So we’re onto the next stage of our VLE decision making. The last year with Rickypedia has, as I’ve said before, been a pilot project to experiment and learn. Now we are planning a larger and I hope more stable system. The first step was deciding which system to go with. We decided on Moodle for a number of reasons but mostly cost and the fact that none of the other systems we saw impressed us. (Maybe I’ll expand on this in another post though I’m a little bit worried about saying too much after Doug Belshaw’s recent experiences!) The next step which this post is about is whether to host the VLE in the school or out of the school.

I’m quite looking forward to writing a bit of a technical post but I’ll try not to make it too techie. Although the powers that be say that teachers should be teaching and not doing non-teaching tasks, an attitude that I do largely agree with, I do enjoy doing a bit of techie stuff. I’m ever grateful of our network manager and have no desire to do all of the hard work that he does, nor the knowledge to do it. But when it comes to websites and working on the VLE I’ve enjoyed installing it, playing with it and customising it. It has given me a lot of ownership, understanding and pride in the project. But it does take a lot of time and next year I’m looking forward to sharing the load with one of our network assistants/technicians.

Every VLE like any website needs hosting somewhere. In non-techie terms this means that the VLE (which is made up of webpages, resources and a database that links it all together) needs to sit on a computer somewhere so it can be accessed by everyone. This can either be done on a computer in the school, internally hosted, or on a computer outside the school, external hosting. Many VLEs have this option though some will require internal hosting. Our pilot VLE was hosted via siteground who provide cheap hosting on a shared server for about £40 a year. It’s a good place to start and experiment but it’s not a stable solution. The server it sits on at siteground is shared with maybe 50 or more other websites and if you have too many people accessing it at once things can start going wrong. I have read about some people getting locked out of their site and having to pay hundreds of pounds to upgrade before they can get back in. Fortunately we’ve not had these problems yet.

Our meeting to decide what to go with was held during the day a couple of weeks ago. At the meeting we had in attendance the headmaster, deputy head in charge of ICT, ICTAC coordinator, network manager, two network technicians, librarian, bursar and myself. I prepared a document for the discussion looking at the advantages and disadvantages of hosting internally and externally. The table showing this is below. The table wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but was everything I could think of in the hour before the meeting!

Internal

External

Advantage

Disadvantage

Advantage

Disadvantage

Single-Sign on

Security

Easy to set up

Users need to remember an extra set of passwords

Faster connection in school

Rely on school server and internet connection out of school

Likely to have less downtime than on school server.

School use depends on school internet connection

Future scalability

Tied in with 1 solution

Better security as no access to school server

Pupil data stored on a server outside the school

May be harder to administer upgrades/enhancements

Upgrades extra modules can be done for us.

May be additional costs for installing extra features in the future.

Develop in house skills so not reliant on one person

need the skills for maintenance

Maintenance and backups taken care of

Problems solved at the mercy of the hosting company.

Cheaper long term

Probably more expensive short term

Cheaper to set up

Yearly cost

space

Takes no physical space on school premises

The other point that I added was the option of hosting externally to start with and then moving it internally later on. According to advice I was given by some helpful moodle experts this is not difficult as long as you are using the same database (eg if you have mysql databases on both servers then it doesn’t matter if you use Windows/Linux etc). But if this is wrong please do correct me.

Thanks to those who helped me come up with the list, especially all those on Twitter who responded to my questions and Andrew Field who put a post up on effectiveict.co.uk that I still haven’t got round to responding to.

The discussion and meeting was very good. I went in with the preference of hosting internally as I believed this would be easier for staff and students to use. I knew though that there was a good chance we would decide on external hosting. At the meeting we discussed all the possibilities but at the end of the day it came down to two points from our network manager. He already has his whole Summer filled up with the installation of new servers and completely upgrading two computer rooms (as well as many other tasks I’m sure). He also pointed out that our room/cupboard that holds the servers is already at its limit with the amount of equipment that is there and there isn’t really room for a new server or adequate cooling and ventilation facilities. After those points we had no option but to go with external hosting and we will be reviewing this again next year. After all the reasons above the final decision came down to practicalities. I’m not disappointed as it was the correct decision to make and we can now move on to the next steps of choosing who to host for us and how we want to set everything up. We are pretty much starting again from scratch and have a blank slate for our new moodle. There is still a lot of work to do!

Student e-council

Posted on June 5th, 2008 in rickypedia, VLE | 5 Comments »

After a year of our pilot VLE and a few years teaching ICT I was eager to hear the opinions of the students. I hear lots of little student comments and gripes during my lessons in the ICT suite. Most of them are “why has so and so got a better computer than me” pointing at the new flatscreen monitor on one PC. I then explain that they both have the same computer it’s just the old monitor died and we had to get a flatscreen to replace it. But there are plenty of very valid comments that students make and of course plenty of positive comments.

