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Online Learning Communities for pupils, parents and teachers

One of my next initiatives at Kings Road Primary School is to begin to construct an online community for pupils, staff and parents to support learning inside and outside school in a safe, closed environment. These tools are often referred to as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) or Learning Platform.

The Government's e-strategy states that by spring 2008 every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio.

Everyone can see the benefits to both staff, pupils and parents. The opportunities are endless and the doors to 24/7 learning are opened, suiting both the learner and in time, the teacher.

Staff will be able to:

  • host private discussions amongst themselves about teaching and learning.
  • share assessment data between staff.
  • plan collaboratively.
  • swop ideas and exchange best practice.
  • share resources found on the Internet or made for the Interactive Whiteboard.

and lots more besides.

For pupils, this will be a rich and engaging place to

  • host discussions amongst their peers, both inside and outside of the classroom.
  • build portfolios of their learning, in a variety of formats, video, text, photographs.
  • share their learning objects with others, inviting them for critical feedback and review.
  • access and share resources, contributing them back to the community as well as simply consuming them.
  • develop self-assessment as a mechanism for directing future learning and..
  • personalised learning.

If schools realise the potential of just one or two of these aspects and fully embrace this change, it will be a revolutionary moment for pupils, parents and teachers throughout the UK.

What worries me, is do we have the tools to fulfill our desires. We have the intentions, we know (in the main) what we want, but are the tools we have today good enough for the job.

To be honest, I've yet to see an Online Learning Community tool that will meet the needs of this ambitious initiative. With the exception of one tool, Facebook. It seems to me that Facebook has the capacity to meet many of the needs for today's youngsters.

If we are going to get 'buy in' from pupils of all ages, particularly those of Secondary age, first and foremost we need to place them in an environment which appeals to them. It has to be THE place to be, hang out and be with others. It has to be instantly customisable, a place that each student can make their own. It's well known that one of the first things young people want to do with anything is customise it. Take their own pencil cases and books - immediately they doodle on them, attach stickers, anything to make it a little bit unique and special. The same is true with online spaces.

In 2001, I built an online tool called iShare which I made accessible to my primary age pupils. The purpose was to create a site that pupils could logon to and share their work with others, including their parents. I gave them each a 'passport' as their home page which they could customise. In those days, without Flash, CSS and AJAX technologies, the customisations were quite primitive, so changing the background image, font size, colour and uploading your own image was seen as a big deal. Pupils loved doing this, and they wanted to do this each time they logged on - perhaps whilst they were thinking about their learning.

If we want them to be building portfolios of their learning, this will need to ensure they can submit their learning objects in a variety of different formats, including video, audio, photographs and text. It will need some way in which media can be imported, edited and assembled online. Making do with an 'upload your video here' button simply won't be enough when in YouTube you can annotate it, add chapters and the like.

The Online Learning Community doesn't want to be too structured either. People don't all learn or think in the same way and this means removing tight workflows, processes and pre-configured spaces. It does mean enabling learners to create their own places with their own structures. Tagging and labelling can help build personalised structures for others to access in their preferred learning styles.

Pupils will be demanding about what the Online Learning Environment will allow them to do. They won't settle very easily with a system which isn't as good as something they're already using. Watch out developers, because if you haven't realised it already, you soon will. You have an enormous task on your hands.

Facebook already does most of the things I've described already. It is constantly being developed, both the core software and through the plugin Applications. Significantly, these aren't just contributed by the developers but can be written by any of its members who know how. Facebook isn't perfect of course, I think it would be hard to describe any software that is. However, it is closer to what's needed than anything out there today and most importantly, is engaging the members in Facebook's development and iterations.

What next?

Although it would be a wonderful action research project, I can see many reasons why schools couldn't simply adopted Facebook as it stands. The current set of tools couldn't protect its membership well enough from other community members, who could literally be anyone in society from all around the world.

However, if Facebook were to enable schools to buy into their software, run it locally within the school and have it's own membership I think we'd be almost there. The innovation comes from having some interoperability with Facebook's main site for building the extended communities for families, friends and relatives. The interoperability should also allow the site to be regularly updated with software enhancements and new applications, so every school moves forward and not just those that can afford it. 

I can't help but think that as each school tries to find a solution for their VLE, and each Local Authority offers support and advice - the answer is staring us in the face.

Am I missing something, surely Facebook (or the next social network software) is the way forward? Can you imagine youngsters settling for anything less for their learning experience?

Comments

Hi Jonathan.

This is a really good entry and an interesting contribution to the ongoing debate re online learning communities. I have added a link to this post from my own blog as I know others will find it interesting also. I have already shared with a couple of poeple who have asked for the link.

