National Learning Platforms Conference

frog3.0Systems Man and I got up very early this morning to travel to Manchester for the National Learning Platforms Conference hosted by Frog. True to the title, at no point was the conference all about Frogtrade – it was genuinely a series of workshops centred on schools presenting aspects of their learning platforms. Sure, they all use Frog, but the messages could have been universally applied.

 Frog’s statement, ‘Creativity – enabling ordinary people to do extraordinary things’ came through very strongly in the presentations. Considering that many teachers working in an online environment are often out of their comfort zones, this Frog phrase resonates strongly as a key feature of their learning platform.

Sir Dexter Hutt, Chief Executive of Ninestiles Plus gave an interesting opening address. Although entitled, ‘Achieving Excellence’ the message which came through strongly was one which centred on the need for constant change in order to progress as a 21st Century School. Whilst for many of us there’s nothing new in this premise, he made enormous sense and I was heartened by his statement which offered that excellent teachers create an oasis of change, despite the default (read for that traditional) settings in an environment.  He noted that there were relatively few of these teachers around and that students taught by them were very lucky. 

Klaus Pertl chose not to use technology in his talk, ‘Performance Development’ but created a lot of laughter with a single prop – a bottle full of water which he intermittently emptied around the stage, showing how quickly we use up all our energy through stress. This talk was a little light relief, concentrating mainly on relaxation and techniques to engender creativity and calm. It did run on a little and Systems Man and I began to get restless for the ‘Main Event’.

First up on our list (we could only choose 4 workshops) was Mirfield Free Grammar & Sixth Form. A very youthful Vice Principal, Neal Packard spoke on ‘Raising Achievement through Digital Learning’. At the outset he made it clear that his school concentrated on high achievement and the development of leadership. Their Learning Platform set out to be a teaching and learning tool first and not just an administrative tool. In order to raise achievement their LP ensures parental engagement, it provides tracking and intervention though the use of data, produces variety in teaching and learning material which supplements classroom experience, allows opportunities for collaboration, is tailored to the individual or group in order to promote confidence and self esteem and is available 24/7. Again – no surprises there in terms of what we would hope an LP would provide. However, it was his engagement of students which I thought was most interesting. Uptake for positions as LP ‘helpers’ came in at 170, so Neal allocates several areas of responsibility: older students become ‘developers’, some are ‘moderators’ (of forums) and those who cannot give up a lot of time are ‘testers’ (as in beta).  He asks these students to get involved in strategies to engage all students in the LP and requires them to help in its development.  Neal’s school has had remarkable academic success, but he was keen to point out that although the LP is key, a number of strategies have aided the raised level of whole school achievement.  

The highlight of the day for me was the workshop from Dominic Tester of Costello Technology College (@dtester). Dom’s presentation on ‘Enhancing Parental Engagement’ was quick, efficient and packed full of useful strategies for success in this area. (Parental engagement being mentioned again as a key to raising students’ attainment.) Costello did not want parents to merely have access to student data – they wanted real interaction with parents. A parent focus group has been set up, and parents have been invited to contribute towards the shape of this interaction and engagement. It astonished me to see how much parents want from the school LP. I’ll list a few: homework, school information, diaries and policies, student’s progress (attainment & targets) extracurricular, behaviour (good and bad), attendance, timetables, feedback from teachers, provision to book school facilities and parents’ evening slots. Adult learning activities, updates for explanations of illness or absences, online payments, registration for school events, surveys and forums, (some which locked teachers out because parents wanted to discuss topics such as ‘unruly teenagers’) and a place to advertise for parents with skills which the College could use. Overall though, parents were keen not to lose face to face contact with teachers.

Costello is working to include many of these requests, and envisage completion in 2 -3 years’ time. Dom pointed out that it was important to have a proactive and not reactive relationship with parents, that for parental engagement to be successful current working practices must be tightly reviewed, that procedures and protocols should be clearly in place, and that staff must be trained on how to interact or communicate with parents via the LP. I don’t think I’m doing Dom’s session much justice, so please review the presentation or video when it’s available on the Frogtrade website.

 I was looking forward to the Ninestiles workshop, but have to say that I was rather disappointed with it. A Frog 3.0 beta school – their website and learning platform looked sleek and dynamic. However, the school obviously has a strong Media department as the double act of the presenters quickly settled on the delivery of a series of excellent, but rather self indulgent videos which clearly displayed an emphasis on top notch film techniques. When questioned whether the LP provided other material for learners, one of the presenters said, ‘Yes, but we didn’t think you wanted to see that.’

