VLE Staff Training

Posted on January 22nd, 2009 in VLE | 6 Comments »

In the world of Educational ICT money is often spent at hardware and software without thinking about training and time. It doesn’t matter how amazing technology is or what change it can facilitate, if teachers don’t understand how to use it or don’t have time to use it it won’t get used! There are many reports and articles that back up this argument but I think to most of us in the edtech world who aren’t salespeople (and to the honest and good salespeople of which I’m sure there are many) this is a given.

So the challenges of implementing our VLE are pretty much what I’ve expected. The jobs that are being done or need doing are: Finding time to create examplar resources, setting up a sensible look and feel for the system, setting up sensible navigation for the system, the admin part of uploading users, training pupils and training staff.

I’m going to have to just get stuck in and tackle as many of these things as possible simultaneously but right now my priority is to get the training off the ground.

We started with our inset in the first week of term where I spent an hour with the whole staff introducing the concept of a VLE and did a tutorial on how to login, change profiles, add a course and add items to a course. There’s only so much you can do with 80 people or so in an hour with only a handful of laptops. Nevertheless it was a good start and taster for everyone and at least gave people an idea of what was now available for them to use. A friend at a North London school who uses their VLE extensively across the school told me that every one of their whole school insets has to have a VLE related part, maybe that’s something to aspire to.

The next step is organising extra training sessions. I’m going to aim for sessions to have a maximum of 10 people in each and try to schedule them either during the day (taking staff off timetable for an hour) or after school. My plan is to offer staff the option of beginners, intermediate and advanced sessions at either time. I am also offering departments the option to take their training in departments.

We’ll see how it goes this term. I’d be quite happy to get a few groups of enthusiasts wanting to come back for more training rather than a large number of people with knowledge but less desire. I’m also wary of overstretching myself in terms of giving the training, but I’ll worry about that when I get there.

A quick question to you all to finish? How do you train the staff in your school or institution and what model works best?

What’s the best way to introduce students to using a VLE? Students may be digital natives but my experience is that they don’t automatically know how to use digital tools effectively. They also don’t always know how to use digital tools sensibly. Children learn from an early age how to behave in a classroom and learn that different behaviours are acceptable in a classroom than are acceptable at home or in the playground with friends. In online spaces fewer students see these boundaries. For many students the internet is their playground and social space where they can say what they want to their friends using their own language and without having to worry about interference from parents and teachers. This in fact is one of the many reasons we are trying to combine the internet and teaching, many VLEs promise to make education available at home to students to use in their own time. I have seen many examples of students exhibiting what I would deem unnacceptable behaviour using VLEs and online tools. Examples are bad language, silly comments, use of offensive images, unconstructive criticisms of fellow students and just general sillyness. The vast majority of this is not done with malice but with good intentions or just for fun. When students use, for example, an online forum or chat, they are used to posting fun jokey messages to friends. Most wouldn’t dare do the same thing in an execise book, they would use formal language and no silly comments, the jokey messages to friends would probably be passed around bits of paper or in their personal planners.

So what is the answer? I believe students need good training as to how to use online tools sensibly so they can learn a difference between the classroom space and the playground space. If this is started young it should become second nature as students progress through school. A clear set of rules and consequences are also needed. These needn’t be overbearing or restricting. I asked some of my 6th formers to help come up with some simple rules for use of our VLE – this is what we’ve got to so far…

1. No swearing
2. No innapropriate images/video
3. No offensive behaviour
4. Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t say to anyone’s face
5. All images/videos posted must have permission from people involved
6. If any of the above rules are broken the user may be blocked or face further punishment.

Certainly not perfect but simple. We’ll see how they go.

There is a worry that by separating the classroom online space from the playgroung online space and by training pupils in a more formal style of communication we will put them off using online tools for learning. But looking at it from another angle if we train pupils to use online tools sensibly and effectively it may change the way they use them socially for the better.

Using Google Sites in School

Posted on December 26th, 2008 in VLE | 8 Comments »

We’ve recently created accounts for every student at Google apps for education. We registered a new domain for this at www.rickyschool.com . This provides e-mail, google docs, google start page, google calendar and google sites for all users. I’m still not 100% sure what it will be used for long term but I am convinced there are so many potential applications. Tom Barrett’s blog gives many of his examples of use and I’m sure few of these were thought of by the developers or even by Tom when he first started.

