How to develop a learning network

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Developing a learning network can be a scary step forward for school managers. Here, Patrick Couch, assistant head teacher at Sandwich Technology School, shares his experiences.

Sandwich Technology School is acknowledged as being at the leading edge in its use of ICT in learning. Behind this reputation lies a story not of constant success, but of facing down problems encountered along the way.

We are a non-selective high school in rural east Kent. The school has over 1,000 personal computing devices connected to its intranet, some on wireless connections. There are seven ICT suites, together with a ScanTek laboratory, four technology rooms and a sixth form study centre equipped with PCs, and the school’s ‘Open Learning Centre’, which combines books and computers for learning. In addition to these ‘fixed’ computer stations, there are six laptop groups; that is, a quarter of the Key Stage 3 students have laptop computers, which they use both at school and at home.

Apart from a few rooms, every classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard, amplifier and staff PC. The school decided for a number of reasons to adopt this approach rather than continue to give every member of staff a laptop computer. First, laptops are relatively more expensive to maintain than desktop computers. Second, the use of the internet and intranet has meant that staff may now keep their resources online and access them from any machine.

Third, machines that are ‘hard-wired’ have proved to be more reliable than those that depend on radio waves. Too often at present four or five machines out of a class set of thirty cannot connect; it all depends on who is first to log on to the system. The wireless system needs to be upgraded to a system that will automatically balance the demand on the wireless access points.

Fourth, most members of staff have computers at home and are happy to use them in connection with their work, but we are also trialling the loan of desktop machines to those who do not have one of their own. We have issued 512Mb USB memory sticks to members of staff to aid data transfer between home and school (broadband is not available in all parts of rural east Kent).

Sandwich Technology School was a member of the original ‘Anytime Anywhere Learning’ (AAL) project initiated by Microsoft. We then decided not to join the e-Learning Foundation scheme but to make it possible for parents to buy laptops for their children through the school. For a number of years a quarter of pupils joining the school in Year 7 have become members of the laptop groups. In the early years we used an agreement a finance company to cover the costs. Insurance proved a problem, involving a lengthy process to gain permission to carry out repairs.

Part of the solution was to appoint an ICT technician whose main job was to repair machines, but more recently we have changed our strategy in two key areas. Now the school buys the machines outright rather than through a finance company, and parents enter into an agreement with the supplier of the computers with respect to warranty and insurance issues. The result is that the students take greater care to look after their laptops, and we have seen fewer machines in need of repair.

We have begun to explore the use of PDAs in place of laptops, but the main challenge here is connectivity. We have also found that the screen is really too small for using with the internet.

Some pupils’ access to personal e-learning tools has had an impact on their learning, but what about the other students? ICT suites are useful when they are available, but we want all our students to have the internet at their fingertips, so to speak – at any time and anywhere. To this end, the school was a key player in Kent County Council’s ‘Putting Learners First’ project. The project had two components: the development of an e-portal through which teachers could share e-learning objects between schools, and the introduction of tablet PC technology into schools.

Sandwich Technology School chose to test two different tablet PC models in two faculties. One model had an integral keyboard; the other did not. For several reasons, the ‘new’ technology was not implemented well. First, staff needed to be trained in how to use it as well as how to maximise its potential in the classroom. Only the highly enthusiastic members of staff succeeded with this; it was easier for most to use the tablets as laptops. The styli that came with the machines were easily ‘misplaced’ and expensive to replace. Although the machines were quite robust, furthermore, the keyboards were not. Recharging became an issue as bespoke charging trolleys had to be designed and purchased. Finally, logging on to the wireless system proved so slow that both students and staff began to abandon it: pen and paper were faster and more reliable.

The second component of the project involved the development of an e-portal through which staff could share resources. It has to be said that the company commissioned to develop the software was very professional and hugely supportive throughout, but in the end the project foundered for two main reasons. There was no co-ordinated leadership from the LEA; every project champion did their own thing, and the anticipated sharing of resources simply did not happen.

Some schools chose to adopt the Microsoft Class Server approach whereas others sought to use the project e-portal. However, both systems were constantly changing as new ideas were adopted and this meant that once again staff training was difficult to organise and maintain.

The second reason for the failure of the project was the apparent inability of the system to cope with demand. The more enthusiastic members of staff would spend a considerable amount of time preparing resources for the e-portal only to find that when they came to use them in the lesson, the system did not work. It only takes one time in a hundred for the technology not to work for a member of staff to opt out!

