The IT crowd
Schools and colleges have yet to grasp the true potential of learning platforms, research suggests. Julie Nightingale goes in search of good practice.
Under the government's e-strategy, every school is expected to have in place a learning platform by 2010 - integrated electronic learning resources and online storage plus tools for communication and management. The knock-on effects for the FE sector include raised student expectations, potential for improved data exchange at transition and issues of interoperability.
Progress is evident. In its 2008 Harnessing Technology survey, the government's education technology agency Becta reported that 60 per cent of secondary schools now have a learning platform. Another 2008 Becta report, Measuring E-maturity in the FE Sector puts the number of colleges with a learning platform at 89 per cent.
But while the government has high hopes for interactive technologies impacting on teaching and learning, student participation and parental links, the reality is that there is still long road to travel.
The Harnessing Technology report found that learning platforms are most often used for storing documents and uploads digital resources. The FE sector report states that: "There is limited use of virtual learning environments (VLEs) specififically, but also technology more generally, to interact with learners or tailor the learning experience."
However, some schools are bucking the trend. Sunbury Manor School, an 11-16 specialist humanities school in Middlesex has embraced its learning platform, and indeed come to love it. It uses a system tailor-made for the school by education technology specialists Frog. Originally a reluctant convert to the joys of technology, Headteacher Louise Duncan has been bowled over by the difference it has made to her school. "I'm a complete technophobe but this has changed the world for us," she says.
Channel for student voice
One of the most powerful changes has been a much broader channel for student voice than was possible before, says Louise. It has enabled the school to move away from "the traditional school council that meets and disappears into the ether".
There are weekly, compulsory, ten-second surveys - what do the students think of assembly, for example - and students can post their own topics for discussion on an online forum at any time. The result have led to improvements in specific subjects and altered the way teachers approach the subject, even mid-term, says Louise.
"In music, for example, where we weren't doing so well, one of the students' concerns in the discussion threads was that it felt like 'death by worksheet' and there were not enough practicals. The head of music responded to say that she recognised the need for more practical work, that she was rewriting the schemes of work."
Students' enthusiasm has encouraged the staff to be innovative. In languages, for example, podcasts help students improve their pronunciation and teachers share resources online, such as general conversation questions which they can amend to suit their own needs.
New ways to manage and motivate students has been another benefit. "We have stopped study leave for GCSE students because most 16 year-olds who go home to revise don't do very much," says Louise.
"Students now have to sign up on the virtual learning environment (VLE) for in-school revision sessions and it will throw it back at them if they have not signed up for enough. Not signing up and attending means they don't get to attend the leavers' prom. It's a new way of nagging, in fact."
The VLE has also helped the school maintain continuity for excluded students.
"For the last two years we have had internal exclusions where pupils go into what they call The Box," says Louise.
"On the front page of the VLE, teachers can find out immediately who is in isolation that week with a note asking them to send work to The Box. When Ofsted came round, they asked how we could be sure that a child in The Box would not miss out on class work and I was able to show that he was doing exactly the same work as the rest of his class whom we'd just left."
Student traffic lights
The John Cabot Academy in Bristol, which is developing as a federation with two other schools, won a 2008 Becta Excellence Award for its cutting edge, whole-school ICT.
Having tried various learning platform technologies, the school has decided against an off-the-peg model in favour of their own bespoke 'Learning Navigator' which brings together technologies covering management information, assessment, video-conferencing and parental access.
A key component of the system is DEEP AFL, software which helps teachers continually assess student progress on a lesson-by-lesson basis.
Nick Jones, federation principal, says: "The system provides the learning objectives at the start of every lesson. There is also a traffic light system for the pupils: they click on red if they haven't understood the topic, amber if they understood it more or less and green if they understand it completely.
"At the teacher console, a whole-class report gives the teacher an instant reflection on what all the students have understood and what they haven't. There's then a whole host of resources, allied to the learning objectives, which can help them."
The system also encourages peer support as students can also see the whole class view so can consult a neighbour if they need further help or can be paired up with the teacher.
"The most powerful thing to me is that the kids understand that their responses will get the teacher to change the next lesson," says Nick.
DEEP AFL is used in all departments, gradually spreading throughout all key stages, and is also being used to track progress in coursework as well as lessons.
At The Minster School in Nottinghamshire - another Becta Excellence Award winner - cross-curricular, project-based learning is being enhanced through the use of its learning platform, Kaleidos.
The Pole to Pole project with year 7 students involves geography, RE, music and ICT. Groups of students look at five countries on different lines of longitude researching information about their religion, culture, landscapes and people. Pole to Pole interest groups were set up on the learning platform and students used this to collaborate, sharing resources using the document library. The project also trialled the use of discussions and students used this facility with some success for the first time.
Successful implementation of the learning platform was based on a well thought-out adoption strategy, with a number of staff champions leading development in their subject area. The use of the learning platform is beginning to grow significantly and this has been reflected in the number of staff requesting training on using the platform as part of CPD and performance management this year.
Power of data
Regent College, a sixth form and FE college in Leicester, has found most benefit so far in the data gathering component of its learning platform technologies. Named Athena and developed by the college itself, it is a web-based system which gives staff access to a plethora of student information, enabling them to track students' progress from all angles.
The college also runs the popular Moodle system, enabling students to store their work electronically and access centrally-stored resources, but it is Athena where the college believes it is most innovative, says Peter Bignold, vice-principal.
When a member of staff logs in, s/he sees a front page with a college calendar of events and other standard information. There are links to all of the classes they teach which bring up pictures of each student and their details, including target grades and their most recent grades. If a student is under-achieving it flashes up in red. The system also gives breakdowns of each class by gender and ethnicity, and highlights the students at risk.
If there is a problem with a student - homework not being handed in, for example - tutors record it under the 'issues' section which alerts the class tutors. When it has been dealt with, the class tutor records their action on the system and the tutor who raised the problem is sent a notification automatically.
It has helped the college to pinpoint the most frequently occurring issue - poor attendance.
"We found that two-thirds of issues being reported were to do with attendance in lessons," says Peter. "As a result, we've decided that we need to be firmer with the current process so we have taken it off the reporting issues list and made it a separate category."
Athena also enables them to track more nebulous qualities, such as contribution in lessons or ability to meet deadlines, which tutors can record while in class. It has also helped to improve report writing.
"In the past, some tutors would rely on using standard phrases - progress satisfactory etc - whereas others would go overboard on purple prose," says Peter. "The report template has headings - preparedness for lessons, subject knowledge and so on - and the tutor can select from one of our categories of comment and can also add their personal comments at the end. That's all captured electronically in the individual learning plan (ILP) of the student."
Encouraging more staff to use the system to a wider extent is one aim for the future, says Peter.
"We still get instances of staff being chased for things which are 'in the mark book' but the data can't have an impact if it isn't on the system and the core thing for us is having data that has an impact.
"There's also a tendency for people to want to collect information and spend hours producing a report which sits on a shelf. Part of the philosophy that drives what we are doing is that all data recorded is used. The first question has to be 'Why and what difference will the information make?'"
In this statement is the key to effective technology - it's not what you have, but how you use it that will ultimately make a difference to teaching and learning.
Julie Nightingale is a freelance writer specialising in education and ICT.
For a copy of the Measuring E-maturity in the FE Sector report (March 2008) and the 2008 Harnessing Technology report (October 2008) go to http://partners.becta.org.uk
ASCL's preferred partner RM is offering members the opportunity to have a free learning platform consultation. If you haven't yet made a decision on a learning platform or are not sure of the next steps, RM can offer advice. To request your free consultancy, go to www.rm.com/ascloffers
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