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Pi Powered Presentation Screen

One of the first developments as Head Teacher at my new school, Ivy Chimneys Primary School is to introduce a large LED screen in the foyer area to display information about the school and to share children's work.

After a summer of exploring lots of digital signage solutions, many of which were very pricey and were either far too complex for what I needed to achieve, or didn't quite fit the bill.

My specification was simple:

* affordable solution, meaning high impact on learners, low impact on budget.

* the screen needs to reflect the life of the school, displaying key messages and to share children's work.

* maintaining the screen needed to be simple, so that uploading new 'pages' is quick and easy.

* both children and staff are able to administer the screen.

I'm a true believer in 'pupil voice' and the very reason schools exist is to provide opportunities for children to learn new skills. One of the best ways to achieve this is to involve them in the process of learning at every opportunity. I am also intent on building a community of learners who are thinkers and who are able to reflect on their successes and be self-critical on finding improvements too. 

When children feel success, they should have a place for celebrating and feeling proud of their achievements. This screen is just one of those places.

The Solution

It occurred to me that the Raspberry Pi costing just £25 coupled with a large 32" LED screen would be one of the cheapest options available. Of course the Raspberry Pi alone isn't the solution, because it is just the computer and operating system. The Raspberry Pi has several HUGE advantages:

- cost effective - only £25.

- tiny size (footprint no bigger than a credit card)

- negligible power consumption (just 2 watts)

- onboard HDMI graphics adaptor which makes connectivity very straightforward.

- runs Raspbian Wheezy which is a flavour of Debian - a very reliable operating system. 

I bought an LG 32" LED HD TV from Richer Sounds, Romford with a wall mount bracket. It has all the standard connections but of particular importance are the two HDMI connectors. A standard HDMI cable connects the Raspberry Pi to the TV. 

I did note that the TV also has a USB socket, which provides enough power to run the Raspberry Pi, but unfortunately this port only provides power when the screen is on, i.e. not in standby. A real pity since the whole project would then only need one 240v plug socket.

When I started this project, I knew I wanted children to be able to engage with the technology and an earlier decision was to display the Raspberry Pi rather than to tuck it carefully, out of sight, which would have been so easy to do.

Instead, I choose a transparent case, and mounted it on the wall beneath the screen. As you can see in the photograph, I have even labelled the ports to make the wall display as informative as possible. Only 1 week into the new term, and children have been drawn to want to find out more about how it all works.


After much testing of different operating systems, starting first with the RaspBMC, I opted to run the Debian Wheezy installation. The RaspBMC is an XBMC Media Centre system which offers plenty of advantages. I initially used the Screensaver plugin to load images from a folder and present them based on the timing settings selected. This would be an ideal solution, especially since RaspBMC also supports AirPlay technology enabling the screen to take a AirPlay feed from an iPhone or iPad.

However, having found a similar solution using the X windows system in Raspbian Wheezy, I felt that I had greater flexibility in using the Pi to perform other tasks, not just the screensaver. I also had greater control over finding a mechanism of being able to access the folder of images across the network and reloading the image 'set' during the slideshow.

In the end, Raspbian Wheezy was the operating system of choice. I enabled a couple of options from the 

raspi-config page

Start desktop on boot? - YES

Enable SSH? - YES


I discovered that an image viewer application called 'feh'  would be ideal for this project. Feh can run from the command line and has several configuration settings to tell it how to behave. Within the config you simply point feh to a folder from which to display images. Simple.

1. First install feh.

sudo apt-get install feh

2. To start the slideshow, simply run the command:

/usr/bin/feh --quiet --recursive --randomize --full-screen \ --slideshow-delay 5 /home/pi/frame/photos/

the commands are fairly self-explanatory. The digit '5' tells feh how many seconds to wait before loading the next image. 

Because the application 'feh' runs in the X windows environment (startx) the mouse cursor was visible on the screen whilst the photos were being displayed. I found a way around this, by installing 'unclutter'

sudo apt-get install unclutter

Uploading photos to Pi

This was solved by using a pre-packaged PHP application called KCFinder. What's really nice about this tool is its ease of install and simplicity of operation. All I wanted was a tool which was web based, enabling anyone with a web browser to upload & delete images on the Pi.

First I needed to install the Apache webserver.

apt-get install apache2

and also the PHP interpreter with GD for graphics support.

apt-get install php5-gdI then downloaded and copied across the KCFinder files.

