Friday, 29 June 2007

RSC NW Annual Conference 2007

I've been on the JISC infoNet conference stand today at the RSC NW Annual Conference in Blackpool - a rare chance for me to attend an event in my home town! The theme was Personalised Learning.

There were two keynote speakers and a number of breakout sessions, although I was busy on the exhibition stand whilst the latter sessions took place. The wireless network enabled me to allow delegates to drill down into some of the online resources at JISC infoNet.

A lot of interest in our resources for Planning & Designing Technology-Rich Learning Spaces, our Social Software and e-Portfolio resources, and our more traditional core infoKits such as Project Management and Change Management.

First keynote was by Dr Cheryl A. Jones, an HMI, whose session I think a few of the audience were itching to grade... I'm not a fan of lots of "what" without "how" which is how this presentation came over to me.

"We need to get students to recognise the skills they have," she said, quoting a Jamie Oliver programme where student chefs thought they had no skills at the start of the programme, but who were taught to bake a loaf of bread and went home proud of the achievement.

All very good, but it didn't bring out the skills they had - it described a skill they were taught on the day. I remember a similar conversation I had with Carolynne Cotton, a lecturer now at Blackpool & The Fylde College, but then at Preston who had once had a waiter tell her that he had no skills.

"Do you take orders from diners?" she asked.
"Yes," he replied.
"So you have some skills in answering questions about the menu, listening skills in taking the orders, the skill to note orders down and relate them to the kitchen," she said. "Do you serve the meals?" Again the answer was yes. "So you have organisational skills in remembering who ordered what and in carrying meals in a way that allows you to serve without walking to and fro around the table. Do suggest options for sweets or ask if they want wine?"
"Yes," came the reply, now in a slightly wondering tone.
"Then you have some experience of sales and knowledge of what to suggest..."

I'm sure Carolynne could remember (or recreate) that conversation from several years ago in much more detail. I was spellbound at just how many skills she drew out of that waiter who thought he had none.

There was a nugget from Dr Jones' talk that I heartily agreed with. "The notion of contribution should be introduced to learners at the earliest opportunity with a view to developing individuals who are 'givers' as well as 'takers'," she said.

The second keynote at the end of the day was from Bill Pollard of Cheadle & Marple Sixth Form College. Bill gave an excellent talk, with video of learners relating their experiences of how personalised learning and placing learners in charge of how they learned had made a great impact on those who had been disaffected at school.

"We have operated on a 60/40 basis, where learners have control over 60% of what they will do and how they will do it in a lesson," he said. "This approach is not however popular with Ofsted, who want to see a lesson plan and can't cope with the fact that the learners will write it at the start of a lesson! It can also be rather scary for the lecturer!"

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

AoC NILTA CIS Conference 2007

Monday was probably not the best day to be in Sheffield, but as the rain fell incessantly and floodwaters rose in the city's northern areas, at the Sheffield Park Hotel, we settled in for NILTA's annual CIS Conference.

John Bolt and Pete Ashton from the LSC are always on hand to give the latest news from the funding body and John announced his imminant retirement (at the end of the week). The photograph shows John in 1994, on a stand at the forerunner to the NILTA CIS Conferences - a conference run by the National CMIS Board. At the time he was author of the CovTech System, which was later taken over, eventually becoming part of the Dolphin and Capita empires. His approach and rock steady common sense will be missed I am sure.

Jean McAllister, the Principal of Shipley College and AoC NILTA Vice Chair gave the Principal's view of what was needed from a college information service. "We are building a cosmopolitan UK", she said. "At its best an MIS deepens our understanding of our college. Its essential function is to make sure the organisation is coached to aim for World Class.

"FE (Further Education) at its best promotes diversity. We enable people to perform at their best and therefore enable national goals to be achieved."

Colleges' use of their MIS have come a long way since the early days of the late 1980s. "We need to ensure the final 'S' stands for 'Service' and not for 'System'," Jean continued. "It has to work for the Learner. Learners must know what they have achieved and what is still to be achieved."

Ray Dowd, an ex-Principal of Hopwood Hall College in Rochdale, now acting as an Adviser to the FE Sector, spoke about the MIAP (Managing Information Across Partners) Project.

"We need to make sure we identify who and what information is for," he said, adding that there is a triangle of stakeholders requiring information from colleges; national government, employers and learners themselves. "Between each of the three main stakeholders there are tensions and there is still too much focus of our data on national needs - measuring and monitoring what we are doing, leaving too little time for fulfilling the information needs of employers and learners."

It was time, Ray said, " stop tuning the car and think instead about the passengers. What does data look like from a learner's or an employer's point of view? Data is at the heart of effective leadership."

