Thursday 29 October 2009

Odd things at Generator

"I really want to see Further Education students enjoying the opportunities and benefits technology offers. There are already excellent examples of learning technologies right across the sector. But I want to see more and better. I want to see our colleges and training providers recognised nationally and internationally for the innovative and creative way they use technology. One practical source of support is Becta’s new online assessment tool, Generator, to help leaders in FE review and improve how technology is applied in their organisations. We need commitment from top management if the strategic importance of technology for learning is to be recognised."

Apart from the sentence about Generator, that's exactly what I said at a conference back in 2005. But it's SiƓn Simon MP that gets the credit on Becta's Generator site. Well, it would be if you could actually see the text (and picture and Government department logo).

I had forgotten all about this since filling in yet another e-maturity tool there back in April. then I received a couple of weird blank e-mails which I would normally have ignored but they appeared to be from (don't you just love how agencies spend our money and come up with so many urls) so I decided to have a look at the site again. In Firefox it looks dreadful and not a great deal better in IE so I thought I'd have a look at the code (the underlying script that a browser reads so it knows how to display the web page). That's where I found the quote above. Initially I did actually think it was a response I had made on the site, perhaps when registering or something, as I often copy and paste stuff from other articles, but then I saw the code for the MP's photo and the bit about Generator which I wouldn't have included.

I didn't spend time checking the code as to why the quote doesn't show but there's probably a missing tag or something. Looking at the standard of display of the rest of the site I would not be surprised if there were an error like that.

Losing count now of how many attempts have been made to create these e-maturity tools. I believe that there are even training sessions being run to show people how to complete this one! Presumably, the trainers will first format delegates' memory of previous tools. Whilst it doesn't look as though much of our money has been spent on Generator, I wouldn't mind betting something in the region of £½ million has gone this way to date. The only obvious immediate beneficiary would seem to be the Department of Whatever Education Is Called Now who can publish nice glossy statistics showing changes in e-maturity.

"Surely he's not saying students should have Facebook in the classroom?"

That's what many people will probably say when they start reading this. Especially the IT Services people who control what everyone in the College can access, including teachers!

Having read through Online College's 100 Ways You Should Be Using Facebook In Your Classroom, though, I do hope some will think about this a bit more. I can't say that I agree with every one of the 100, and you may well think of some more, but this is a great list of ideas and some simple but effective ways to approach tasks in a different way.

I'd probably change the title to say 'Could' instead of 'Should' and you'll need to bear in mind that it's American so some tweaks here and there required as well as a few less 'z's.

I'll add the list to the web tools wiki for future reference, which you can also access via the Facebook link in the More Tools section on the main site.

Friday 23 October 2009

In two minds

I'm in a bit of a quandary about Facebook and Twitter. Up until now I've been using Facebook mostly for social stuff and Twitter for slightly more serious work-related thoughts. Occasionally they've overlapped or I've used Twitter to say something that just occurred to me but generally Twitter seems more suited to the quick comment than Facebook.

Lots of people, though, do use Facebook status messages very much like Twitter and I get streams of odd thoughts, outbursts, comments and rants changing the home page every few minutes. The people I like to communicate with are also spaced out across the two so Facebook friends miss my tweets and vice versa.

Perhaps I'm not so much mad (previous article!) but schizophrenic now, displaying one character in one place and another in the other! So I've decided to join the two which means my poor Facebook friends will now see their home pages scrolling down even more quickly as my tweets get added and what was once a weekly status change could turn into several times a day or more as the mood takes me. There's always the Remove button so I shall not feel too bad.

I divided the two initially when I noticed that a colleague tended to send tweets every few minutes from various conferences she attended. She had the two accounts linked so I was getting everything twice and some days the whole of my Facebook home page was occupied with copies of tweets I'd already seen and wasn't really wanting to see again. I didn't really want to annoy or bore non-work Facebook friends with my tweets so stopped Facebook collecting them. I don't seem to have got into that tweet-a-minute gossip mode, though, so, hopefully the increased status changes won't now be too much of a nuisance to Facebook friends.