My first week with google sites has been rather inspiring. It’s a nifty and simple tool for building websites. It’s so easy to use and it’s got loads of features built in. It has plenty of great, pretty, ready made templates (all fully customisable). It also makes it really easy to embed google docs, youtube videos and loads of other widgets. Apart from ease of use it’s also collaborative. If you have a school wide google apps setup, pages are by default editable by all users (though it’s very easy to turn this off). There are four great ways I can envision google sites being used for schools.

  1. For students to create great looking websites for school projects.

  2. For students to work collaboratively on school projects.

  3. For students to create their own personal online spaces.

  4. For students to have online eportfolios of work.

Though google sites is a potentially great and simple solution to creating eportfolios (there is a ready made template available when a new page is created called “filing cabinet” for placing files in) I am most excited about number 3. It’s my ‘dream’ to have a VLE that is customisable and editable by students. Sadly this is very hard to achieve as most VLEs are teacher run and allowing students to run their own personal spaces individually can be very tricky to set up. (Though I have seen some commercial VLEs that allow this although not without problems). Google sites let students create sites about whatever they want and when a site is created a user can label the page with one or more categories. When users view a list of all sites they see a list of all categories and can choose ones they are interested in. Though we’ll have to train students to use sites sensibly and monitor any problems this could be the online student space I have been looking for.

Google sites, lots of potential for teaching and learning but even more potential for students creating their own content and personal space.

To see a little more about google sites take a look at this short screencast introduction I made earlier.

Update: Thanks for the comments- Lisa Thumann put a link to this useful presentation

 

Thanks to choosing Moodle as our VLE our school has a VLE budget to spend on training, hardware and resources. Okay we didn’t get quotes from every supplier out there but the first one we had in quoted around £30,000 for their “package”. Our current budget is more modest (I won’t put the figure online but feel free to twitter or e-mail if you’re curious).

So now with a little money in the kitty to spend I’d like to ask three questions.

1. What hardware or devices should we buy to make best use of our VLE?

2. What software should we buy to make best use of our VLE?

3. What content should we buy to make best use of our VLE?

Open source suggestions are of course welcome but here’s what I’m looking for and here’s where I’m thinking right now.

Software or hardware needs to be easy for teacher or pupils to use. It need to be easy to install (for hardware preferably it won’t need installing). Content needs to be good! For software I’m looking for software that will help teachers and I hope pupils create engaging content for the VLE.

This is what my three answers look like so far.

1. Hardware:
A handful of bluetooth adaptors for students to get photos, audio and video from mobile phones.
A digital voice recorder that records straight to MP3.
A simple to use camcorder that produces footage in a format that can be uploaded straight to VLE
A laptop with useful software, editing software and webcam that can be loaned out to staff for developing resources.

2. Software
Screencapture/screencasting software.
Simple Audio, Video and Image editing software.

3. Content
The only subject specific content I’ve found is by birchfield or boardworks which look expensive. Any other suggestions for any subject would be welcome.
Our librarian is keen to get an Encyclopaedia Britannica subscription for 6th form (age 16-18) research.

I hope to get lots of ideas and recommendations from people. Please do provide hyperlinks or reasons. If you have a product that you make or market I’ll happily share it if it’s good! I will write up all suggestions as a new post to share. Just to clarify I’m not looking to provide a concise list of everything but a shortlist (very short) of items that are quality, easy to use and I hope value for money (or free!). Many thanks in advance.

Starting things up again, like a new VLE, takes time. More time than even a pessimist like me expected! So here’s a little summary of what we’ve done over the last few weeks and what we plan to do. I’m not sure this will be exciting reading but it may be of use to other people doing something similar and of course I’d love to hear any ideas of things we’re doing wrong or could be doing better. When I say we – I’m talking about Julie one of our network technicians (who got the short straw of helping with the VLE 🙂 and myself.

Before half term we backed up all the useful courses from our old Rickypedia moodle some with user IDs some without. I’m a bit of a hoarder so probably took too much but I wanted some examples to show staff when they are creating new courses and resources.

Over half term I got the domains www.rickypedia.org and www.rickyschool.com pointing to the right places.  (Our new empty Moodle and our new google apps for education sites).

