Thanks to all the organisers of Teachmeet Moodle. It was a well spent 5 hours or so! I have a few reflections, some on the great Moodling I saw, and some on the Teachmeet format.

Moodle Reflections:

There were some superb presentations on the day – many of which are linked to on the Teachmeet Moodle wiki http://teachmeetmoodle.pbworks.com/TeachMeetMoodle – James Michie has also summarised and linked to some of the presentations on his Blog http://jamesmichie.blogspot.com/2010/07/teachmeet-moodle.html

My top highlights were:

James Michie‘s  comprehensive but fast paced 72 slide presentation on Moodle in his school. It gave so many great example.

Gideon Williams fantastic presentation on Moodle plugins at his school

Helen Morgan’s presentation on how visuals can improve learning and participation – blindingly obvious,  so simple to implement and proven good practice.

Dai Barnes presentation on quizzes in Music (with embedded music)

and Miles Berry on how he now uses Moodle in teacher training

But of the above I have to again mention Gideon Williams – it was the second time I have met him and both his style of presentation (lighthearted!) and amazing moodling were fantastic. If you want to see a great school Moodle I don’t think there is a better example than that of Perins School

Teachmeet Reflections:

I’ve lost count of how many Teachmeet’s I’ve now attended – probably around 10 now including one I organised at the Computing at School Hubs Conference. There is always discussion about how they should be structured and this one again was very different and I think very good.  Here’s a few points of note about the structure on the day.

We started with a speednetworking session – everyone was given a table to fill in names, e-mail and expertise of other people and we went round to a whistle meeting person after person for a few minutes until we were told to move on. It was a great and simple way to network and get a good atmosphere in the room (especially as we has started at 10.30 am and there was little of the beer in the room that facilitates the networking in many teachmeets!)

We had one commercial presentation at the start – from the sponsors SchoolsICT – I think this was received well by the audience partly because they didn’t think to protest. But also because of the ethos of many Moodlers that if you are developing something to enhance Moodle then you are a good person. Personally, I thought it was a shame to start with this presentation, but I have no problem with a presentation from a sponsor – though there is an obvious red line when it becomes a sales pitch (this one wasn’t).

Time Limits were not kept to – I think some flexibility with time limits is good, some great presentation take a little more than the 7 minute teachmeet limit. But some timekeeping is necessary and Nano presentations become pointless if other presentations are allowed to go on and on. Short presentations also keep the audience attentive!

Video presentations – One pre-recorded screencast was shown – I don’t really think this is necessary as we schlepped all the way in we could have just watched the presentation in our own time. Live video presentations are another thing.

Overall, it was a very good teachmeet, it had a great friendly, informal and collaborative atmosphere. I think that’s what happens when you bring two great communities, teachmeet and moodle together.

There’s a great run of Teachmeets on at the moment – where I am just North of London there have been about 4 or 5 within an hour’s drive of here in the last month.

If you’ve not been to a Teachmeet try one out, they are great opportunities for learning, entertainment and networking and the best ones have an equal mix of each. To read about my Teachmeet Experiences you can take a look at all of my posts tagged Teachmeet.

I won’t explain the format here as it does so on the Teachmeet website – but I wanted to share my excitement for Teachmeet Moodle tomorrow and reflect a little on Teachmeet Fishbowl.

Teachmeet Moodle is the first Moodle Centric Teachmeet and is bringing together a great looking list of Moodle users – http://teachmeetmoodle.pbworks.com/TeachMeetMoodle – I have become a big fan of Moodle over the last few years, it’s one of the many tools we use in our school (A VLE on its own doesn’t do everything!) And many of my Teachmeet presentations have covered work we have done in Moodle. The sad part with Moodle and VLEs is that Teachers’ work is often locked behind passworded areas of the site – this is usually quite right as I don’t want strangers joining my class of Year 7 pupils – but it is a shame that we don’t find the time to make open copies of our course for other teachers to peruse. It’s not even that I want to download and use courses from other teachers (though sometimes I do!) but it’s getting that inspiration and seeing how other people use the same bit of software but for a very different purpose.

I shall try and report back tomorrow or over the weekend on what I learned from the Teachmeet.

A fortnight ago I attended my first Teachmeet Fishbowl in Oxfordshire. It was an interesting evening and an interesting format – it is important that the Teachmeet model doesn’t remain static though I would call the Fishbowl more of a brainstorming session – there were no presenters but a group of people sitting round a table working out a solution to a problem along with interjections from the audience and a few brave people switching in and out of the table. By the time the third session/fishbowl had started boundaries had dropped and there was no longer a real inner table and outer circle but just one big melding of minds with everyone in the circle chipping in. For me the Fishbowl was not a revolutionary format – but it is a structured way of getting people to collaborate informally (is that an Oxymoron?). It was fun, it was reasonably effective and it was fast paced and fun. We certainly came up with a large variety of ideas. As a technique I could see it working if you had a specific problem to solve and I guess the biggest problem we had is that the issues we were discussing were not issues that we had brought up ourself. The evening was also rather Primary focused with only three Secondary teachers present, but this in itself was a learning experience – there should be much more collaboration between Primary and Secondary teachers both in terms of pedagogy, school transition and subjects knowledge – we all have something to gain. 

