are not locked.

This is where Glow has been making some of its biggest gains, in taking new ways of working, learning and teaching to more teachers through its regular Glow Meets. I say "new" - many of us were working on low or no budgets to train colleagues in these tools up to six years ago, but with blocked tools and lack of support from those that believed "Glow will do that" we've seen great delays in schools being able to take advantage of what the rest of the world have been using more proficiently for some years.

Glow under Brown's leadership is increasingly seeing that support, that optimism that Glow might, one day not too long away, be able to "do that" and more.

The "more" is that it won't be catching up with the technologies that are all around it, but rather inventing new ones and new ways of exploiting what's out there already.

I'd hope that this is the last time that Glow is commissioned by the Scottish Government. But I mean this in a really positive sense:

If, within five years and with the wealth of technological and social promise on offer, a company cannot take on this mantle and make it a workable free venture in Scotland, and a tangible commercial one worldwide, iterative and churning innovation regularly for profit, something is wrong. I'd like to see our public money considered an investment, not a one-off grant to make a traditional publicly procured one-off service.

January 08, 2010

Communities, Audiences and Scale: eight years on

Eight years ago Clay Shirky penned his Communities, Audiences and Scale, pointing out the difference between the TV world of one-to-the-masses communication which scales to infinity, and many-to-many community communication, which in the form of forums and blog discussions at the time, had an upper limit to its potential success:

With such software, the obvious question is "Can we get the best of both worlds? Can we have a medium that spreads messages to a large audience, but also allows all the members of that audience to engage with one another like a single community?" The answer seems to be "No."

Communities are different than audiences in fundamental human ways, not merely technological ones. You cannot simply transform an audience into a community with technology, because they assume very different relationships between the sender and receiver of messages.

Though both are held together in some way by communication, an audience is typified by a one-way relationship between sender and receiver, and by the disconnection of its members from one another -- a one-to-many pattern. In a community, by contrast, people typically send and receive messages, and the members of a community are connected to one another, not just to some central outlet -- a many-to-many pattern. The extreme positions for the two patterns might be visualized as a broadcast star where all the interaction is one-way from center to edge, vs. a ring where everyone is directly connected to everyone else without requiring a central hub.

There are many communities still around today that struggle with this scale issue. Glow, the national schools intranet, while it has 650,000 registered users, cannot hope to facilitate meaningful discussion between them all - or even hundreds of them - with the groups-based discussion-board infrastructure on which it relies. The Scottish Governments' efforts at blogging a couple of years back were abandoned after the First Minister received over 4,500 comments - and was unable to answer or converse on any of them.

However, I'm wondering whether the advent of friendfeed and Twitter-type 'streams' of communication do really lend themselves better to scalable communities, as one might be tempted to believe (and as venture capitalists and creative technologists never stop implying).

Or as danah points out in her 'streams' paper, and as Blonde's Phil and I felt this morning discussing the joy of a Christmas lull in online communication, is there merely more skimming on the top of a wave of communication, rather than flow within it, and siding with voices and arguments that we find easy to hear, rather than getting down into the depth of what we're trying to say and challenging our preconceptions?

January 06, 2010

Where is education's "Recovery.gov"?

I believe every citizen should be able to track how every one of their dollars, euros or pounds is spent. Nowhere is this desire to know the destination of our tax dollars more heightened than in education, where we can sometimes feel, as teachers and as parents, very little creeps through into our classrooms and professional development.

Obama's administration is leading the way in showing how this could happen soon.

Last year, within days of becoming President of the USA, Barack Obama announced his intention to create a more open, collaborative and participative form of Government. Soon after, as he pushed through his response to the economic crisis, the Recovery Bill, he was keen that this $98.2bn spend was also monitorable by the people paying for it. Thus at the end of last year launched Recovery.com, a portal to keep an eye on how every dollar is spent, where it is spent and what the recipients of it manage to do with it: creating or safeguarding jobs, gaining new contracts for services.

