Presenting at the Frog National Conference

On Tuesday I presented at the Frog National Conference at the ICC Birmingham. This is a copy of my speech.  I will upload my presentation over the weekend

Picture: @pcmarriott

In this talk I will describe how Devonport High School for Boys (DHSB) has undertaken a project with its students to develop an app for use on ipods, iphones, ipads and Android devices.  The app, which is now available in the iTunes store, provides students and parents with a wealth of information about their learning including rewards, sanctions, revision materials, attendance and a homework organiser.

Our Frog VLE updates every day and each night students and parents are able to access updated information about that day’s rewards, sanctions and attendance which enable conversations about learning and school to take place at home (see screenshot below).  This supports our belief in the key tripartite relationship of school, students and parents.

 

It is also a central source for all curriculum materials for each subject and year group.  We have found that providing access to all course materials has enabled parents to better support their sons and students can better engage with their learning outside of the classroom.

 

I was delighted with the impact our vle was having: Ofsted commented that “The use of the ‘virtual learning environment’ is well-established, extends students’ choices and promotes learning autonomy”.  I still felt that the vle should be used more by students, parents and teachers.

 

In investigating ways of making the information more readily accessible to parents and students.  I conducted some research with both groups to find out how we could make it easier to access the information: the resounding answer was a mobile friendly site.

 

Following my research a Year 10 student, James, came to speak to me because he wanted to get involved in developing a mobile vle for the school.  He had some previous programming experience, but he hadn’t worked on a mobile site or an Apple app.  Another student, Ben (Year 11) who enjoyed graphic design, approached James about helping with the design of the site.

 

Together, using the feedback from the vle’s users, we planned what the new mobile site should contain.  James and Ben felt that an app that could be distributed on the Apple Store would be a brilliant solution for many of our users – the only problem was nobody had any coding experience on Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS)!

 

James was determined to look further into how to program apps and within a couple of weeks he had mastered the basics and produced an app with limited features that linked to some pages on the school’s vle.  James had achieved this learning independently with the support of online materials, videos and forums.  Ben then went to work designing graphics to give the site a professional look.

 

In order to allow James to create the required pages for the app I’ve had to give him administrator access to our vle.  This required a leap of faith on our behalf as James could have caused irreparable damage to our vle, but without access this project could not have continued.

 

Since the first version of the app James and Ben have spent countless hours developing it into one that contains numerous innovative features and is genuinely unique.  The app has been downloaded 1,000 times and reached 21st in Apple’s education charts.

They have shown a video, created by the students, to promote the app during an assembly.

 

Since the app’s release the boys have been receiving a great deal of interest from other schools who would like an app developed for their community.  This has prompted the boys to set up a limited company, PixelBit Apps.  To do this they have met and received support from local accountants Francis Clark: Martin Atkins, their Business Services Director, commented that “not only have these boys shown great technical expertise in creating this outstanding app, they have gained the skills and knowledge that will enable them to set up and run a limited company”.  James and Ben are now developing apps for other schools who are delighted with the results.

 

The impact of the app within school has been considerable.  Usage of the vle by students and parents has increased exponentially. Parents I speak to are now used to accessing the vle from a mobile device every evening to check on their son’s day.  Parents are able to access learning materials directly related to their son’s Year group empowering them to support their learning.

 

Students are used to accessing the vle throughout the day – often just to see their timetable!  They are very aware of their rewards and sanctions and we have seen an increase in the issuing of commendations.

 

We have also found that many students are using the links on our vle to support learning and this has helped to push me in a direction that I have been moving in for quite some time: trialling iPads in the classroom.

 

They are presently developing an app that will enhance teaching and learning with iPads in the classroom: Quesco.  This allows students to use their iPad as a whiteboard whilst allowing the teacher to view all of the students’ screens.  There are many other features, such as AfL feedback, saving screens and teacher screen share, that I am sure will make this app an invaluable part of the iPad classroom.  The model of the users of an app designing it is a very powerful one.

 

There has also been a great impact upon the students who have setup PixelBit Apps.  There has been a lot written in the education press in recent months about the advantage students with a private education have in terms of confidence and self-belief.  My experience of this project is that the boys involved have not only had a significant improvement in their computing skills and understanding of business, but their soft skills have also developed tremendously.  They have undertaken meetings with accountants, bank managers and school leaders with great confidence; witnessing this growth has given great pleasure.

 

When Rob Salkowitz stated in Young World Rising that three forces are reshaping the world of the 21st century: youth, ICT and entrepreneurship, I believe he had in mind students such as James and Ben developing themselves and their ideas in this fashion.  They have already equipped themselves for entering the jobs market in a post-globalisation era.  Their website, pixelbitapps.com, has already led to them writing an app for the BBC’s Apprentice’s contestant, Leon Doyle, that allows iPhone users to save money on their phone calls to 0800, 0808 and 0500 numbers. Ben has developed his own graphic design site, benbate.com, and he has undertaken work for clients from around the world – including a multi million dollar US firm.