Thanks to all those who organised and are organising or sponsoring these Teachmeets and I look forward to many more.

Although the market is more developed than when I started looking at and learning about VLEs about 3 years ago it’s still very confusing. In the UK there are approximately 10 Becta approved learning platforms (note that’s learning platforms rather than VLEs). There’s also probably another 10 or so out there that I’ve looked at and probably many more I’ve never heard of. If you want to compare features and costs you need to invest a considerable amount of time phoning round or getting in demos as these things aren’t always clearly published.

The wonderful community at Edtechroundup are compiling a table of VLE features and costs and Andy Kemp has written an excellent summary of different systems he’s experienced.
Ivan Langton jumped into the debate with his blog post “Is Moodle the Volvo of VLEs” which has a pop at Moodle’s old fashioned and blocky design. This debate is great and important but I feel a couple of important points have been missed.

1. Most schools do not know what they want!

Some of us now have a bit of experience using VLEs but I doubt there are many of us who have seen a school with a fully integrated VLE (I reckon 2 more years and I’ll be close!)  Even those of us who know VLEs and who use VLEs probably haven’t used all the features or worked out how every subject can or should integrate them into lessons. For those schools who have less experience a table of features is likely to mean even less. Looking at features and costs can be misleading. Schools need to look at what they have and what they need. Here’s a few commonly mentioned features that I’ll try and put a contrary view on.
MIS Integration: What are you going to use it for? Does your MIS system need to know how a student has done in a VLE quiz? Do you need to see attendance records from your VLE? I decided not to worry about this as the cost wasn’t worth the benefits for us and we already have web access to the MIS without a VLE.

Single Sign On: How many systems do you use in school? Can you combine them all? If you get single sign on working how many other systems won’t work with it? I wanted single sign on but it wasn’t realistic to start with. We also have so many web systems staff and students use that 100% single sign on would be impossible. Right now I’m prepared to wait until a better system comes around that’s more comprehensive.

Creating User Accounts/Class Groups Automatically: This kind of falls into the above two categories. How will you create user accounts? Will they come from the MIS or from a single sign on system? We created manually in the end which took a technician a small amount of time to extract the data from the MIS.

Online Markbook: Is this essential? How many staff will use it?

Included Resources: Some commercial VLEs come with resources such as Brittanica (that I’ve heard great things about). Do you need these included resources? Would you prefer to spend the money on just the ones you want?

Curriculum Mapping: Some VLEs allow you to map or tag your resources to parts of the National Curriculum – are your staff going to want to do this?

Features and Tools: Eg Wikis, Forums, Blogs etc. Are there better online tools to do the job that staff are already using? Does a specific VLE offer an implementation that is so good that it stands out? Is this really what is going to be your deciding factor? Probably not!

In summary most staff will only use parts of a VLE. The expert staff who you may expect to use more may prefer to use other tools such as a blog on blogger, a google sites website or a wiki on wetpaint.

2. The Main Cost isn’t the hosting and technical expertise but the time for training and creation of content.

Many people comment that Moodle can be expensive in terms of setup. I believe this time for setup is the same for any VLE. For £500 a year my school has fully hosted, functional and supported Moodle installation from ECognition . We needed to create user accounts, courses and resources. This is the same for any VLE. Your commercial package may include setting up servers, single sign on and user accounts – but this will surely also need time from people in your school, such as you or your network manager. The real cost though is in creating materials, courses and training staff. It doesn’t matter what VLE you have, creating courses and resources takes time – teachers don’t have much time.

So why have I fallen for Moodle?
1. You can spend money on the bits you want to spend it on rather than on software licenses. It may be in house training and taking teachers off timetable. It may be getting external trainers in. It may be paying someone to integrate your moodle with your MIS. It may be buying laptops to use the VLE in school. It may be buying resources to add to the VLE and many more options.

2. You can start small and grow organically. If you spend £30,000 on a VLE there’s some real pressure to use it even when it isn’t the best solution to your problem. Forcing people to use a VLE can cause resentment both amongst pupils and staff. With a smaller investment in Moodle I am equally happy when staff use other web tools or our Google Apps  installation to do things how they want.

Bigger costs require bigger benefits and create bigger pressures

Flexibility breeds creativity.

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.

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!

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.