Thanks for posting it. http://blog.garethl.com

Hi Jonathan - interesting post, and an area with which I am reasonably familiar by now. You may well know of the work we are doing at Cleveratom around learning spaces, and VLEs in particular. Facebook has a lot of potential and I can well imagine many learning possibilities from using it, but it does lack certain safeguards - both for the students and the teachers. Not least of which you have rightly identified; child protection is an increasingly important aspect.

However, the more I look at it the more I am convinced that there needs to be a blend of tools and not a reliance on any single solution. In amongst the blend would be user choice, personalisation and the ability to work collaboratively, individually or in any other arrangement.

The key, IMO, is the ability to syndicate the content into a central space which is called the VLE, leaving students free to use their own tools wherever they might be. The syndicated content can then be dealt with by the teachers for the purposes of assessment and reporting. Crucially, the syndication therefore needs to be two way, from the VLE back out to the original space.

The other aspect to all this is the need to integrate the VLE with a MIS such as Sims or Serco - a further requirement which will kick in for 2010. Personally, I see this integration as a tool for administration rather than purely learning, however the learning opportunities do still need organisation and I guess this MIS integration will help some folk achieve that. However, Facebook is nowhere near ready to be used in this way, but never say never!

You should also read the 'Virtually There: Learning Platforms' book which we created this time last year (and which Stephen wrote the introduction to). It shows a series of case studies examining the ways in which schools are attempting to implement VLEs in Yorkshire and Humber. There is much evidence to suggest that this is all going to take a lot longer than 'Spring 2008' or 2010.

Heck, is that a daffodil I see in my garden? ;-)

Have a look at http://www.cleveratom.co.uk/vle as well - some more help for schools there, too.

Hi Hal,

I'm delighted you posted your thoughts here. The links to the material you mention are very helpful and would be interested in reading further information in the Virtually There: Learning Platforms' book. How can I get hold of a copy please? Do you have any in your Chelmsford office that I can have please?  The website http://www.yhgfl.net/learning-platforms/ suggests that the book and DVD is distributed freely to schools in the Yorkshire and Humberside region but doesn't mention how else the pack can be obtained if you are working in a different Local Authority.

Picking up on your point about the VLE needing to be a blend of tools, I completely agree and I think Facebook has gone a long way towards providing the sort of framework you mention. For instance, RSS feeds from any source can be imported into my profile space, group spaces. I used Twitxr (a mobile blog solution) for the first time last week and within minutes the data was being read straight into Facebook. There wasn't any fuss or settings to make, I just needed to authenticate a few times and hey presto! I notice that Facebook and Flickr can work well together and I can bring Flickr images into my profile space. Imagine building my portfolio in Flickr (or Twitxr) as a means for capturing and annotating the learning objects, and then assembling these objects for presentation and discussion within the community framework which is Facebook.

I think most of the capability is in Facebook already - agreed it could be better, but so could most things. What I am excited about is that the core features of any online community are already met. You'll remember our work in the Ultraversity project trying to shape the community tools that we used. Stephen Powell, Richard Millwood and myself came up with this diagram whilst working at Utralab back in 2003 in the hope to detail what are the software essentials in an online learning community.

Software features essential to build online community

Now, apart from the lack of a range of discourse tools and privacy options (with which we are both agreed) it looks to me as if most of what's needed is now there. Notifications for example, are excellent with lots of user choice available.

As for integration with MIS systems - well that's of course desirable, but as you say, it's helpful for administration of user accounts and pupils and that's it.

 

The book was distributed free to schools in that region, but was available for the princely sum of £15 beyond the region. I am not sure if there are any copies left! It went quite fast, and YHGfL will have any spare copies if there are any to be had. I do have a reference copy in the office, mind you!

The MIS integration is an interesting point - the fact is that it will be a requirement from 2010 and so can't be ducked... only postponed. I would suggest the integration is thought about now if anyone is wanting to be ahead of the game.

The thing with all VLEs that seems insurmountable is that they are all tending towards being 'walled gardens', and there are good reasons why they were established in that way. Simply using Facebook as a VLE is almost a viable solution, except that you are only really establishing your own garden, albeit a lot more adaptable than most (lower walls?). I don't think it is a bad option - far from it - but essentially it is the same thinking as before and this needs challenging, IMO. Ask yourself what the VLE is all about - is it a safe haven for children to explore online communications and activities, or is it a place where assessment artefacts can be brought together for the ease of the teacher who has to mark them all? Is it something else?