I configured the KCFinder config file to ensure the upload directory was pointing to the same folder that feh used to load the images for slideshow.

Bingo! When I go to the Pi hosted web address of KCFinder, I can simply drag and drop images into the browser window to upload. What's more, as the images are uploaded, thumbnails are created which allows me to see which image is which.

I can also delete images from this folder, so when it comes to deciding which images to keep in the slideshow, this is quite straightforward.


One thing to be aware of, however, is that feh loads its images on startup, when the application is first run. This means that if you add images to the folder, feh doesn't know about them unless you restart the application.

This led me to script feh. I needed to do this for several reasons, one, so that it automatically starts on boot. Second, to enable me to restart after adding or removing images from the slideshow folder.

I ended up with two scripts. 

starting the slideshow:

# Script to run Digital Signage Solution using Feh
# hide the cursor after 15 seconds
/usr/bin/unclutter -idle 15 &

# Start slide show
/usr/bin/feh --quiet --recursive --randomize --full-screen --slideshow-delay 7 /xxx/xxx/foyer/upload/files/ &

exit 0


reloading the slideshow:

# Script to run Digital Signage Solution using Feh

#export DISPLAY=:0

# Stop the currently running Slide show

kill `pgrep -f "feh"`

sleep 10s

# Start slide show
/usr/bin/feh --quiet --recursive --randomize --full-screen --slideshow-delay 7 /xxx/xxx/foyer/upload/files/ &

exit 0

And that's it. That should give you a fully working digital signage system based on a simple slideshow of images.

There's more development that I'd like to explore, including using some push switches on the GPIO ports to run a set of scripts for perhaps displaying a particularly screen. Maybe the week's house points chart, or weather information etc. I also have a Pi Camera which I would like to hook up, and perhaps it could be accessed through pushing another button? Who knows. With the Raspberry Pi powering the screen, the possibilities are endless, unlike many of the corporate solutions which tend to be quite finite.

Exciting possibilities ahead. If you have a really fabulous idea to develop the Pi Screen further, do let me know by adding a comment below.


More products can be found on the Farnell website, see Vishay and Panasonic

Multiple ways of multiplication

Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s children were predominately taught to multiply using paper and pencil methods. In the naughties (2000 onwards) the government, rightly, urged teachers to ensure pupils can use mental mathematics to solve multiplication problems using partitioning strategies. This has had a significant impact and in the last 5 years, we've introduced pencil and paper methods to support mental calculations. The Grid method of multiplication is a very successful strategy for children. In fact, three years ago, two pupils in my class produced this guide to the Grid Method.

How to solve multiplication problems using the Grid method

Of course this isn't the only way, and children find it amazing when they are shown a variety of other ways. I get them trying the difficult methods and evaluating the success of each one. 

Here's how the Chinese solve multiplication problems, 

and interestingly enough, new this week, how Ethiopians are solving the problem.

Look! No wires. Learning about electricity without wires.

Having attended the Design and Technology Show this weekend at Birmingham's NEC, I came away with an amazing product which I think revolutionises our understanding of electricity and electrical circuits whilst unleashing our creative minds to make some cool things.

It's black and comes in a small jar.

The product is a glue-like paint which just like paint, can be used on any surface you can think of. It dries like glue and is adhesive, which means it can be used to hold things together. However, it also has conductive properties, which makes the product really exciting when combined with electrical components.

As a teacher, teaching electrical circuits to young children often leads to many misconceptions. Whenever we see a circuit presented in a book, very often it's shown as either circular or rectangular. That's difficult to translate into a bulb, battery and a bunch of wires that take on a life of their own.

Over at the Bare Conductive stand I was captivated by Bibi Nelson who demonstrated painting two parallel lines on some paper. She attached an LED light to one end of the parallel lines and placed a 9V battery which straddled across the two lines at the other end. The LED lit as electrical energy transferred through the paint to the LED. Brilliant. 

Of course the conductive paint can be used to make any shapes you like and so the concept of a standard rectangular or circular circuit is replaced by an understanding that circuits simply need to be complete and join up.

Not only can the paint be applied to paper, but it can be painted on walls, concrete, glass, fabric and even skin! (though you'll need a pot of Bare Skin instead!) There are numerous ways of connecting the painted surface to buzzers and batteries, perhaps using paper clips, adhesive copper strips, crocodile clips and even snaps for fabric projects.