Setting up a student e-council was something that I had meant to do for a while. I think most schools now have student councils who discuss and feedback on a variety of issues in a school. Our school PE department set up their own sports council to find out what sports provision and clubs students wanted. For my e-council I picked two or so students from every year group to come to the first meeting. I picked the ones I knew were the most talented OR enthusiastic at ICT or the ones who were frequent users of Rickypedia (our VLE). From a scientific or research point of view this obviously isn’t a very good sample, but bringing this group of students together had other benefits. It allowed some of these brilliant minds to meet and ‘network’, it allowed me to get together a group of students who may be in the future be involved in training, design, resource creation and support of the VLE. It also meant I had a group of students who knew what they were talking about when giving feedback and the participants were certainly not out of touch with the average student.

Below are the minutes from our meeting (edited slightly for privacy). As you can see they came up with some brilliant suggestions and comments as well as a few that are just not going to happen (ie VLE with links to games not blocked by filters). I look forward to our next meeting soon.


1st of May, Meeting of “student e-council” to get student feedback on e-learning in School.

Invited Participants:

Year 7 x3 Yr 8 x3 Yr 9 x3 Yr 11 x1 Yr 13 x2 (1 year 7, 2 year 10s and 2 year 12s missing)

nb participants are all students who have used Rickypedia this year – I selected students who are either very active on Rickypedia or who I thought would contribute well to the discussion – the representation is probably skewed towards the more ICT literate students.

Feedback on Rickypedia:

+ve

Overall Very positive, “I like it”, like the messaging, much faster to use since the upgrade.

-ve

Some problems with blogs (Password problems having to retype it, highlighting doesn’t work). Would like a spellchecker, problems adding pictures to work.

What Extra Features Would you Like?

Place to store files

Having a personal webpage

Being able to personalise the site – add colours and widgets

More help pages

A place to put calendar reminders or notes for yourself

Live student chat

List of games that they could access through the school filters!

Would you be interested in (suggestions from teacher)…

Student E-mail accounts: Overall enthusiastic response, student who joined in year 9 said it would have helped her to make more friends if they all had school e-mails. Would be good for communicating with teachers.

Having one password for everything: Everyone agreed this is a good idea.

Social Features: Response was varied – younger students wanted a place to chat with friends, older students prefer to use myspace or facebook.

Being able to see attendance and grades: Not so excited about this but not negative.

Online application (ie Google apps – spreadsheet and word processor): Definitely liked this idea even if they don’t use it all.

Online library catalogue: Yes

Online Encyclopaedia (like Britannica): Year 13s said it would be extremely useful for projects especially if it’s accessible from home. Overall very positive.

Any particular resources you would like on a VLE?

– Would like to have all resources from lessons on Rickypedia, any powerpoints or resources that teachers use in lessons should be up. Useful if students are absent. Also if teachers make notes on interactive whiteboard they should save them and put them online (example of teacher who already puts his whiteboard notes in shared network folder for yr 11)

– Google search box so they can search for things without opening a new window

Ideas for Design of Rickypedia:

Less cluttered frontpage – there is too much on it. One suggested a hippy themed frontpage. Students enthusiastic about getting involved in the future design. Variation in preferences of older and younger students again.

General ICT Issues in the school: All brought up by students – not part of the original agenda.

MyClasslink (accessing files from home): Some students had problems but most said it worked fine – would like it integrated with rickypedia.

6th form laptops: Need Delphi on them (non-6th formers jealous that they don’t have access to laptops.

School Website: Needs updating – students eager to get involved in doing this.

More storage space: Students would like more storage space (especially KS3)

File types: Problems with students having latest version on Office at home and not being able to open it at school. Suggestion that all computers have the converter installed (or the latest version of office)

Would like Google Toolbar installed on PCs to make searches easier (they don’t like existing yahoo toolbar)

This project has been on my list to write up for a long time. A successful presentation at the Teachmeet North East London Conference gave me a bit of kick to get it done.

This project was a cross curricular project for gifted and talented ICT and English students in year 9 (ages 13 to 14). We used a range of technology including shared network folders for online information gathering, digital video, digital photos and both synchronous (live chat) and asynchronous messaging (discussion forum) using our VLE.

In our school all subjects have the option of running extra after school classes for gifted and talented students (cleverly branded GATE in our school). This year our gifted and talented coordinator wanted to have a shared theme running through classes and in a meeting with representatives from all curricular subjects we decided on the theme of China. We also agreed that all classes should have two curricular subjects joining together. I joined forces with an English teacher (Ed Macleod) and we started work on a course where students would make videos about China after synthesising and analysing a variety of sources of information about China such as articles, prose, poetry art and music. Eventually our brainstorming and discussions came up with the following structure (the original was slightly different but this is what we ended up with by the end of the course). Nb all classes were 1 hour 45 minutes.

Week 1: Introduction to China – writing an introduction to your movie – will your film be positive or negative?
Week 2: Trip to China Town with cameras and video cameras (along with Food Tech. and Geography groups) Experience Chinese culture and collect media for use in films.
Week 3: Human Rights issues in China – internet research saving documents and resources in a shared folder.
Week 4: The Cultural Revolution in China – looking at art and writing and using it for inspiration to create their own pieces of writing.
Week 5: Introduction to IMovie. Playing with the software using footage shot from China Town.
Week 6: Script Writing – writing scripts for movies and putting together other written materials.
Week 7: Movie Editing.
Week 8: Movie Editing plus live online chat.