As a school we have learned a great deal through the project and we have adopted a new strategy. We have installed our own e-portal server rather than depend on an outside provider. This means that we will be transferring our ‘intranet’ onto the server, taking what has become a large repository of e-learning objects and organising them into courses. We have made arrangements with our broadband provider to open ‘ports’ to our server so that these resources may be accessible at home as well as at school. This was the most difficult part of the process; a great deal of negotiation was necessary.

We have also chosen to use Moodle as the software that drives our ePortal. Moodle is open-source, and as such is not only free – always a good thing – but is supported by a huge worldwide community. Since making the decision to adopt Moodle, we have discovered that a significant number of other schools and educational providers have also decided to use it, and we are now looking at ways and means by which we will be able to share content.

Alongside the introduction of our own e-portal server, we have installed a new email server in the school. We have long wanted to give every student their own email account, and began to explore the possibilities for learning that this would provide. The initial advice was that this would put an extra burden on the ICT technical support team, so we looked for alternative solutions.

One solution was to join, which provides email and web page design facilities for staff and students. Students are able to contact the system administrator, a member of staff at the school, and request an account. Alternatively, members of staff can add names to the system themselves. Schools are responsible for monitoring pictures and address books, and there is a built-in bad language monitor. Once a student or member of staff has an account, they can build web pages as well as use email. There are also ‘Parents’ Pages’ which can be viewed without the need of an account. Some members of staff began to use this system to post ‘own learning’ assignments (we no longer refer to homework, but to ‘own learning’ so as to encourage the idea that learning continues outside the school gates). Students were able to send in their completed assignments by email.

Unfortunately, some of the email facilities required by the new examination specifications are not included with, which is why we decided to install a larger Microsoft Exchange server and give every student an account. In practice, the demand on technical services was not as great as was originally suggested. There were some teething problems: a few students thought that it would be fun to email everyone else with nonsense messages, but the reaction of the other students soon put a stop to that. Some members of staff have had to learn to be more careful when selecting email addresses from the address book; we are now looking at providing two address books. We still use the system. Students enjoy designing their own web pages and the opportunity to interact with a worldwide community has introduced them to new friends. Indeed, the school set up a link with a rural school in Australia as a result of!

We also decided that we would host our own website rather than depend on an outside provider. Again, this required some careful negotiation with the broadband provider, but this decision has been very successful. One of the key objectives of the changeover was to be able to give faculties and other school teams editing rights to pages of the website. The other exciting outcome was that the system was developed by a student at the school. The site was built using open-source software and is much more ‘alive’ now that it no longer depends on a single webmaster to manage and maintain pages.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges faced during the past few years, the school has learned a great deal about managing change in terms of ICT and e- learning. A number of key lessons now impact on decision making and planning for future change. We haven’t cracked all of the challenges yet, and as the technology changes and extends the range of available items we will no doubt have to alter our approach again.

Lesson number one is ‘give it a go’! Risks are there to be taken. At Sandwich the leadership principle is that innovation is always worth the effort, even if it ends up being discarded. The school vision is that ‘learning is at the heart of all we do’, and this applies to everyone – students and staff.

Lesson number two is to look for champions. ICT development is not something that can be done overnight. Trying out new software, testing equipment, trialling new systems: all of these require commitment and perseverance. At Sandwich we have a small team of e-learning champions. By no means is every one of these champions an expert in ICT. What is much more important is that they are committed to finding ways to make ICT transform learning, rather than simply replace older methods that may have been more effective.

Lesson number three is all about training. The school has introduced personalised CPD, enabling staff themselves to identify areas for development. Each member of staff has to build a portfolio of training evidence which covers the 30 hours expected per year. Part of this training takes place on Monday evenings, when we teach and practise various ICT skills, such as writing for the website. Such is the pace of technological change in both hardware and software that the director of CPD has her work cut out.

Lesson number four, the final one, is to do with time. Despite all the promises given in the past, ICT does not necessarily make things faster. The learning curve when first tackling a new piece of software is often very steep. As a school we have changed the weekly programme to include two hours of school development time every Wednesday afternoon. Not all this time is given over to ICT, but it is often used by members of staff to discuss and put new skills into practice.

At Sandwich ICT is now a necessary part of the school culture. It is through innovation and exploration that the school continues to be successful.

Patrick Couch is assistant head teacher at Sandwich Technology School and director of e-learning, telematics and innovation.

This article is taken from Managing Schools Today