This past week has been about getting accounts and usernames sorted. We weren’t able to sort out any automatic authentication so have been creating spreadsheets with details for user accounts. We’re about 3 sign ons away from single sign on at school (we have different usernames for staff e-mail, network and MIS online portal). Luckily for us we were able to pull a list staff usernames and passwords from one of the existing systems. Although the VLE and google usernames won’t be synched with the existing system staff won’t have to learn a new set of usernames and passwords. If you don’t know anything about Moodle roles and are running a Moodle you need to! They basically set the permissions for areas of the site or the site as a whole and define what each user can see or do. We’ve set all staff as sitewide non-editing teachers. This means by default all teachers can see inside all courses. There’s a blog post here from Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston. It explains why you shouldn’t edit system roles. I am ignoring this advice for now as I want teachers to be able to see and explore how other staff are using the VLE and I hope the benefits will overcome any problems with privacy.

Another small thing we have done is to restore the courses backed up from the old VLE – these have started life in an archive category but may find themselves in new places soon.

To do next week:

1. We have already started adding areas for each subject. Each member of staff will be manually assigned the role of course creator in their subject area. This means they will be able to create and edit courses in their own subject area.

2. Creating student accounts. We will be giving students the same username as they have for the school network but will have to give them new passwords initially. Working out passwords that will be usable by students but not easily guessable by other students is something we hope we have sorted out.

3. Starting to play with the look and feel of the site. I’ve previously written about how customised profile fields can make a VLE more personal and social. Our theme and graphics also need updating.

4. Creating a 6th form group of experts. 6th form VLE club is starting this week. I’m hoping these students will in time take on a number of roles. Helping work out a VLE AUP (acceptable use policy) that is relevant and simple to understand. Helping to create content to help younger students stay safe online and to help students search and use information effectively. Helping to create graphics and themes for the site. Helping to run and moderate student areas of the site. And I hope soon, helping to train teachers to use the VLE. That’s a lot and we’ll see on Monday who turns up and what we get done.

Wish us luck and please share your comments or advice.

Student e-council meeting part 2

Posted on October 31st, 2008 in VLE | 1 Comment »

I previously wrote about our student e-council meeting held last term. The aim of this was to get students opinions and ideas on how technology should be used in school and what features they would like. This year I want to evolve the role of this group to actually taking on a hands on role with our VLE.

These are some ideas of what I’d like the group of students to be doing in my utopia.

1.  Helping create the structure, layout and look and feel of the VLE.
2. Running and creating their own areas of the VLE.
3. Contributing content to their own areas and to subject areas of the VLE (specifically links, audio and video)
4. Self moderating their own areas.
5. Helping to train staff use the VLE and acting as technical support for staff and fellow students.
6. Helping to formulate a student led acceptable use policy.

Obviously this is a potentially large project and I plan to start small. The first thing I have already done was to convene the group – we had our first meeting before half term and those students that came were enthusiastic about the project. I’m still not sure which students I want to make up the group and it’s hard to get a mixture of quality and quantity. So far I’ve picked up students who I think are both responsible and have a talent for ICT but I’m sure there are other students who I’ve missed out who would be valuable assets. I’m also not sure what age students I want – originally I had a spread from all the year groups but with a diverse group the younger students can be intimidated to talk infront of the older students. In future meetings I will probably separate KS3 students fromKS4 and 5 students (to non UK readers KS3 is age 11-14 KS4 14-16 KS5 16-18). We will also meet in the morning during form periods and assemblies as students are never quite as good at coming during lunchtimes!

I’m fairly optimistic that once I find the right students and have accounts for them all to use and play with the facilities on offer, as well as a little bit of equipment for them to use (think video cameras and bluetooth for connectivity with mobiles) this will go fast. Right now though I’m stuck on the basics and we’re going to start with working on our student led AUP and see where it takes us.

Wish us luck and I’d love to hear any comments or news of people doing similar projects.

So a year wiser and another year on I’m about to start Rickypedia again from scratch. Our pilot VLE was set up at the cost of about £40 a year using hosting from Siteground. It did a good job but I lived in constant fear that we would overload the servers and have the whole thing frozen. I think we did overload things a couple of times but our account never got locked up. Technical support also was down to me and all the helpful people at moodle.org.

So now we’re moving on and up in the world and are moving to a specialist moodle hoster. If you want to know why we’re not hosting internally see the previous post on hosting internally or externally.

To decide who to host with I e-mailed all the moodle partners as well as one other moodle hoster with a list of questions. I must thank Sean at pteppic who gave such detailed personal and friendly answers to my questions as well as very reasonable quotes. In the end we chose to go for hosting with Dale at Ecognition mainly from a personal recommendation though the price was good too!

I wanted to make a clean start but this means a while into term and we’re still not up and running. This is the list of things on the to-do list to get our VLE ready and running.