It was all downhill for me from there. The Elizabethan High School presentation, ‘Encouraging Departmental Ownership’ sounded as if it were just up my street. This is where we are with our own LP – getting academic departments on board. Sadly, the presentation focussed more on how any classroom teacher could use IT in their lessons – with the LP providing the web interface. Upload a PowerPoint presentation; find links to useful external websites and buy in content packages was the message for teachers from this school. Perhaps this would have been useful for delivery to LP newbies, but not necessarily of great use to Systems Man and me at a conference such as this.

Travelling back to the train station, we discovered that we’d missed an excellent presentation from students at Crossley Heath School on, ‘Student Voice – Empowering Students’, and several sound strategies from Attleborough High School in, ‘100 Days on: Sustaining the momentum of your VLE’. Apparently the students at Crossley Heath were fairly disinterested in the LP (homework and learning materials) until they had access to forums and student voice.  I also learned from further conversation, that the Systems Manager at Crossley said that monitoring the forums had initially taken up 75% of his time, and that Attleborough sustain their VLE momentum by ensuring that everything (documents, cover, notices, policies) are only accessed through the LP. Will definitely have to catch up on those sessions I missed.

Finally, I have to say big ‘hats off’ to Frog for putting the conference together. It was free, in a superb venue with excellent catering facilities and a supportive and friendly Frog staff contingent. See you next year!

7 Responses

  1. Great account Kerry.

    It’s interesting to hear some new strategies for maintaining momentum on your VLE. Forums and the student voice. Simple, hard at first (moderating) but popular. The parental involvement is also the first really positive report I have heard using a VLE with parental access. Kudos to the school for having the backbone to follow that through. Did they mention which of those services (all valid) they are providing? Would be interested to see what any school would consider practical. It’s almost like a whole new market to cater for with the same resources. You can easily see how it would have positive impact on all aspects of schooling. Except, maybe, the pupils adolescent privacy. I know I wouldn’t want to keep too close an eye on my children’s activities. Their education is about their choices, not mine. Other than key decisions, I’m just there to discuss it should they be kind enough to ask.

    Dai

  2. I’d have to agree with you on some aspects of LP parental engagement Dai. Would providing all of these focus an excessive amount of time on *parents* needs and detract from those of the students? Will also ask Dom, @dtester, which of the above he’s prioritising for action.

    Kerry

  3. HI all,
    Just been catching up on my tweets from yesterday and now that I have got myself in front of a computer thought I would add a little bit of information.

    Totally take on board points made – much of the parental functionality we are intending to roll out initially is very little in the way of administrative outlay to the school as much is automated by the system and pulling data that already exists into a format that is readily understood by parents. When we initially launch the parent portal across all of our parents (Sept 2009) we will be including the following functionality:
    Newsfeed (Assignments/attendance/behaviour), access to assignments set, all learnign resources (Support/extension), school diary, discussion forums, absence notification form, update details form, school policies/letters/newsletters, student showcase.

    Detailed MIS data: Access to attendance/behaviour data via SIMS extractor and SIMS Live (I.e. 24 hr retrospective and live view)

    This is in no specific order of priority in the list above. Access to assessment data will be coming in Sept. 2009

    Nothing we will be doing will be detracting from the needs of our students. Much of the focus of what we are rolling out, and planning to do in the future is about facilitating parents to also help meet the needs of the students, so hopefully a win win situation. Of course, there will be teething issues like anything new, and we’ll have to look at ways to engage with parents that do not engage with the portal. But the careful planning that has gone into how we roll this out in September as been foucsed on keeping the number of parents that fall into this category to a minimum.

    Lots to do in the next couple of months, really exciting developments!

  4. Have to say I am a bit envious of you guys and the UK MoodleMooters. As there isn’t a regular conference for Studywiz or for LPs generally unless you look at BETT and Naaace. The latter is too narrow and yet not deep and the former too broad. Perhaps Frog has noble aims in giving this confererence that name but a real national conference would need to be organized by an educational group rather than supplier to get other supplier and schools with other products and services yes? Also is it good to give it the LP name? Why not just online learning? Or why not broaden and have a learning conference with a stream for online learning. Is there one already? Maybe the GTC and Becta and SSAT should get together and give us the learning focused conference I think we need. One that is deep and where sharing across platforms ideas, resources, collaboration or at the centre and not an “isn’t our platform best” fest. No criticism of you guys intended. I am confident you are not precious about the platform but are focused on teaching and learning. first

  5. I couldn’t agree more, Colon. I shall ask my Twitter network if they have any ideas. Perhaps its a cost issue?

    Kerry

  6. Just for the record it’s Colin not Colon ; -) My mistake, using an iPhone was not easy in on this page.

  7. Hi Colin! Thought the name was unusual, but didn’t want to be rude. Are you on Twitter? I think your comment has sparked a move for an Independent Learning platform User Conference. #ilpuc if you do Twitter!

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