Blogging our CPD

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We’ve just had another round of meetings with our school improvement groups at Wildern. The SIGs are voluntary groups that run as half-termly after school meetings for groups of staff to work together to develop their practice. This year we’re running:

  • Creative classroom
  • Gifted and talented
  • International classroom
  • Language for learning
  • Media literacy
  • New technologies
  • Themed days
  • Wildern TV & radio

Each group has a focus, and each member undertakes an action research project during the year. The research is fed back in to their performance management, their departments, and through our SDP is influencing policy. It’s an opportunity for staff to try out new ideas and measure their impact, and I think a great model for collaborative school improvement.

What I am most pleased about this year is our shift to documenting the projects by blogging. As a blogger I know the process encourages reflection on your own practice, but by including our SIG blog as a feed on staff homepages we are placing new ideas front and centre to staff every day.

By publishing the development blog to the rest of the world we’re also stepping up to share these things, the good, the bad, at a much wider level. We have more ideas in the pipeline, but it is starting to feel like we have a whole school approach to developing and showcasing innovative practice.

Some quick links from the SIG blog to a couple of my favourite posts:

Does hypertext actually help me learn?

norm

norm

I ‘borrowed’ this graphic from a Norm Friesen session I attended. It isn’t really the point he was making, but it seems to illustrate mine as well. In short, I wonder if the natural structure a hypertext tends to form actually goes against the way we need to consume information for learning.

The looping nature of read/reflect is what I think we are aiming at when we are learning, but to risk generalising I think that hypertext navigation tends to take us away from this style. Wiki structure is often a good example of what I mean. We start at an initial article and links branch from there. Once I have picked a link part way into an article I am reading and navigated away from that first page what is to say I will go back and continue with the original? More likely I will continue off on another link from there, and so on. There is no reason why I couldn’t go back to continue the original, but the structure doesn’t encourage this.

There are exceptions of course. The hypertext fiction I have looked at makes far more use of looping around content, taking you back to places in the text that are relevant. But, the downside of this is we are in some ways imposing a structure on to the reader. It may be optional, there may be different routes to choose from, but it is a structure nonetheless.

This presents clear design issues for the content creator. How do we ensure the correct material is covered by the student? Do we actually care?

To me, there are a couple of things we could do to try and sit somewhere between the over-controlling linking that forces users down a designed path and the completely open hypertext.

Considerations for the hyperauthor

In terms of structure of hypertext we can think about two pretty simple things. A designer could make more use of a ‘back’ link to encourage the user to return to an original article. Adding a prominent back/return option would help the reader take in a bit more information but then easily return to the main focus of their study. No idea if this would actually be successful, but a bit of UI testing should tell us if it would be used in courses we design.

The second consideration is about how we reference/link in academic hypertext. Links in the main body of the text to other pages tend to distract users from the main article. I click one, move on. However, links to references in footnotes at the bottom of the article seem to encourage users to continue with the main text and then explore extension material afterwards.

How we structure these links/footnotes impacts on the learning process itself though. In some cases I want to be able to quickly read an extension article (definition of a word maybe?), in others I don’t want to be distracted until I have finished the main content (link to another journal article, longer piece of text, vaguely related area, etc). It seems that there are cases where both would be appropriate. So, this is a design consideration when constructing links, but also about the abilities of the learner to make decisions about navigation through the text in the best way for them.

This leads me to things we can do as learners ourselves to help avoid the right-hand side of the image at the top. Again, two ideas for consideration.

Considerations for the hyperreader

Tabbed browsing is a massive step forward for hypertext navigation. By default when clicking a link my browser doesn’t navigate away from where I am but opens up a new tab in the background with that content in. This function gives the user more choice about when and how they are consuming the information which is great, but it is not a default behaviour, and a feature that is often hidden away in the options of your browser that many don’t know it exists.

Allowing a reader to create their own nodes is the second possibility. Obviously we know that with collaborative editing of a document this is possible, but these links are then in place for everybody that reads the text. What I am suggesting is a way for each individual user to make their own connections as and when they see fit, create their own path through the web beyond the constraints of what the author(s) have added. Obviously there is nothing to stop you searching around a topic, but it isn’t as fast as following the links put in place by others.

fasterchrome

fasterchrome

This kind of technology does exist, in a limited form at the moment. The image above is a screenshot from Chrome, running the FastestChrome plugin. I highlight an area of text I am interested in and it provides a quick definition and shortcuts to common sites I might navigate to based on this text. In my particular example it links me to a Google search of that term, the Wikipedia article, and a couple of others. Still early days for this sort of thing, but a bit more sophistication and a traceable history of linking and it could be the start of a pretty clever personalised method of hypertext linking.

This last point suggests to me we should be placing more trust in the student to cover the correct material. Easy at M-level because the required motivation is already in place (I assume, but I don’t know this to be the case with all students actually…), but harder to guarantee in compulsory education. Maybe this isn’t so much about the technical design of the course itself, but how we design assessment to guide the students to the correct content and make sure that this has happened.

Bringing our own devices

We’ve been working our way along the development curve of moving the school to #byod. If it’s a new idea to you, what we are trying to achieve is an environment where any user can bring any device they like to school and access all the services they require using it.