Bare Paint is very versatile and there are some really cool projects that you can have a go at making on the Bare Conductive website. Take a look for yourselves and see if there's something you think pupils would be equally amazed by.


Learning Gone Global. Where's your Skype bar anyway?

This video was posted on the EdTalks website just 12hrs ago and already has made its way around the globe through Facebook, Twitter, RSS etc. It's not unimaginable then that learning has gone global too and as Stephen explains in this video, it's not too difficult a concept to consider in our own schools either, is it?

Here is close friend, Stephen Heppell, explaining why he believes the 'structures and strictures of education will be swept aside by the engagement, seduction, delight, passion and astonishment of a new learning world.'

This clip was filmed whilst Stephen was presenting at the ULearn11 conference, in October 2011.

Untie your shoelaces and let's get learning

Today pupils at Kings Road Primary School had the opportunity to take part in a brief online video conference with Educational professionals in Silkeborg, Denmark. It was a little bit impromptu and so the pupils didn't have any preparation time, which I've often found is the best moment for real learning to take place. After initial introductions, Kings Road pupils were simply asked to name one thing that is fab about their school.

Top on their list was the use of new technologies in learning and how it is used to support learning in the classroom. They pointed to numerous examples which was not only insightful but reflective on the impact iPads had made on them.

Next, they mentioned the Strand Organisation, now in its second year. This is 'stage not age' organisation and the pupils are very confident to speak about the benefits this brings. They are particularly appreciative that learning is more focused to their needs and are challenged appropriately without feeling like they are being kept waiting for others to catch up or left feeling vulnerable that they simply aren't able to keep up.

Something else that was mentioned, was the Library. Often considered as a resource that new technologies will soon replace. We have strong counter arguments against that, one of which is that the children really believe in the library and the need to use both fiction and non-fiction books effectively.

As the conference came to an end, Stephen Heppell, who chaired the conference offered something new that the pupils in Denmark have been doing for a while. 'Shoeless learning'

Effectively this simply means children taking off their shoes as they enter the classroom or learning space. Why? Well, we didn't get time to discuss that with Stephen or the Educational professionals, so the pupils immediately set off to find out for themselves. Following a link to 'Shoeless learning' and some further googling for more information, it was clear they were curious to see if it could help them too. The scientists in the group spoke of controlled experiments which they could try on different learners within the class. Does shoeless learning have more of an impact on boys than girls was one question they posed.

Remember the pupils weren't in class at this point, it was their break time, and yet here they are in this 'in-between' learning moment questioning, researching, reflecting, debating and developing a clear set of arguments with which to challenge their class teachers in an attempt to convince them to at least give it a trial. Without provocation, they presented some of the opposing reasons for not 'going shoeless' one of which is health and safety and not treading on a staple or drawing pin etc. These all need mitigating of course, and the risks managed - but of course the pupils totally appreciate that and can immediately find alternative solutions. It's what's termed a 'no brainer' ! This important work continued at lunchtime too, there was no stopping them and yet it all started with a simple question.

Who wouldn't want their school's to be full of learners learning about learning? Today, the pupils honed their skills in...

  • questioning
  • researching
  • reflecting
  • debating
  • convincing

It does lead me to wonder just how much of the curriculum we teach in schools is already scaffolded and pre-prepared. I bit like pre-cast concrete I suppose, heavy, difficult to move, built in set sizes to fit a specific design. However, we haven't argued much against it, because learning does take place but I very much doubt that this is anywhere near as much as something self-directed by pupils with the wisdom and facilitation by the teacher. In the past three to four months, our curriculum has undergone a significant review with a real emphasis on developing Key Skills around a pupil-centric curriculum. Today was proof that this has an enormous potential as pupils really begin to fly as collaborative learners.

I felt proud and privileged to watch learning unfold in a very seductive and engaging way.

Learning by Stage not Age - Strand Organisation

Almost a year ago, myself and the Head Teacher reflected on how well we were meeting the needs of our Key Stage 2 pupils, particularly in Literacy and Numeracy. Whilst there have been a great many advances in moving the learning forward for our pupils, there was still more to do.

