BETT 2009, Education Executive, collaboration in learning

I was recently asked to provide a short piece of text for Education Executive magazine, looking at one or more of the emerging trends evident from the BETT show this year. I didn’t get the best of opportunities to walk around the show as we were extremely busy on our stand, but I did also do a presentation on Stephen Heppell’s ‘Learning Elsewhere’ feature stand in the middle of the main hall. I focussed on the collaborative nature of working online, and believe that this becoming more and more important. Here’s what I wrote for the magazine article:

Collaborative learning is foremost again this year, but not just between pupils. Becta’s lead on engaging parents in dialogue demands closer collaboration between home and school. More than simply sending out reports and giving access to summative data, great schools know this is about a structured, ongoing dialogue, not an event. It should happen throughout the year to be effective, and go well beyond accessing summative data, talking at parents’ evenings, or sending SMS messages about attainment or attendance.

Collaboration is also central to the New Diplomas. Students from different schools learning together in a consortium, physically or virtually, presents some interesting dilemmas. Current ‘approved’ learning platforms are not yet communicating clearly between themselves and alternative solutions are needed that don’t depend on a single school’s management system. Such platforms do exist, and these often offer greater opportunities for collaboration when managed well.

Encouraging effective collaboration between schools, and between home and school, perhaps requires an interesting shift in our use of existing tools, or alternatively the adoption of new ones. Most importantly, we must actively reduce the barriers around our virtual spaces, in a safe and secure way, if large-scale collaboration is to underpin learning moving forward.

As you can see, the importance of engaging parents goes well beyond simply reporting data to them at frequent intervals, and should certainly embrace the idea of participation in the process, and not simply attending an event. This is hard for lots of schools, but if it wasn’t it probably wouldn’t be worth striving for. The benefits of enabling this level of participation are likely to be clearer understanding of the aims of the school, less surprises at parents’ evenings and almost certainly a higher standard of attainment from the students.

And then there are the New Diplomas, which demand cross school collaboration for many of the lines of learning. Further, they demand close collaboration with local businesses too; working online to extend the opportunity for learning carries many challenges. How will schools introduce students from other partner schools into an online space that they already run – all Becta approved spaces (VLEs, MLEs, etc) are linked to the school management and information system (MIS: a database of student information) to populate the member data. Adding a temporary student to this is hard enough, but adding them regularly, frequently and removing them afterwards is harder still. Worse – how do you add an external adult from the local car dealership (for example) who is working with the school on a specific strand?

At Cleveratom we have been considering this for a while and conclude that it probably isn’t the right approach to link everything to the school MIS, and in the case of diplomas and engaging parents then it isn’t practical either. We have two products that might be of real interest to schools:

Spoke – a self evaluation and review framework tool. This allows you to set up ‘scenarios’ with sets of questions that students can use to evaluate themselves against. Parents can also be invited in to a scenario and staff of course are part of it to. The system allows individual reflection and review of performance, allows peer review, mentoring, group review and even acts as a standard questionnaire tool, too. It is remarkably adaptable and will easily enable a school to engage in ongoing and continuous dialogue with parents regarding their children’s learning, but introduces a strong element of self-evaluation for the students themselves.

Thought Park – a learning platform designed to be simple, engaging and powerful, it is often referred to as a ‘facebook’ for schools. However, it is a closed environment with a known membership that leverages social networking tools to support and extend learning. We have deployed it in a number of different schools around the country, including primary, secondary and FE colleges and it seems to fit the needs at many different levels. We are developing Thought Park for the New Diplomas to include all of the features needed to deliver the programmes. It is most certainly not a Becta approved VLE, and we really don’t want it to be, for the reasons above. It is making a difference to the schools piloting the roll out of the New Diploma in Essex and we think it could be of real interest to you if you are at all involved in implementing New Diplomas in your school, or across a consortium of schools, and are looking at online collaboration as part of that.

It would be wrong to assume that these tools are another way of building walls around information that should be shared. Both systems are able to have the membership extended to whoever you choose, and schools can manage that themselves. As I said in the article, the future of collaborative learning must include the lowering of walls around our virtual spaces, the idea of sharing information and passing on learning to others. We cannot expect to put learning under any specific bubble and not allow bubles to join together. Such is the way VLEs tend to work, sadly – each is its own bubble, and whilst lots of schools in the same VLE can often work toegether, real life in school settings isn’t like that, with lots of different schools using different products that still, sadly, do not ‘talk’ to each other.