It seems to me to be absolutely the correct way forward. In the same way we don’t force every student to study Spanish, why should we make them all use the same computer? It’s about personalisation, and it’s about flexibility.

This is clearly not one of those changes that can happen overnight, and at the request of @eylanezekiel I wanted to try and write up what we are doing. I’m not suggesting this is the best, or only, way to achieve it, and we are learning and modifying this plan as we go. We are always open to comments, questions and suggestions, and we’d be happy to support any others that would like to head down this path too.

What we have done so far:

1) Talk to the students

We did this in plenty of informal situations, but also used our student ICT school improvement group to more formally survey the student population about student owned devices. This group then collated the results, wrote a draft AUP for allowing students to use their devices in school, and then pitched it to SLT, staff, students and governors. These guys are brilliant. You should all have a group like this.

2) Developed our policies

#byod is a culture change, but the reasons why are clear and you can be controlled about it. This isn’t some big free for all, your lesson isn’t constantly interrupted by ringing phones, etc. It is down to the individual staff member, guided by the department heads to choose which/when/how in a lesson electronic devices can be used.

3) Opened up limited parts network & started the move to the cloud

@jamesyale is the technical genius on the team for those who want detail, but our standard wireless now allows a user to connect any device, providing they enter their school username and password. Access is still restricted and filtered in all the ways you would expect, and the username/password allows us to log use, develop different rules for staff, etc, etc.

We also made the jump over to Google Apps. There are other ways to do this, but it is the start of our development to become platform, as well as device agnostic. It’s that flexibility word again.

4) Built a genius bar!

  <img src="http://tdalton.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/img.jpg" alt=""/>

Well, sort of (photo is from work in progress during the summer)… We are lucky in terms of student devices. The vast majority of our kids carry an array of technology that would make IBM envious. But, equality of access is really very important to us. The new genius bar, among other things, provides the backup devices. Maybe a staff member wants every student in one lesson to have a specific piece of technology- the bar can provide loan kit for these. Perhaps they need a few extra iPods to give to students who don’t have a similar device for a particular task. The bar provides a loan pool with a booking system to supplement student owned devices. It also provides a constant staff presence who can support and inspire users. I’ll post again later in the term about this as it warrants a little more detail.

5) Engaged the staff

Our new techs AST is the absolute key here. @ribbk and the members of our staff ICT school improvement group are tasked with sharing good practice and supporting our others with new technologies. They organise regular learning focused, sessions supporting teachers using the technology and build confidence. And, they are key members in their departments for a lead on new technologies.

The other hugely important thing our staff and student groups do is plan the future. Can you teach outstanding lessons on a tablet device? Will coursework marks be higher if the content is blogged? Can twitter improve engagement in X set in Y subject? And so on. Every year members of these groups take on action research projects, and using measured results we can not only make good purchasing decisions, but help mould our curriculum.

I said it before, but your school should have these groups.

What is coming next:

1) Unmanaged wireless

A bit techy I’m afraid. One of the limitations of the wireless access is it doesn’t allow device to device communication. Good for security, bad for playing each other at DS games and so on. Our current intention is to put up a second unmanaged network to allow for this when required.

2) Building up the genius bar

We are starting to see what is popular, what we need more of. It is also teaching us new ways of supporting and training our users in more informal learning situations.

3) Student loans at the bar

Wouldn’t it be great if students could loan kit themselves? A teacher formally signing out is a step in the right direction. But, as a student being able to drop into the bar at lunch to pick up a camera because I want to document my artwork next lesson and forgot my Blackberry (unlikely, I know…) would be perfect.

4)The 1-1 scheme

This is the big picture, long term goal part. I’m either a genius or mad, but the vision makes complete sense to me.

The clear weakness of stopping where we currently are in the process is while the loan kit props up those without, it’s not good enough.

I’m a fan of the 1-1 schemes that are appearing, some really nice implementations in schools local to us. Giving a student access to a digital tool of some description with the potential to enhance their learning in every lesson is just great.

But I don’t want to tell every student the way they learn best is with X brand of laptop, or even Y type of device.

The 1-1 scheme that we are building is one where (guided by our staff and student SIGs) our stakeholders can make informed choices about the device that best suits them, and we can support them in purchasing this in all the standard ways you see with other device specific 1-1s.

Backed up by our loan pools it means we can personalise student owned devices, but still offer the flexibility of all the other tools if what they have isn’t ideal for that moment in time.

Or, if my battery runs out I can drop mine in to be charged and grab a backup device while that happens.

Or, I could pick up some extra kit to take home because I wanted to challenge my Dad to that maths game we were playing in lesson.

For those working in the area you’ll see the challenges in going down this route compared to the standard 1-1. But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother.

So, that’s where we are. I’d say we’re about halfway through the process.

The important takeaway if you managed to read this far is we measure. The SIGs test the theory, prove the benefit to teaching and learning (or in some cases the opposite), we move from there. We’re still planning the final stages, and will only go there if our research tells us we should. I’m the lucky one that gets to blah on about vision and go to some very shiny events for inspiration, but the structure alongside is what will get us there.

I’m also lucky enough to be in a position where we can work with others who share our vision. If you still don’t think I’m mad we should probably be working together!