Several ideas were discussed, some of which were quite radical and may yet make their way into the school's organisation. However we were captivated by one idea that I put forward to look at vertically organising pupils, considering their attainment rather than simply age. "Stage, not age" being in the forefront of my mind meant that we were looking at identifying pupils of similar abilities and grouping them as such.



  • Raise attainment of pupils, working across all levels.
  • Enable pupils to make greater progress in each term.

  • Ensure quality first teaching could be achieved by all.
  • Ensure pupils continued to enjoy and be excited by learning.

We began by sharing the concept with the Senior Leadership Team initially to gather views and opinions and to highlight any immediate issues that might need discussing before sharing with the whole team. It's important that the plan isn't flawed before it gets off the ground.

We also discussed the vocabulary used to identify the groups of learners. We didn't want the project to reflect 'streaming' or 'setting' as these terms typically support the notion that higher sets is better. We wanted children who were in Strand 4 to feel just as successful as those in Strand 1, Getting the vocabulary right is critical. We thought about the vocabulary for class bases, 'home bases' was suggested, although disregarded because of the association to the DIY superstore chain! As the project unfolded, new vocabulary emerged and one teacher refers to her strand as the lumeracy (literacy / numeracy) group.

Once shared with the whole teaching staff, they were 100% behind the idea and were willing to commit to the additional staff meeting sessions that we needed to get the organisation right. We committed to 

Since Numeracy has been a significant focus for the school, we have looked to group children who are working at a similar level. Of course there

We evaluated the outcomes of this pilot year carefully throughout, gathering views from pupils, parents, teachers and learning support assistants.

During the first few weeks of the project, we established another outcome; improved behaviour and focus on learning. 

We also knew, we simply couldn't do this without bringing staff onboard and working together, not least because it meant a significant amount of work needed to be undertaken by staff in order to achieve our aims.


Inspirational Learning Spaces in the Classroom

When I walked into school this morning I noticed that our Year 5 and 6s have started their technology projects. What was even more inspiring was the paper used to protect the worktops. Large sheets of architectural design plans formed a fascinating backdrop on which the pupils worked.

According to the class teacher, the pupils were engrossed in understanding the plans and continued to ask pertinent questions about what they represented. What better way than to provide a technically rich workspace to stimulate ideas and the development of solutions to problems.

I loved it and am a big fan of these approaches to really engage pupils. Fabulous stuff! 

Role play can be so powerful to create the right mood and atmosphere for learning.


Word is out! Dictate your thoughts on the go...

Wow pretty much sums up my thinking when I first explored this new application on the iPhone. 

I've seen and attempted (!) to use dictation software on a variety of systems in the past, all mostly, time consuming and wildly inaccurate. At first, I doubted likelihood of this software being any better, but I installed it and gave it a go!

It's really this simple...

Step 1. Load Dragon Dictation Step 2. Get ready to dictate! Step 3. Dictate!
Step 4. Edit any mistakes. Step 5. Choose an alternative? Step 6. Complete and post.



Inspired by the accuracy of this tool, I'll be introducing it to some teachers tomorrow to discuss how it can support learners who struggle with writing. This of course isn't a substitute for pupils writing, but initially, it will be highly effective at allowing unconfident writers to communicate their ideas, their story without having to worry about how words are spelt or letters are formed. This can be the cause of a huge frustration for young learners, especially those who find writing difficult further into KS2 where their peers are writing confidently and freely.

On further reflection, the dragon dictate software could be a useful tool to support speech and language work, providing that reassurance and reward when pupils are speak clearly and confidently. Lots of potential here I feel.

The software also works brilliantly on the iPod Touch and iPads. Could this be yet another use for these portable devices in the classroom?

How else could this software be used to support learning in home and school? Please add your thoughts here.


We are the people we've been waiting for...

This film, directed by Lord Puttnam follows five young people who attend mainstream schools. It highlights how out of touch schools are in providing children with the skills they need in a vastly changing, 21st Century world. We are already a decade into this new Century and yet we are still switching children off of learning.

The film discusses how different things might be if children were to study subjects that interests them. In the UK we are on the cusp of developing a new curriculum, under the Curriculum 2011 initiative where schools have the autonomy to write their own curriculum, at last, freed from the Literacy and Numeracy frameworks.

Could Curriculum 2011 be the turning point, where we give our children a chance to once again have a love of learning? I hope so. I'm certainly inspired by this film, which is why I've shared this with the Senior Leadership Team who will have a significant role in shaping our new curriculum amongst many others on the committee.