Something else I noticed about my behaviour was that I tended to think before changing my Facebook status - not so much about what I was writing but who would be likely to read it. Tweets didn't matter - they seemed more transient (although I am aware that Google can now locate and publish them!) - and the likelihood of actually seeing any of my followers other than a couple of people was almost non-existent. I quite liked that laissez-faire approach (and also got the message out much more quickly) so my Facebook friends will be seeing more of that now.

Until I decide that I prefer schizophrenia again.

Less pcs, more comfy chairs and clean carpets

I am beginning to think something quite strange: maybe we should start reducing the number of computers in FE classrooms. This is pretty weird stuff from me, I know. I teach various computing / ICT units for courses at a Further Education college. I've been saying for years that every member of staff should have a computer and my suggestion that we should have a 1:1 ratio for students to pcs was regarded as slightly mad. Yes, staff should all have one but I'm not so sure that I want rooms full of computers for students any more.

A little while ago I visited a college which had had substantial rebuilding and lots of new classrooms. The people showing me round were clearly really proud of the shiny new rooms and all the new equipment. I remember walking into one new classroom and there were rows and rows of black boxes and screens before my eyes. It was awful, even quite threatening. There was precious little space on any desk for anyone to write or place papers, despite the small footprint monitors and pc units. It reminded me of those language labs some schools used to have. It was like the sole purpose of the room was to provide access to a computer screen and keyboard.

I think they'd crammed 45 machines into the room. Then, at another college, I visited a library where gigantic monitors were lined up against each other on desks all over the place. Beautiful screens but, boy, did they dominate the whole environment.

At my own college there has been a gradual replacement of the big beige monitors with the little black (inevitably Dell) screens and there's no doubt that the extra horizontal space is welcome, along with the better speed of new machines. There, by not cramming the place so much there is, at least, still an airy feel to rooms and room to do something else. Not a lot, though, and there are several rooms where I have more students than chairs, never mind computers! That, and chairs with backs that never stay in position and make access to some parts of a classroom quite impossible, is another story.

What has started to happen, though, is that students have started to bring in their own laptops, some netbooks are appearing too and, unable to access the college wireless network, they solve the problem by utilising their own mobile broadband sticks or accessing via mobiles. I am waiting for the smarter ones to work out how to display mobile internet images on the monitors! My feeling is that this is quite a natural move. They are using a familiar pice of equipment. It probably contains all the applications and files they want to access. It's rather like bringing in your own pen and notebook instead of using the standard stuff dished out to those who forget. I see this use of personal equipment escalating. Another interesting observation is that whereas all the monitors are standing near vertical at head height, the laptops and other devices are far more angled and the general position of students appears much more relaxed whilst still attentively so.

I have less trouble seeing students when I don't have to peer across or around all the displays. I get their attention more easily too when I want to talk about something or show them something on the whiteboard or smartboard. It's as if their smaller screens, less intrusive on their immediate visual environment, are easier for them to be diverted from by whatever antics I employ.

So, where does this lead? My first thoughts are that we could clear all but a few of the college machines from most of the rooms I use and reclaim the horizontal space and have a much more pleasant teaching and learning environment. (This would have the immediate benefit of allowing every room in the college to have a few decent machines. Currently other departments struggle to get access to computers and often have the limited choice of the endless rows of 96 black screens in the rigidly disciplined, no talking and pretty unpopular IT Workshop or occupying a computing department room thus leaving computing students with a room with zero equipment).

It's not something that will happen overnight because although nearly all my students do have a laptop, I accept that this may not be the case in other disciplines and it is only a small proportion who have a mobile broadband facility. But it is changing, and fast.

Something that could be considered would be opening our wireless network (or some part of it or a specially created one - sorry, I'm not a network person!) so that the mobile broadband wasn't a necessity. As I have said in a previous article, saving documents in some allocated part of the student network isn't that important these days as there are alternatives.

There will always be a need for a few computers for students to use - for those who don't have suitable equipment or if theirs breaks down. Tutors would need to keep an eye on what was being accessed but no longer would students be needing to spend time getting around net nanny systems or having to use applications that aren't quite what they would naturally use elsewhere. Perhaps the savings in future IT equipment budgets could support the provision of some laptops or netbooks, even broadband subscriptions, for students. Things they can use anywhere rather than fixed items they can only use in one place. No-one need be excluded. Yes, the rich parents may provide kids with top of the range kit which will make others jealous but is that really any different to the range of clothes they wear or their forms of transport in the car park or bike shed?