Recovery.gov Example It's not just agency bureaucracy figures, but also user-generated reports from the people and companies who have benefited from grants or investments. Heck, they even make the data available as a KML file or as text so you can have a play with it, too.

But where is Recovery.com/education? Indeed, why does such a detailed tracker not exist outside the period of crisis, for all of our public services?

Education budgets are admittedly, if we believe our politicians, often saved from cuts (just don't tell the guys in California); it's the one area alongside health that voters don't like to see shaved. Yet, in Scotland as elsewhere, 2011 will see a real cut in the amount spent in classrooms, with Local Authorities and individual school head teachers having to make tricky choices, or learn how to save money in the areas where, in the period of boom, inefficiencies had crept in unnoticed.

Therefore, as we head towards an even more "every penny counts" era than before, having meaningful access to education spend data would mean

  • better decision-making;
  • more transparency before those whose money is being spent
  • more transparency before those who are receiving the service.
Many a costly decision in quangos, local authorities and schools would be questioned by those closest to the delivery of the service - today they're often the last to know.

Better still, Recovery.com is not just a pretty-fied spreadsheet of what money headed out according to the agencies - it's a two-way service, allowing recipients of money to demonstrate what they've done with it, show the true effect of investment and grants in their local area. If £4m is spent in my High School annually and I, as a classroom teacher, am being told that my entire professional development allocation for the year will be only £50, then having access to that data would allow me to either understand a savvy management decision or question its validity.

So, would this appeal to school leaders, Local Administrators, Heads of Education, Superintendents? The data's there already, from their petrol expenses to their Xerox accounts. I, for one, would be generous in my time to show them that Flashmeeting and Google Docs could save them... well, I don't (yet) know how much.

January 04, 2010

Four pointers to the chasm between elearning and video game designers

Pet Society - Playfish

Patrick Dunn has spotted the four big differences in the design principles of those making intranets and elearning platforms on the one hand, and video games on the other:

  • E-learning designers believe that people learn through "content". They assume that encountering content will lead people to change their behaviour. Games designers believe that people learn through "experience". They assume that having experiences - doing and feeling things - leads to change in behaviour.
  • E-learning designers believe we must be "nice" to our learners in case they go away. They assume that the relationship between the course and the learner is a weak one so that if there's any significant challenge, the learner will give up. Games designers believe that we can challenge people and they'll stick with it. Indeed, it is progressive challenges that form much of the motivation for gamers.
  • E-learning designers believe that we learn step by step (hence linearity, page-turning etc.). Game designers believe we absorb lots of things all at once (hence HUDs, complex information screens etc.).
  • E-learning designers believe that learning experiences are emotionally neutral (in spite of all that's written about the importance of emotion in learning). Games designers always seek an "angle", an attitude.

You can spot this chasm a mile off. I did when I launched my latest social 'game'.

It's an iPhone app to help people spot how much they're drinking and compare it to the reality of how much their friends are drinking (research shows that people reckon their friends consume more than they actually do, thereby leading to a vicious circle of binge drinking).

YBYL Graphic Compare the pay-for app I helped produce, You Booze You Looze, to the free National Health Service drink tracking app and the chasm is clear. On the one hand is a quirky, fun, mini-game-based app with a cheeky backstory made by a young successful Scottish game-making company (You Booze's Digital Goldfish, who also produced one of Apple's Top 30 all-time best sellers, Bloons):

Experience? Check. Challenges? Check. Multiple ways in and things to do? Check - when we added the Facebook Connect element at the backend of the game, it started to have real meaning as friends could see what each other were actually consuming (it's generally a lot less than they thought). An attitude? Double check.

NHS Drinks App On the other hand, the Government-subsidised app from the National Health Service has clearly been developed by, well, not a game designer. It looks like an app version of the Drinkaware website, and the iTunes Store reviews would suggest it has all the amusement of that, too:

All content, no narrative. No form of challenge - it's too easy to use. Only one thing you do - tell it how much you drank last night, with no social element (adding a social element means that the number things you can end up doing heads into the stratosphere). And attitude? It looks as if the committee that designed and approved this killed any attitude the designers may have wanted to inject.