Another inspiration comes from the new Portland Academy which promises to deliver a truly 21st Century learning environment and uniquely, an all-through nursery, school, college and university. Pupils will enter aged 5 and leave at 21, which will be brilliant for all those children where learning is otherwise lost making their way through the school system. Literally wasted, as children in traditional schools make the transition through each phase, proving that they really can demonstrate those earlier skills again and again, often being less challenged than they were when they left. The new Portland Academy changes all that. How fabulous. It is a remarkable project and one that I think will see the greatest transformation of learners who will be amazingly ambitious and confident in their abilities.

Once again, Sir Ken Robinson is spot on in his thinking, relating much of what he said at TED in 2006 to where he sees the future for our young people.

Watch the film, it's here in full.



The Inconvenient Truth about Education - a 21st Century documentary about the future of learning and schools

Lord Puttnam and Michael Barber have masterminded a documentary which reflects on this rapidly changing world where Education is struggling to keep pace with the needs of todays and tomorrow's society.

If you subscribe to 21st Century Learning and not to 'one size fits all' this might be the documentary for you. You can order your free copy of the film online. I have.

Going for Gold

Last week, on day 1 of the new term I had a delightful conversation with one of my pupils. After a disruptive session the conversation went a little like this:

Jonathan:  Were you in control of your behaviour just then?

Pupil: Yes of course.

Jonathan: So if you wanted to stop being disruptive at that moment, could you?

Pupil: Yeah, suppose.

Jonathan: So why didn't you?

Pupil: Well, it's a bit like this, y'see, I think I'm just a little bit excited - it being the first day back and stuff.

This is clearly someone who is very aware of his behaviour and the impact it has, but perhaps someone who maybe can't hold back. I had a one-to-one chat with him about the strategies he has for coping with ADHD earlier this week. He had very few to offer, so I asked if he knew of anyone else who also has the condition. He replied, 'Michael Phelps'.

After a bit of research on the Internet we found that Michael Phelps had been diagnosed with ADHD as a young boy and at the age of seven, started swimming as an outlet for his energy.

This conversation hit home and together we are now exploring a list of activities that he could use to help him find a way in which to release pent up energy.

Could this boy reflect upon his own needs and 'Go for Gold' in his own and unique way?

Davitt's Learning Event Generator

After following a link to John Davitt's New Tools website earlier this evening, I noticed that John has a really cool tool on the front page. It's called Davitt's Learning Event Generator and looks like this:

Of course you'll have to play with the interactive version and press the 'roll' button a couple of times to see the seductiveness of John's thinking. I love the concept and the intention of getting teachers thinking 'outside the box' about how what they have been teaching for years and years can embedded in children's lives and learning, differently.

Here are a few rolls of my dice:

do how a light works as an illustrated diagram

do glaciation as a 10 second movie shot on a mobile phone

do life cycle of tadpole as a tableau maybe with Playmobil/clay models

Just wonderful and perfect for illustrating how we at Kings Road Primary School need to continue to develop our Creative Curriculum project at my phase meeting tomorrow.

Role Play and its place in the Primary Curriculum

researcherIt never ceases to amaze me how important Role Play is in engaging pupils in understanding and performing tasks to the best of their ability. I remember quite early on in my teaching career when I was working with friends from Ultralab on an eTui research project. The afternoon involved my pupils playing with toys, a radio controlled car, a programmable toy and an eTui (a meta-level learning toy.) We asked my pupils to complete a questionnaire about what they understand about how each toy moved, what it sensed and how it responded to the environment in which it was being used. 

Crucially, we gave the pupils the title of 'researcher' and issued them each with a clipboard. Short of giving them a white 'lab' coat, they were every bit the researcher, and assumed that role throughout the afternoon. Interestingly enough, I remember questioning how most of the children understood the role of a researcher, yet their experience of what a researcher actually does was limited.

Recently, in discussion with colleagues during lunchtime, I reiterated how significant children in my Enterprise Team, had taken to the idea of being in-role as designers, inventors and business people. Here's why.

Over a period of 4 days next week, pupils at Kings Road Primary School are taking part in an Enterprise Week. The pupils have been tasked with designing and making products (or providing services) to sell with the intention of making a profit on the £50 they have received to buy resources. The ideas that each team are developing are already proving to be highly secretive and there is much competition between teams and keeping ideas top secret is the name of the game.