1. Backup all courses and content from the old VLE that we want to keep.

2. Point all the IP addresses to the right place (at the moment our domain www.rickypedia.org points to our old site so we need to repoint it to go to the new one – it only takes a minute to do!)

3. Restore and courses that we want from the old VLE.

4. Customise the basic layout and look and feel of the VLE

5. Convene group of pupils (student e-council!) to help decide on the layout and setup of the page. I hope this group will be able to take on the role of moderators as well as deciding on student rules for using the VLE sensibly.

6. Convene group of teachers who are interested in taking the lead on the VLE.

7. Set up google mail and google apps ready for students

8. Create staff and student accounts on Moodle and Google.

Once we’re actually ready to get going there’s plenty of plans for getting teachers and students trained up and using the VLE – I’ll write about that next time…

For the last two years I’ve been studying for an MA in ICT in Education at Leeds University. The last piece of the puzzle my MA Critical Study (a 15,000 word research project) went in the post last week and the process has come to an end. Looking back the whole MA was proof of the power of online collaboration, from start to finish.

To start the story at the beginning; in 2006 I was looking for an e-learning related MA. I was a regular reader and poster of the forums at the Times Educational Supplement. Another contributor recommended the MA at Leeds that she was taking and one thing led to another. I’ve since recommended another person the same way!

My entire MA was via online distance learning using the First Class learning environment. There were both online and face to face students. Lecture notes and podcasts were posted online. We had a forum to discuss set reading or tasks and we met once a week online for a live discussion on a topic set by our tutor; often and article or an assignment. At the end of each module we wrote a 6000 word assignment to prove that we had learnt something. (Though that sounds a little cynical the assignments really helped me revise much of what I had learned).

One of the problems of being an online learner can be a lack of community. This was certainly hard. Often our discussion forums were quiet and pleas for help in the class discussion forums drew few responses. This is where my other communities came into use especially when it came to my critical study. Being a science (computer science) graduate I had no prior experience of carrying out a research project for my bachelors degree. Back then I wrote a piece of software and wrote about the process and how it worked. For my MA study I wanted to research how my students used VLEs. The whole process was new to me. My first port of call online was a message sent to the Mirandanet discussion list asking for details of any academic research on VLEs in schools. The response was small but gave me some excellent leads. A similar question to my twitter network brought back some other leads and as I delved further and found other links I shared them back to my twitter followers some of whom found the links equally useful.

My next problem was creating a research questionnaire. I put my draft out to twitter as well as to some friends (via e-mail). Two individuals on twitter gave me some superb feedback (David Nobel and Theo Kuchell) on how to improve my quesitonnaire. Help with analysing the data came via e-mail from two other people that I had never met before, one the research methods tutor at Leeds University and the other a friend of a friend in Manchester. When it was all done it was time for the dreaded proof reading. Again twitter proved very fruitful with great comments and extra commas from Lisa Stephens, Mary Cooch, Ian Usher and Dale Jones.

My acknowledgements page was large and proof of the power of online communities. Of the 12 people I mentioned by name I had only met 4 in person.

Now the MA is done I’ll have more time to spend on rebuilding our school VLE from scratch and I’ll keep you updated right here!

Another year older another year wiser, so the old adage goes. The problem with that adage is that technology moves so fast you might be wiser in one aspect but have completely missed out on something brand new that’s just come out. I try not to let that worry me though as if the new things are any good I’ll probably hear about it through a blog or twitter somewhere, if not then it’s yet another new innovation that’s passed the whole world by!

I’ve not had as much time to update this blog as much as I would have liked. I have much respect for some of the prolific edubloggers out there, especially those who are full time teachers such as Nic Peachey, Tom Barrett, Jose Picardo and Doug Belshaw. I just don’t seem to find the time and I’m not sure I ever will!

My excuse is that I am in, and I hope coming to the end, of my second year MA in ICT in Education. Yes I know some of the people I just mentioned are doing similar things or even doctorates but lets just pretend I didn’t know that! While my University assignments may take time that I could have spent blogging they have given me the opportunity to do some heavy reflection. In an assignment from February 2008 I had to write about the implementation of a technology initiative. I chose to write about the implementation of Rickypedia. It’s a little scary posting my rather rushed and unpolished assignment in a public forum for the first time but I hope it may be of use to people. It’s about 6000 words but I think is quite readable! It’s quite interesting looking back personally and seeing how my perceptions have changed even since February. I’ll keep you posted on the developments since then when I get the chance. Click on the link below to have a read

Implementing a Pilot VLE at Rickmansworth School (PDF 152kb)

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!