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.

TES Conference, Olympia

On Friday I had the great pleasure of speaking at the TES conference at Olympia, to a group of primary headteachers and practitioners about implementing personalised learning in their settings. All too often, personalised learning is considered as appropriate for secondary schools when in fact it is applicable to all phases of education. My turn at the podium was an opportunity to consider this in more detail.

The points I raised were the background of the personalised learning debate in England, how personalised learning fits with other systems and structures in schools and what tools are available to support the introduction and embedding of personalised learning in primary settings.

I drew from the work of David Hopkins’s 2007 book ‘Every school a great school’ (Open University Press) which clearly discusses the processes that have been happening in educational reform and offers suggestions for how the process of change can be taken further. Building in examples from around the world, during my time at Ultralab, and adding in a fair smattering of my own opinion about how virtual learning environments, as they currently stand, are not going to support personalised learning without a great deal of effort on bealf of the teachers who use them.

Far from being pessimistic, the situation couldn’t be more full of opportunity, but dismissing some of the myths and dispelling rumours is necessary before schools will be able to move towards implementing systems rigorously enough to really embedd the processes required.

Essex ExCite exhibition, Charter Hall, Colchester

The Essex ‘Mini BETT’ show is running on Thursday and Friday this week at Charter Hall in Colchester, Essex. It really shouldn’t be called a ‘mini BETT’ but it is an old tag and it kind of stuck some time ago. However, lots of very good companies will be exhibiting at the show over the next two days, and Cleveratom are delighted to be part of that.

Cleveratom Display stand image

We will be showing off the personalised learning software with Edison Schools, as we were at BETT in January, but also the new and vastly improved community software for schools which we are using in Norwich college. We have several working names for it, and the one that we want to ask about when isitors appear at our stand is ‘Thought Park’ – an online space for communities, group activities, conversations and so on. It really is a seductive piece of software that is not trying to be another VLE. It would augment a VLE nicely, and it would be ideal for groups wanting to run colaborative projects. Aimed at secondary schools and primary settings, this is going to be interesting to see a response to.

If you are coming over to ExCite, do look out for us. We will be using a smaller display stand than we had at BETT, although it looks similar…

The 24th is the day of industrial action by teachers in England, and it is likely that the show will either be packed, because staff are not having to go to school, or empty, because teachers are staying at home! Either way, we’ll be there, and we’ll be keen to hear your opinions about what we are doing.

You will also be able to talk to someone from Edison Schools about PLiP – an ingenious process for introducing a personalised approach to learning, using software that we have created. The question we need an answer to is how would this need to be adapted to fit with how Primary schools like to work – after all, personalisation is not just for secondariy schools, is it?

BETT 2008 Review, January 9th – 12th at Olympia

For the first time ever, Cleveratom became an exhibitor in their own right at the BETT show in Olympia during the week of 9th January 2008. This involved renting the space ( a shell scheme area 4m x 4m on the main hall gallery outside the organisers’ office), creating a stand and buying the graphics and frames needed, and renting the remainder of the equipment. It was a small fortune to do, but overall very worthwhile.

The event itself is huge. Now easily filling both the Grand hall and the National hall, plus both galleries, there are probably a thousand companies hawking their wares and services. In addition, the feature stand in the main hall showcases a number of different approaches to education – this year the message was ‘Learner Voice’. Headed up by Stephen Heppell, the feature stand involved a number of different consultants and practitioners giving talks and presentations, but also hosted some groups of children making use of hardware to do some tasks such as film making with a sony PSP (yep – a PSP.. just add a camera!), using interactive whiteboards and the fabulous Asus EeePC. I was delighted to be a presenter on that stand on each day of the show.

The Cleveratom stand had a large number of visitors despite not being in a particularly busy area. Friends from previous projects appeared over the four days and we were reminded of just how busy the company has been. Older friends from Ultralab days were welcomed, too and we hope more people are now aware of just what it is we can do to hep them integrate learning and ICT more effectively.

We were showcasing a single product on our stand – PLiP – in conjunction with Edison Schools. The PLiP tool (Personalised Learning in Practice) is the software we created to support the process which Edison professionals deliver in schools. We were delighted to have Kevin, Tim, Deborah, Sue and Julie supporting us on the stand and helping to promote the process.

My overriding memory of the week is that there is a lot still to do to encourage people to engage with personalisation of learning and not make it become a buzz phrase – learner voice is equally important and we have to guard against tokenistic approaches to this, too. many companies are developing virtual learning solutions but to many are still trying to build a walled garden for the learner, replicating the functionality of the social spaces that children gravitate towards and therefore introducing a layer of complexity that doesn’t necessarily need to be there. There are some chinks of light in the forest of VLE, though. Notable is Dan Sivak and his company ‘CDSM’ with the ‘My Learning Space’ product, and ‘LP+’ which appears to have risen from almost nowhere to prominence in a very short time.

As the coming weeks unfold, more reflection on the show will appear and perhaps more sense will be made of what was a very hectic time. On a more personal level I want to remember to use soft soles on my shoes in future, and add insoles to those, too! Also, a big thank you to Matt Eaves, Alex Blanc, Nick Platts and Hais Deakin for working so hard throughout the week. Additionally, I’d like to thank Jack and colleagues from Skyline Whitespace who helped us make sense of the frames we used for the stand, and to Skyline for helping us achieve a very special look and feel to the space. 

Advertising in Magazines – does it work?

alex_adHere you can see Alex leafing through one of the national magazines that deals with education whilst in W H Smith in Chelmsford. He happens to be on a page carrying an advert for Cleveratom and our consultative services for schools looking to develop or implement a virtual learning environment, or learning platform.

This is a bit of a test for magazine advertising. Previously, we were always advised to steer clear because it isn’t cost effective and can only reach the person reading the magazine, whereas a poster or leaflet can be read by multiple people simultaneously.

My question is does advertising in magazines work? If it does we can expect a deluge of people downloading the advice sheet we created as they rapidly realise the deadline for implementation is looming and that they haven’t yet grasped the nettle to understand what is going on. Alternatively, it could be that al schools in England and Wales are well sorted, and don’t need our input. Or, I guess it could be that no-one gives two hoots what we have to say on the matter… there are plenty of other sources of advice. All very likely, I dare say.

We are thinking that this time of year is not so good for advertising to schools. They are about to embark on their long summer vacations and most folk won’t be thinking about VLEs or learning platforms for another six weeks at least. Oh well.

The good news is that we want to find out the effect, and to do so has cost very little money. It could be argued that it is a waste of money no matter how small an amount, but time will tell. If you are interested in seeing the advert up close, or want to take advantage of a free advice sheet, head over to