Logo Design Sheet Primary School

Whilst pupils in my team were in-role, I had them sign a child-friendly version of a NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) which gave them a sense of loyalty and assurance to each other that our ideas will not be shared with other children or teachers. Whilst other pupils have since shared confidential information, my team haven't. How significant was role-playing in ensuring that our ideas weren't readily shared with others?

Today, we finalised our plans, discussed and voted on our team name, 'The F Factor' and began work on designing a logo for the team. Again, I used role-play with the help of preprinted stationery to ensure pupils engaged with the idea of being a creative designer for our team. The logos they presented were of a high standard and their understanding of the task was obvious in the designs they had produced.

Role-play had an enormous significance in the primary classroom and is not just the domain of Key Stage 1 pupils, but can, and should be given opportunities throughout all year groups in the school.



School Council present at the Meeting of the Governing Body

 School Council presents to the Governors at Rettendon SchoolLast night, the School Council at Rettendon Primary School attended the Meeting of the Governing Body to present their view of the school and its activities over the last term. They had put together an excellent PowerPoint presentation with photographs and images to support what they were saying.

The School Council comprises of representatives from each year group, and despite being faced with the challenge of presenting to a room of adults, spoke with confidence and conviction. I was delighted that they were able to join us and speak in a mature manner, reflecting the views of all students.

Although not a new idea, it is occasions such as these which shows that these students are placed at the very heart of this small, community school. Everyone knows each other and everyone's voices are heard. I'd very much like to see how the involvement of the School Council at Governor meetings can be developed further, perhaps having them join the formal meeting and contribute to some of the discussions. It is very clear to me that with the School Council's presence and participation, there is much to be gained. 

A discussion regarding the arrangement of the curriculum, the class organisation, future building work should involve the students, after all, it is their education we are helping to improve. Needless to say, there are challenges, for example we'd have to look at how we make the meeting accessible to them including timing, accessibility to terminology and vocabulary used, and how we'd approach items of a confidential nature. None of these are insurmountable and something to be discussed for the future.

I made an audio recording of the meeting which has been made accessible on the Rettendon Primary School podcast

I'd be interested to hear from other governors, Headteachers, teachers, parents, pupils about how the School Council are involved in Governor meetings in their schools.

Congratulations to all who presented at last night's Governor meeting, you made us all feel very proud of your achievements.

What If and Shift Happens

My Headteacher recently handed me a disc and said that I should watch both 'What If...' and 'Shift Happens'.  My Head had recently attended a course and two presentations were shown to provoke minds into thinking about the future of education, teaching and learning.

I found them hugely powerful and thought-provoking, and wanted to share them with you here.

What If looks back on statements that people in a variety of educational roles have made over the past few centuries, and some comments made, worryingly, since the turn of the millennium. The key message here, of course, is what if we'd listened to all those people along the way. What are we saying today that could be having an impact on what could happen tomorrow?

Shift Happens offers plenty of provocations through the use of statistics and reflects on where the world and technology has been and is heading.

What If poster frame    Shift Happens

Both presentations have really opened my eyes to maintaining an open mind about new possibilities and that we simply can't afford to make the same mistakes as we did in the last Century. My Head often says if we carry on doing the same things as we did yesterday, we can expect the same outcomes as of yesterday. If we want to do better for our children, we have to change what we do.

We are educating a different generation and this means embracing new technologies rather than immediately disregarding them. However, it doesn't mean building a curriculum around the technology, but instead use it to enhance and add value to teaching and learning.

For me, probably the most significant aspect of the Shift Happens movie is this statement:

"We are currently preparing our students for jobs that don't yet exist... using technologies that haven't been invented... to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."

It just shows how open minded we need to be if we are to prepare our children properly for tomorrow's world. Learning knowledge, key facts and figures won't help the children of tomorrow, yet to give them skills to find out information for themselves, contribute their own understanding and challenge one another are much higher order skills.

What this means in reality is give pupils opportunities to be creative, to make decisions, problem solve, debate, discuss, be inventive and above all else, be themselves. If we allow them to develop their own uniqueness, this is what will set them apart from the rest of the world.

What are your thoughts?