Lesson plans for all lessons and powerpoint presentations for some are available below. Some topics were particularly hard to cover. Human rights in particular was an issue that I really wanted to cover but at the same time I didn’t want to overshadow all the other positive aspects of China. It’s very hard to show a fair picture of such an emotive subject. You will see at the end of the presentation I looked at a comparison of human rights in the UK to show that there is plenty to criticise in any country.

It didn’t take long to realise that the knowledge of myself and my colleague, on China, was not enough to fulfil the needs and answer all the questions of our inquisitive students. On a Tuesday evening a solution came to me.

I am in my final year of an online Masters degree in ICT in Education at the University of Leeds. While looking through our University VLE (Firstclass) I noticed a posting from a fellow student originally from China. A few messages later and I had a real Chinese person very willing to help answer questions from our students.

Our willing volunteer Fiona Shen, originally from Shanghai, is a teacher at Harrogate Ladies College in the North of England. Even better her English is perfect!

I set up a Moodle course for our group on our VLE (rickypedia). The first step was to get a discussion going for students to ask questions to Miss Shen. This was set as homework for students. You can see the list of topics they asked about in the following screenshot.

Discussion Topics

I’ve picked two questions as examples. The first on food is a great simple discussion about Chinese food. The second is a question about the honesty of the government – I think this was superbly answered by Fiona Shen.

Food Discussion Government Discussion

The level of questions, and dare I say learning through the process, was astounding though as you can see from the topics not all students asked questions.

I decided that as we had a willing volunteer to answer questions we should take things one step further and try a live online chat with Miss Shen. It took a few weeks to get this organised and we ended up doing this during our final lesson. My original plan was to bring students into the chat room in groups of four for about 10 minutes each. It ended up being about 20 minutes until I could get the first group to leave and even then we had a mixture of students from different groups, some of whom I let stay on for well over their allocated time. The reason for this was the reaction of some of the students. One girl pleaded; “Sir, please let us stay on, we’re learning so much from this!”

I’ve put a few highlights from the chats in the screenshots below. Some of them have been edited slightly to get them to fit on the page or to get rid of some of the more inane chatter. I also include a full transcript of a section of the chat to give you an idea of some of the chit chat and silly comments that happened in between the serious ones.

Travel in China, terracotta army chat
Food in China, dog and turtle, Chat
Longer Food in China Chat
School in China Chat
Full Chat Transcript – Government and freedom (rtf format)

As you can see from the chat there was some incredible thinking and learning going on.

The final part of the project was creating the documentary videos on China. All the videos are viewable on teachertube and all are amazing pieces of work. One or two aren’t 100% finished and two of the groups spent a significant amount of time outside of the lessons finishing off their films. One example which I think is particularly powerful is embedded below. All the script, poems and prose were written and read, edited and produced by the students. Most images are still images but some footage from our trip to Chinatown was included.

Conclusions and thanks: Masterclasses are normally six week courses but thanks to the foresight of our gifted and talented coordinator Lacey Joy, who has some experience of film editing and realised we would be tight for time, we were offered two extra weeks. These weeks turned out to be essential. We were able to incorporate such a wide range of ways of learning and I think this was key to the success of the course. The expertise of Ed Macleod my English teacher colleague facilitated some amazing creative writing that I would never have been able to get out of students alone. His powerpoint China in Crisis gives links to some resources he found. Two other colleagues Sally Jessett, a geography teacher, and Janet Staerck, a food technology teacher did all the legwork and more importantly paperwork organising the trip to Chinatown and allowed our group to tag along and join them for a meal. This cultural experience was such an eye opener for students in ways we didn’t envisage beforehand. My ICT and technical experiences helped with the internet research (thanks to our network manager Roger Baron for setting up the shared directories) and also with the use of our school VLE. Fiona Shen answered questions from students patiently and expertly. And the students Mr. Macleod and myself all pitched in together with IMovie (thanks to Matt Earles our Apple Mac network manager for helping us out technically). There are of course improvements we could make for “next time”, we could have done more work on assessment (though all students were assessed by teachers at the end), we would have liked to do some work on our group presentation at the end of the course and we would have liked to try and spend more time concentrating on the positive aspects of China. But all in all the experience was positive for both students and teachers and the results speak for themselves.

As always I would be glad to hear comments, feedback, ideas or questions.

Resources:

Final Videos (nb sound volume varies!)

Video 1 – China Mediated

Video 2

Video 3

Video 4 – A glimpse of China

Lesson Plans – not in order, also some lessons changed after we created the lesson plans.

Lesson Plans 1

Lesson Plans 2

Lesson Powerpoints

Introduction to China Powerpoint

Human Rights Issues in China

China in Crisis

example homework

Flashmeeting Presentation of the Project from teachmeet (about 10 minutes)

http://flashmeeting.e2bn.net/fm/fmm.php?pwd=759b1f-3229&jt=02:50:20