Posted on May 18th, 2008 in VLE | 3 Comments »

I’m looking forward to Teachmeet on Monday in Essex. I attended my first one at the Bett Show in January where I met lots of interesting people and heard lots of interesting talks that lasted a maximum of 7 minutes. Entertaining, interesting, educational, inspiring and perfect for my attention span. I wasn’t sure I’d make this one in Essex as it’s a bit of trek through the rush hour M25 from Rickmansworth. Luckily it’s at a time when I normally have year 11 who are off on study leave and I’ve got the blessing of my school to leave early. Not that I feel I’m taking a liberty when the event isn’t scheduled to finish until 21:30! One more difference this time from last is that I’ve put my name down to talk. If I’m lucky enough to get picked out of the hat I’ll be talking about… my experiences using technology with gifted and talented students – I guess I better write about it up here too, just give me a bit of time to get it sorted.

I was going to put this in a previous post but it seemed more sensible to put it as a topic in its own right. I’m calling this part one as I hope to add more posts on this topic later.

These are a few things I’ve noticed seem to work when introducing teachers to a VLE on an individual basis. To give some background my pilot VLE Rickypedia has a handful of teachers added who have expressed an interest. I have only run a half an hour group training session for some of these teachers. Obviously this is not ideal and something I hope to have rectified next year. Everything I have read about successful use of VLEs points to the importance of good staff training. Nevertheless many of us who work in schools, or I guess most of the real world, don’t have ideal circumstances much of the time. I hope these pointers of things I have found have worked well will be useful. Please do add to the list in the comments.

5 Tips for introducing new teachers to a VLE

1. Stress the importance of experimenting and not being scared to make mistakes. It’s amazing how easy it is for a teacher to get things wrong, for example confusing a live chat with a forum and setting up the wrong one. Easy to correct, no harm done and something learned.

2. Encourage teachers to look at each others’ courses. All teachers on Rickypedia have their global (or site) role set as non-editing teacher. This means they can peep in on other teachers’ courses without being able to edit them. I have got great ideas from other teachers and I know other teachers have got ideas from me.

3. Have a staff sandbox. In programming speak a sandbox is a place where you can run code without it being able to damage your system. In a VLE a sandbox can be a course hidden from students where teachers can experiment with features and build up confidence.

4. keep an eye on teachers’ courses so you can give them feedback. Some may comment that this is being nosey or interfering, but if you follow point three above you are just practicing what you are preaching.

5. Offer help regularly. A quick, “Is there anything you need a hand with?” in the staffroom can go a long way. Doing the odd favour here and there never hurts either!

Our Rickypedia VLE is still very much a pilot website with only a selection of students and teachers on the system. I’ve added new students and classes as I’ve been ready to experiment with them or as I have had requests from other teachers.

One of our student teachers (or beginning teachers as they are now known) approached me about a month ago to ask if Rickypedia would be able to help her year 7 English class with their non-fiction projects. She was looking for somewhere where students could upload their writing, she could mark up changes and the students could then refine their work and resubmit it for further review. I realised that Moodle wasn’t necessarily the ideal solution (something like Google docs or a wiki may have been better) but it did provide a solution so I explained the system and what it could or couldn’t do. Next step get the class up and running.

The year 7 group in question is also a class I teach for ICT and this seemed an ideal opportunity to get them using Rickypedia for two subjects simultaneously. It also meant that I could use an ICT lesson to get the students started on moodle to make it easier for their English lesson. All students were enrolled in an ICT course and an English course and were given access to the “Student Room” a general discussion course open to all students on Rickypedia. I gave the English teacher a brief lesson on course editing and we were off and ready to go.

It’s always fun starting off a new class on something brand new but I was overwhelmed by the reaction of the class. They loved filling in information on their profiles (see earlier post). They loved their homework to create and upload an avatar. Some of them started exploring other features such as blogging and personal messaging and word spread (especially word about personal messaging). The enthusiasm from students blew me away and when I or the English teacher added something to the site they often discovered it before we told them about it. Students log on at all hours, before school and after school. I’ll try and keep you posted about their progress but so far it has been overwhelmingly positive, a few logging on issues but nothing major. One immediate issue that has come up from the English department is the lack of a spell check on moodle, this is something that I will look into.

Here are a few things that I’ve noticed about year 7s on Rickypedia compared to year 9 and upwards that I had so far added to Rickypedia

1. They don’t mind reading and writing on screen, in fact many of them seem to prefer it to paper – maybe this generation are natural technology users?
2. They love personal messaging each other and often do so about school work – I guess older students have other communication systems that they prefer to use.
3. They are not scared of messaging teachers. I seldom receive a message from older students but get a couple a week from year 7s asking about homework or technical problems – fewer inhibitions or less independent workers?

As I write at 12:30 on a sunny Saturday afternoon my Rickypedia site log shows 122 actions on the site this morning – all by pupils from this class.

Today I rely on RSS feeds to provide me with the information I want when I want. I can’t believe that a year ago I didn’t really know what the point of an RSS feed was. RSS is an acronym for really simple syndication, it provides automatically updated feeds from websites, blogs and news sites which can be imported and read using a range of applications on the internet or on your PC. To use RSS feeds on your VLE is pretty simple.

On Moodle there are a couple of different RSS features. You can add RSS blocks to bring in external RSS feeds and you can add RSS funtionality to your site forums to allow others to subscribe to your feeds. It is the former that I use mostly because I’m still to work out how the second works especially with regard to privacy and security in schools (maybe a kind reader will explain the functionality to me).

So a few RSS examples from Rickypedia

1. The Frontpage
I’ve added three RSS feeds to our frontpage. A quote of the day, news from CBBC Newsround (child friendly news headlines) and a “This Day in History” feed. Each provides a little bit of wisdom or knowledge in one hyperlinked line. You can set how many items appear in each feed and how much information you want displayed, just the headlines or more. (the picture below has been edited). I may well remove some in the future to avoid the homepage becoming too cluttered.

Rickypedia RSS feeds
2. Subject Specific Feeds

You can also add RSS feeds in a block on a course page. For my A-level computing students I added links to Wired and Computing magazine newsfeeds to present a mix of internet and business ICT news.

A colleague who teaches Chemistry added links to New Scientist and Chemistry World feeds and picked specific feeds related to energy. She then took it a step further by setting students a homework using the feeds to research a topical news item. A great use of RSS feeds and a great way to get students to read literature relating to the course and gain a wider understanding of the issues.

Problems: One specific problem I have had is with graphics and in particular advertising on a particular feed. On Moodle you can choose to allow your feed to pull in graphics or not – graphics can sometimes mess up the layout of your site by stretching boxes and moving things around on a page. With one feed even when I turned graphics off it would sometimes pull in adverts from feedburner who provided the RSS subscription. Normally I would ditch a feed that put unsolicited adverts on a site but I really wanted this particular one so I found a rather elaborate way around it using yahoo pipes (ask if you want to know more – I don’t want to bore you with the details).

Let me know how you use RSS feeds in your classroom and I’d also love to hear from anyone who has experience turning on the extra RSS functionality in Moodle.