Online Learning Communities for pupils, parents and teachers

One of my next initiatives at Kings Road Primary School is to begin to construct an online community for pupils, staff and parents to support learning inside and outside school in a safe, closed environment. These tools are often referred to as Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) or Learning Platform.

The Government's e-strategy states that by spring 2008 every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio.

Everyone can see the benefits to both staff, pupils and parents. The opportunities are endless and the doors to 24/7 learning are opened, suiting both the learner and in time, the teacher.

Staff will be able to:

  • host private discussions amongst themselves about teaching and learning.
  • share assessment data between staff.
  • plan collaboratively.
  • swop ideas and exchange best practice.
  • share resources found on the Internet or made for the Interactive Whiteboard.

and lots more besides.

For pupils, this will be a rich and engaging place to

  • host discussions amongst their peers, both inside and outside of the classroom.
  • build portfolios of their learning, in a variety of formats, video, text, photographs.
  • share their learning objects with others, inviting them for critical feedback and review.
  • access and share resources, contributing them back to the community as well as simply consuming them.
  • develop self-assessment as a mechanism for directing future learning and..
  • personalised learning.

If schools realise the potential of just one or two of these aspects and fully embrace this change, it will be a revolutionary moment for pupils, parents and teachers throughout the UK.

What worries me, is do we have the tools to fulfill our desires. We have the intentions, we know (in the main) what we want, but are the tools we have today good enough for the job.

To be honest, I've yet to see an Online Learning Community tool that will meet the needs of this ambitious initiative. With the exception of one tool, Facebook. It seems to me that Facebook has the capacity to meet many of the needs for today's youngsters.

If we are going to get 'buy in' from pupils of all ages, particularly those of Secondary age, first and foremost we need to place them in an environment which appeals to them. It has to be THE place to be, hang out and be with others. It has to be instantly customisable, a place that each student can make their own. It's well known that one of the first things young people want to do with anything is customise it. Take their own pencil cases and books - immediately they doodle on them, attach stickers, anything to make it a little bit unique and special. The same is true with online spaces.

In 2001, I built an online tool called iShare which I made accessible to my primary age pupils. The purpose was to create a site that pupils could logon to and share their work with others, including their parents. I gave them each a 'passport' as their home page which they could customise. In those days, without Flash, CSS and AJAX technologies, the customisations were quite primitive, so changing the background image, font size, colour and uploading your own image was seen as a big deal. Pupils loved doing this, and they wanted to do this each time they logged on - perhaps whilst they were thinking about their learning.

If we want them to be building portfolios of their learning, this will need to ensure they can submit their learning objects in a variety of different formats, including video, audio, photographs and text. It will need some way in which media can be imported, edited and assembled online. Making do with an 'upload your video here' button simply won't be enough when in YouTube you can annotate it, add chapters and the like.

The Online Learning Community doesn't want to be too structured either. People don't all learn or think in the same way and this means removing tight workflows, processes and pre-configured spaces. It does mean enabling learners to create their own places with their own structures. Tagging and labelling can help build personalised structures for others to access in their preferred learning styles.

Pupils will be demanding about what the Online Learning Environment will allow them to do. They won't settle very easily with a system which isn't as good as something they're already using. Watch out developers, because if you haven't realised it already, you soon will. You have an enormous task on your hands.

Facebook already does most of the things I've described already. It is constantly being developed, both the core software and through the plugin Applications. Significantly, these aren't just contributed by the developers but can be written by any of its members who know how. Facebook isn't perfect of course, I think it would be hard to describe any software that is. However, it is closer to what's needed than anything out there today and most importantly, is engaging the members in Facebook's development and iterations.

What next?

Although it would be a wonderful action research project, I can see many reasons why schools couldn't simply adopted Facebook as it stands. The current set of tools couldn't protect its membership well enough from other community members, who could literally be anyone in society from all around the world.

However, if Facebook were to enable schools to buy into their software, run it locally within the school and have it's own membership I think we'd be almost there. The innovation comes from having some interoperability with Facebook's main site for building the extended communities for families, friends and relatives. The interoperability should also allow the site to be regularly updated with software enhancements and new applications, so every school moves forward and not just those that can afford it. 

I can't help but think that as each school tries to find a solution for their VLE, and each Local Authority offers support and advice - the answer is staring us in the face.

Am I missing something, surely Facebook (or the next social network software) is the way forward? Can you imagine youngsters settling for anything less for their learning experience?

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