Thursday, 25 March 2010

Moving forward with open source, a school leader's view

There's a certain amount of smugness around the Open Source Schools community; whilst many schools are working hard to get their Virtual Learning Environments off the ground some of the Open Source Schools are, with the flexibility of their systems, able to start planning for a post VLE landscape. Schools with less flexible ICT strategies, perhaps through Managed Services and multi-year contracts, may be locked into a traditional VLE for many years to come based on a system that was probably designed several years ago and already looking obsolete and will a few years from now represent technology of a decade before.

At Notre Dame High School, Sheffield, we have enjoyed the fantastic functionality of the Open Source Moodle VLE, it is certainly more powerful and more flexible than many commercial systems other schools are using- the massive global uptake of this VLE across all education sectors is testament to that. Lots of schools are tied into contracts with VLE providers and can only hope the tools evolve to adapt to new technologies and new pedagogies. Open Source Schools have the freedom to adapt as they see fit because the range and functionality of Open Source tools never stands still, there's no need for a supplier to balance developer costs against profit when they consider the work required to develop their tool.

We've never looked only at the VLE, we've always seen the VLE as one tool in part of a Virtual School that encompasses public, student, parent and staff web sites, MS Outlook for email, the Management Information System (including Online Reporting to parents- Serco Facility),school and personal calendars (Open Source tools taking data from Outlook), My Documents and shared directories (published to the web with Open Source tools from Gleamtech) including such as teacher resources, students' learning resources, admin files and other paperless office systems.

This expansive system is great, it's all integrated with Active Directory to allow appropriate access based on the user, there is single sign on where appropriate and possible meaning users can click between tools but it can be a rather complex system for some learners and its not always easy for the school to engage them all in all aspects of the system, we still have some students losing work on memory sticks when they could be uploading to My Documents on the network for example.

This is why we now want to redesign the student’s home page as Personal Learning Environment. At the moment this is just a test system using the Picock Personal Dashboard that comes from the same developer stable as the Mahara e-portfolio system we also use. This is similar to the iGoogle idea of built your own home page with gadgets that show live data and perhaps allow interaction with the application. The gadgets should include key tools the students need quick access to, which would include we hope:

'My Courses' on Moodle
'My Documents' on the network
Personal timetable and other data from the MIS such as personal attainment data
Relevant online notice boards
Perhaps a gadget with latest posts in forums the use is following
School notices and emergency announcements

But beyond this we also hope to bring in useful gadgets from the web, perhaps:

A news feed, such as CBBC Newsround
A weather gadget
Links to key education revision sites

But importantly students need to be able to personalise a PLE themselves, pulling in their own gadgets as long as they are appropriate, useful links to sites relevant to the subjects they study and there's nothing wrong with them having access content that is personal to their out of school interests; a news feed from the football team they support if that means they value their page and they want to log in and then, as a captive audience, the school and learning content is there waiting for them.

Once we have this in place the next logical place is to develop this idea for staff around two key themes, First further development of the paperless office with access to more interactive forms to log requests, e.g. IT help desk or room bookings as now but also the sort of pro-formas staff have to fill in and submit, like request for cover, claim for overtime. Secondly to help more staff develop their Personal Learning Networks which are such a powerful way for teachers to access personalised CPD through the use of Social Networks and Web2.0 applications allowing teachers to communicate, share good practice and offer peer support both internally at school, but more significantly unlocking peer to peer support between schools. This, through technology can be done regardless of geographical location; it’s far more important teachers hook up with the contacts that are most relevant to their development rather than have networks imposed on them by local and regional strategies for geographical and local funding reasons that don't actually fulfil teachers' needs.