There will also still be a need for computer labs where units require specific applications to be used which students wouldn't be expected to have on their own equipment and some rooms will inevitably stay fully equipped. But I believe the vast majority could be totally refurbished with decent desks and chairs, blinds and carpets so that the room is attractive, clean and genuinely inviting rather than formal or threatening. We don't need a rebuild, we need a rethink and clean carpets.

[I'm not talking about schools here, just institutions for 16+. Not sure about the provision for younger people. They may need to retain current standard equipment for a bundle of other reasons.]

Thursday 22 October 2009

Digital exclusion

There is a lot of talk these days about digital inclusion but as the internet and on-line applications become more and more part of life I am having problems with the restrictive policies operated by IT Services departments at a UK Further Education college.

Web design students need to test their pages in several browsers but can only access IE8 in class. Firefox has some great web developer tools but they can't get at the browser, never mind the add-in. Students make videos but can't access YouTube, never mind upload their work or share them that way, which is where they would normally just click a couple of buttons and have the job done. I have developed some useful Facebook pages on e-learning but exchanges of ideas, comments and the like are invisible as no-one can access that anywhere, not even staff!

Twitter is regarded as some kind of new threat and students will be using it inappropriately when it could be a great way to share progress with tasks and even search for ideas in a different way or find answers from others in the big, wide world. Again, no-one can access Twitter on College equipment.

Students ask me why. I try to defend IT Services' position but it is getting very difficult. I tell them that if something inappropriate is viewed then the College might be sued by parents. I can't honestly think of any other reason. Yes, it's in some strategy or policy or procedure but that will have been written several years ago and probably just to satisfy OFSTED inspectors that we were complying with whatever was the initiative of the day, Every Child Matters et al.

Some staff worry that their students will all immediately lurch into bad places or spend the whole lesson sending each other rude messages. Sure, some will. Maybe many will, at first. But the novelty will wear off. And, anyway, tutors should be able to control this. It is pretty obvious when a student isn't looking at what he's supposed to be - the body language gives it away if the giggles, red-faced laughter restraint or even expressions on nearby faces don't give the game away. Then there's the swivelled monitor. Easy to spot. A little hard discipline should sort that out soon enough. If it proves really hard to control then surely it must be possible to have some extra restrictions applying within a particular part of a network? I have seen systems that allow tutors to see what students are looking at on their own screen. It wouldn't help me as I am seldom looking at a screen when teaching but for those still stuck at the front behind a monitor then using the monitor to monitor will show who's misbehaving (or teachers could just pretend it did which would deter quite a few!)

I have a pretty crazy diversity of students. Some will use proxy browsers and get round the system anyway but, guess what: most of the time they're doing so to access sites they want to get genuine information from for my tasks! A few minutes checking e-mail or facebook these days is no big problem. If I were to tell them to do so then it would probably soon become uncool to do so as well! Some have some very dubious interests and visit apalling sites. But they only do so once. They don't like the idea of their parents being shown a list of sites visited by them. The threat works on all occasions. I don't have the very young - everyone is over 16 and most over 18 and adults in other legal respects.

I am aware of anyone's sensitivities - it's all about getting to know one's class and understanding what may offend them or cause upset. The worst problem I face is actually the language that the boys and girls come out with. I should be the one suing their parents!

It seems that no-one wants to make a move on this. My colleagues just shrug their shoulders and don't bother. The rules help them as they probably haven't thought about using anything other than very safe sources and few know there's anything other than Internet Explorer anyway. Tweeting is seen as very strange behaviour and Facebook, well, "why on earth would I want a Facebook account?" they ask!

What a shame. They're all missing so much.

I have also recently heard about something that might prevent me even having students as 'friends' on Facebook or similar. This is a really worrying development and seems to indicate that I shall be assumed to have bad motives which is atrocious. Something has to be done to stop this steady State control of how we think, how students think, what we may or may not say, do, act like. So much has happened already and I seem to be surrounded by tacit acceptance that the authorities must be right and anyone who objects is to be regarded with suspicion.