I think the best approach is not to specify that the learners *must* occupy a specific space (no matter how popular it is at the moment), but to specify that certain activities need doing instead. Leave the learner to select (perhaps with guidance) the best platform for them to do it, and the best tools to suit the way in which they want to approach the task. Let them decide where to hold discussions, who to invite, where to keep a portfolio, how best to share it and so on. Many will gravitate towards tools like Facebook, others towards spaces like Think.com, MySpace, Bebo, or any other. Many will start in one place and move to others, some will stay fixed in one spot.

Throughout all of this we have to understand the issues of child protection and the diligence we need as educators to ensure the safety of our students. But far from walling them in, I am more in favour of teaching them how to be safe and how to make appropriate choices. This is a tall order for some children and schools, of course, and a perilous path to take in many ways, but ultimately a better one, I think.

The VLE operated in such a way then only needs to be the space for the teachers to collect together the work they need to assess. It can hold a copy of the syndicated feed (as Wordpress currently does) and thus it can be backed up and kept as long as it needs to be, avoiding situations that befell the BBC Jam site, for example. The last thing you'd want is for your students to have worked hard in a space only to find it closed down overnight before they had a chance to rescue their data!

Imagine the situation extended further still, with the teachers also electing to use systems they are familiar with, too! How much more personalised that would be, if not somewhat anarchic, of course.

In short, (and a fine time to use that phrase after all this typing) one size doesn't fit all, and never has. Why now try to find a one size solution like Facebook? It's not a bad fit, as you have pointed out, but is it really the best way forward? The answer to that for some (including your good self) may be a hearty 'Yes'... for others it will not be so. Ultimately, it is a decision for you, your learners and your school to make - I'd be happy to help you make the best choice (my usual fee, plus expenses, you understand...:-))

I agree with the mash-up of community spaces and using single-sign on technologies, community members can move seamlessly between their portfolios in Flickr and their learning reflections in Drupal, discussions in, say, Facebook etc. There is a really useful debate to be had about open and closed community groups. Your suggestions seem to point towards open community spaces rather than closed spaces?

To extend your analogy, are you suggesting that our schools shouldn't have walls at all, but instead be open spaces like parks and playgrounds?

If there were no walls between the software solutions, can a strong and vibrant community still exist where users are aware of its audience and feel confident to share their feelings and beliefs?

J

 

There is a time and place for walls, of course, and groups can benefit from a clear understanding of who their audience is. All I am saying is that we shouldn't rely on a single solution, whether it is Facebook or Sharepoint or something else, and neither should we continue to assume that providing a single space for all of the activities to take place in is the right way forward. I often ask why there are ten Becta approved solutions that all replicate each other and also attempt to provide similar tools to those freely available elsewhere. I realise the ten products do differ, but they all do the same thing, ultimately. They all adhere to a set of functional specifications and therefore basically all follow a broadly similar metaphor.

My point is, why should they? Do we continue to accept the notion that a single space, replicating other spaces, is the right thing to do, or do we look at those other spaces and see how we can leverage them in a far more fluid way?

I readily accept the argument about audience and I am not suggesting we remove all walls... but lower them a tad! There will always be a need for personal and private spaces, as our work in Ultraversity began to show. I am simply questioning the need to create a single place for all of that to happen when there are multiple places available, each of which is probably more engaging.

Schools without walls? No, but why continue to bring large numbers of students into one campus to learn when there are fantastic opportunities elsewhere which we could use? Is it not an organisational thing, rooted in the past? Why follow a model aligned to the agricultural year? We are caught in a number of systems which will take considerable effort and acceptance by large numbers of people to change. In the end we have to ask if it is worth changing them, or simply continue to refine and re-define ways of using them. I vote for taking on the hard work... :-)

As you might tell, I am no longer a fan of a three term year, either!

But I have a suspicion that you know these arguments all too well. The interesting thing is which side of them do you sit?

Crocodile Clips has a library of 1200 free whiteboard resources which are available for schools to use.

The resources are from our Absorb courses, which can be purchased on CDROM. The free online resources and CD-based versions aren't VLE compatible, but we are in process of developing VLE-compatible versions.

We are offering a handful of LEA's the chance to trial 50 free chapters on their VLE. These will be ready by the end of May 2008. In return we would like an account to access your VLE for a couple of months, this will enable us to fully test all improvements that we make to VLE support over the coming months.

We are keen to find out if you would be interested in taking part.

At the moment we have one unit which is SCORM compatible "Moving Wires & Motors". To view the sample unit in html format please follow the link below.

http://www.crocodile-clips.com/absorb/AP4/sample/DJFPh054.html

Please let me know if you would like to try the samples, or if you have any other technical questions.

For a better understanding, on the Yenka website http://www.yenka.com/freecontent/

I look forward to hearing from you.

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