Given the target audience of both apps (game-playing young men and women who drink too much and haven't done anything about it despite Government campaigns about alcohol units, drink driving and other dangers), the game-makers have produced, I believe, a better app that should achieve more. For a similar budget (or less) the great institutions of Government could look to game-makers rather than ad agencies for their next campaigns.

So could educators and intranet makers.

To this, though, I would add that video games designers have been slow in general to pick up on the potential of social gaming, and for the most part educators are still just not interested in it - it's hard enough to convince non-gamers of the benefits of video game use in the classroom without hinting that, God forbid, they can connect users through Facebook. On the other hand, elearning designers picked up on the potential of social-network-like features relatively quickly, producing social worlds and 'bebo-esque' models for interaction and learning, along the lines of, say, Honeycomb (disclosure: I was on the design consultancy team for this).

The chasm is there, but I'd disagree with Patrick: it's not uncrossable. It's also not about gamers and webheads "meeting halfway". Rather , there is a creative opportunity for game-makers and webheads to work together towards new horizons, leaving those chasms back in the decade where they belong.

Pic: Playfish's social game, Pet Society

December 21, 2009

Why The Head Needs To Buy In To What The Bottom Wants

Should we start burning our curricula and nationally managed plans, as Chris Woodhead, below, suggests?

Changing anything is tough, but it's even tougher if the management in your organisation, be it a school or corporation, don't get passionate about the change as much as the innovators. Over the past decade, formal education has mostly got the mix terribly wrong.

Clay Shirky understands the challenges faced by innovators when, in an abstract, he points out the political power-play that can occur over the transition period from The Thing That Went Before to The Thing That Cam Along Right After:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

I have been a member of at least three innovation departments in the past four years. Make of that what you will. We've had some big successes. We've killed a lot of puppies the bosses didn't want, too.

But in education, ironically, the biggest challenge of the day is not burying the remarks of innovators or observers of technology's effects on our life and learning. It is not gaining buy-in from top management to programmes that seize changes happening 'on the outside' of the classroom. No, the biggest challenge is a lack of understanding and passion in the teaching and parental trenches behind the ideas that some of our leaders, élites and management teams have concocted.

Chris Woodhead I don't often agree with Chris Woodhead's takes on education, but this from a couple of weeks back just rings 'fact' to me:

"In Scotland, as in England, the lesson of the past 10 years is that the top-down imposition of progressive child-centred education does not work.

"Head Teachers should be freed from all central political prescription. They should be allowed to determine what their children learn, how much their teachers are paid, how resources in their schools are to be deployed.

"Different teachers will come to difference decisions, and the concept of parental choice will begin to have meaning."

("Scrap all this top-down nonsense and set our teachers free to teach", article non-retrievable: Sunday Times Scottish Edition, December 6th)

Scotland, like many countries striving for educational change at the moment, is not getting the mix right: you get the distinct feeling that there's almost too much buy-in from the top to a hyped ideal, and too little comprehension of the means of reaching that ideal amongst the very people who have to make it happen: teachers, yes, but also students and parents.

Is he right? Should we, as Woodhead suggests earlier in his article, "burn" the Curriculum for Excellence and other similar documents that appear in our various districts, countries and kingdoms? Should we re-professionalise the professionals working at the whiteboard face?

Would the criticisms of overzealous centralisation stretch as far as a school district or Local Authority's virtual learning environment, as they currently stand and are used? What about the concept of national intranets - is that a centralisation that will serve us well into the next more distributed decade?

Or is the alternative that he suggests merely a path to further confusion amongst parents, presenting a terrible paradox of choice most would rather do without?

I genuinely don't know if we are heading too far in one direction in this tricky pushme-pullme game of managerial and political jockeying. Your comments, answers, solutions welcome...

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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