I am used to being regarded as a bit of a rebel but this latest development, if true, wouldn't be amusing. I so much hope that someone somewhere can see sense and start trusting teachers, tutors and decent staff generally. We don't need procedures, policies, regulations. Many of us are parents, quite used to making decisions. In some circumstances my rules might be even more draconian than the college (certainly on litter, manners and language!). In others they may be more relaxed but I know what kids try to do and can control and maintain a decent, clean and respectable environment in my class. I dislike not being trusted by others to do so.

My Google day

It's just occurred to me how seldom I use hard drives or even USBs these days. Google Documents provide a perfectly acceptable alternative to Word for all the word processing type of things I need, like handouts, instructions, notes etc. and students are now happy to save their work in the same way, sharing it with me which makes giving them feedback and correcting things so much simpler. My son shares a folder called 'homework' with me which I don't look at as often as I should but it's there if ever he's stuck with something, wherever I am.

I use Google presentations to display quick mini slide shows on either students' VLE pages or course pages I publish elsewhere. They love them and one or two have started doing their own presentations that way too. It will be a while before the majority do, as instant pretty designs are thin on the ground and layout controls still a bit basic. For simply getting a message across, though, rather than creating something along the lines of a Hollywood movie, the application's great.

Google spreadsheets found their way to my heart as soon as they came out, what seems many years ago now, saving all those problems when you wanted to share data with lots of people and maintain an up-to-date record of your and their amendments. Everyone should use these, I reckon. Just so sensible.

Today I needed to update some records and provide colleagues with some data which was so straightforward. Really, really cool, though, was when it came to collecting students' opinions, targets and the like during tutorial sessions.

The official College method is to download and print about 8 pieces of paper Word documents (in regulation Arial 11 and various boxes outlined in black). then you trot down to the Library and photocopy them 40 times. Well, no you can't do that becuase you're restricted to 20 at a time so you do it twice. Sometime through this process a ream of A4 needs to be added to the tray, of course, but you eventually walk away with this massive pile of hot paper under your arm. Next you try and hide the mass of paper as you enter the classroom and slowly get the students round to the idea that they have to write in the boxes with black lines and tick other boxes, not forgetting, of course, to write their name and a whole load of data we already have on file. To do this they need pens which is often another problem but I'll skip that now. Finally, if you're lucky, the forms come back in grumpily and the comments are about as short as they can make them as they just hate writing these days. Forget trtying to analyse the data. It's a mess anyway and you just stuff the forms in their files and hope they haven't set themselves too silly a target or said anything disastrous about you or a colleague.

Being the rebel that I am, though, I thought there must be a better way. Google Forms! Brilliant! I copied the questions onto a Google Form and selected the type of response required (short text, paragraph, tick boxes, etc) and put a link to each form on a course web page. There are some good, simple designs available which make the form a little more inviting too. Not Arial 11 so I'll be in trouble but never mind. I was a little nervous when I watched the first few students clicking the link but slowly screens around the room filled with my new creations and I was amazed at how little objection exactly the same questions raised. Within a short sapce of time I could open my copy and see who had responded and review comments.

Nicest of all were simple charts illustrating things where choices were available so I could instantly see which type of assessment was proving the most popular, for instance, or what proportion of the class felt they needed to improve their time-keeping or whatever.

Later in the day someone wanted some text from a novel which Google Books found smartly for them and no doubt Google Mail and Google itself got in on the act too. I showed another class what Google Chrome's nice new designs looked like but no-one could use the browser at College as they're locked in to IE8. Still, something to do at home, maybe.

Oh, nearly forgot, to show my last class some of last year's students' work I used the blogs they had created with posts for each task and images uploaded with Google Picasa and more of those mini presentations. That was a Level 1 class too - far more impressive portfolios that many of the Level 3 bundles of grey Word documents in Times New Roman I had.

So, unless I've missed something, I don't think I saved anything or carried anything around at all. Remarkable. I'll still be in trouble for the Arial 11 omission, though, and not having piles of standard documents in their folders. Pity. Nice day, though, for all that. One day I'll be appreciated.

Thursday 15 October 2009

'On-line community' maturity tool

Interesting take on the 'maturity tool' developed about 5 years ago by Steve Smith and myself, now using grid to illustrate development of community.