 

This app exemplifies how our school is fostering a creative approach to learning and placing it into the hands of students.  DHSB has an Assistant Headteacher responsible for Enterprise; he works tirelessly to encourage enterprising and creative approaches to learning and problem solving.  Many other students have been supported to develop their own ideas and take responsibility for their learning, but doing it within the supportive framework of the school.

 

The challenge for the school is how we can further embed these principles into the learning across the school.  We believe we have taken great steps on that journey through our removal of teaching ICT at Key Stage 3 – a decision taken prior to Gove’s outburst!  It has been renamed enterprise and students will tackle programming, app design and editing Frog pages in addition to the ICT skills they require.

 

All of these activities fit within the school’s development plan that highlights the importance of enterprise and creativity; this applies equally to staff and students.

 

 

What next?  PixelBit have recently released a new app designed for the iPad to complement the iPhone and mobile apps.  They are presently advertising for orders that they can have ready for the new academic year.

As a school, we will continue to investigate how we can increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning through mobile technology.  A school-wide Wi-Fi network is being installed over the summer and the iPad pilot will continue.  I have had discussions with Steve Wheeler, University of Plymouth, to look at how we can study the impact iPads are having in the classroom.  We plan to get a formal study underway in September.  The PixelBit app and the vle are central to our future plans to make learning anytime and anywhere.

 

We are very fortunate to have students with the expertise of James and Ben who have been able to support the development of Frog and other areas of ICT use within the school, however I believe that there is a message that other schools can take from this.  I have extended the Frog Champions to include students and we have our own version of the Genius bar for Apple support.  Students are the greatest users of ICT so empowering them to affect its direction of travel is an option open to all.

 

Two key messages from me:

  1. The mobile app has revolutionised the way our vle is used.

Empowering students to play a leading role in developing our vle has enabled it to fly.

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VLE: a worthwhile investment?

I wrote about the value of a VLE prior to joining my present school, DHSB, and I was at that point unsure of its long term value.  Now, just over two years into my new role it is time for me to question the value of the VLE again.  We invested in Frog prior to my arrival; this had involved a significant investment in time and money.  The VLE had two login profiles: students and staff.  Neither group used the VLE extensively, it was primarily used by staff for booking ICT rooms and students studying ICT used it to submit work.

We undertook a major rewrite of the VLE two years ago and created separate sites for parents and governors in addition to the student and staff areas. 

I will discuss what information we have available on each of these areas in a future post.

At Frog’s conference earlier this year I remember Dai Barnes asking a developer about pedagogy and the impact of the VLE upon teaching and learning, that is an area I don’t think we have cracked yet.  Google Apps, in my opinion, does this better.

What it has enabled us to do is take great leaps forwards in our parental engagement.  We invested in the parental portal module which Frog states was “designed to engage parents first and foremost”. 

After some quite significant teething problems with the SIMS extractor (we have SIMS hosted remotely and that seemed to cause no end of problems) parents are now able to login after 6pm and see rewards, sanctions and attendance data for that day.

VLE parent view

I read a great post by Scott on his new blog, where he looked at using Google Apps to create a free vle. We introduced Google Apps this year and I have to agree with many of Scott’s points, however the parental engagement aspect of our VLE means that I’m not ready to call time on Frog anytime yet.

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VLE – I’m still not totally convinced…..

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Now schools are spending vast sums of money on VLEs I keep asking myself, are schools receiving good value for money from their VLE providers?  What is the opportunity cost of this spending?

When I talk to colleagues, both in my own school and others, many of them appear to use the VLE simply as a on-line storage centre.  Given the wide range of outstanding on-line resources it would appear that schools would be better off utilising a range of these.

I have just read another of Doug Belshaw’s outstanding posts on what are the ‘functional specifications’ of a VLE that drive real learning?  He highlights that the VLE could be used for:

Be a collaborative space where students and staff can collaborate on documents and web pages (like Google Apps)

Enable users to have appropriate contact with others within the Academy and the wider community by a range of methods (e.g. Twitter-like microblogging, instant messaging, shared whiteboards, video conferencing,email, social networking)

Promote learning by have clearly structured course elements, rather than be a file repository.

Process appropriate data quickly in a visually-appealing and easy-to-understand way for Academy staff, students, and parents.

Allow students to publish their work to various parties: peers, teachers, the Academy, the world.

Enable outside agencies to access appropriate data on students, staff and Academy issues.

OpenID login so users have a single sign-on and have more control over their digital identity.

Integration with immersive worlds such as Second Life (as, for example Sloodle does)

If this is how a VLE is to be used, perhaps it is time for a rethink.  In September the school I will be joining uses Frog – I shall keep an open mind.

(image by largo! @ Flickr)

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