The FE Sector has to be seen as:

  • strategically responsive

  • high-performing

  • relevant - ie customer-focussed

  • financially viable and

  • effective

"Data is crucial", Ray concluded, "but not just for the plethora of bodies around FE."

Helen Ashton, a Policy Adviser for FE with Becta, gave a talk on Getting the Most from your MIS. She had surveyed a number of colleges looking at MIS and VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments or Learning Platforms) and said she had "...found little money allocated internally by colleges to these functions, but where it had been there were obvious benefits."

The research was carried out as part of the ICT Test Bed Evaluation and results can be seen in full at the ICT Test Bed web site.

As always, the CIS Conference had a choice of small workshops for delegates to choose from. I was involved in running three of them, two on Risk Management and one, with my colleague from JISC infoNet, Andrew Stewart, on the use of Social Software in colleges where we asked delegates to think of the possible uses for collaborative Wikis both internally within their college and externally with partners.

They came up with the following, to which I have added any of our own suggestions that did not come up in the discussions.

Internal Use for Wikis:

  • Team discussions

  • Curriculum planning

  • Training – inc. feedback

  • Links to other resources

  • Cross team projects

  • Cross site projects

  • Technical forum

  • Data Entry Staff forum

  • Admin/Support forum

  • Academic Staff forum

  • As a platform for student work and collaboration

External Use for Wikis
  • Other college partners

  • Consortium projects

  • LSC

  • Surveys

  • Employer/employee

  • Software Suppliers


  • JISC Services

  • Regional User Groups

The weather situation cut the conference short a little as people were understandably anxious to get away early due to the weather, although at that time we had no idea just how bad it was getting in other parts of Sheffield.

Graham Mort, Chair for the conference, announced that the conference would return in June 2008 and that AoC NILTA main annual conference would take place in March 2008, venue to be announced in both cases.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

EEP Discussion Conference on Interoperability

Yesterday I was in London at the Royal Geographical Society for an E.E.P. Discussion Conference: Interoperability of ICT in Education - Will it serve the needs of National Initiatives?

I found it an excellent day, although with a very ambitious scope and the discussion sometimes wandered a little bit off the interoperability topic onto topics that interoperability could help facilitate, but it made for a varied and interesting day.

Inevitably the subject of the proposed Unique Learner Number came up. An identifier to be given to pupils still at school which will follow them through their learning career would be essential if students, colleges, universities etc. were to be able to access their educational records for purposes of verifying qualifications and easing transition between institutions. It would facilitate the enrolment of students, their ability to access college/university IT networks, online learning materials and library systems.

A proof of concept pilot has already been undertaken in Birmingham with data being passed both horizontally, between student record systems and online or virtual learning environments and vertically between institutions and Local Education Authorities and DfES.

The ability to pass data between organisations becomes of great importance when you consider the fact that a student aged 15 may spend two days a week in a school, two days a week in a college and the other day in a working environment at a local firm. Wherever they are they will need access to technology and the learning materials hosted either by the school, the college and maybe elsewhere.

Other topics covered included identity management - it sounds, but isn't quite the same thing. What we are talking about here is the ability of students to use a single user name and password to themselves access many systems, materials or data sets.

The safety of students and pupils online was discussed. The findings of research seem to point towards the fact that the children likely to be most vulnerable through technology are those who are likely to be most vulnerable through personal (non-technological) interaction with others.

The risk averse approaches to new technology were discussed. In France "Happy Slapping" has been criminalised. Assault has always been a criminal act anyway... In Italy the use of mobile phones has been banned in schools. It was argued that such actions fail to recognise social and economic change, the pace of change and the "enormous educational potential of technologies".

I, myself, have been perturbed to see colleges and others using the withdrawal of access to IT technology as a preferred punitive approach to either misbehaviour or to address quality issues. A few examples that have crossed my desk in the past few months:

  • A college has banned access to blogging sites because students were publishing anonymous articles criticising lecturers.
  • A college banned all access to video site YouTube because a student was filmed in an identifiable part of the college, baring his bottom for others to throw darts at...
  • A college banned the use of Microsoft PowerPoint by staff because of the poor quality of some presentations.
  • A college bans students from the IT network for periods of a fortnight for trying to access prohibited types of materials.

Now to my mind all of these smack of either ignoring the real problem or taking the easiest option or both. Let's take them in order:

Blogging is now accepted in many institutions as an excellent way of students being able to set down thoughts and opinions, open to peer review, open to their lecturer's review and with the facility for comments to be made against original articles. The anonymous slagging off of lecturers, peers or anyone is a cowardly or malicious act and the college should probably use the opportunity to highlight this. The college should also be questioning whether their lecturers are falling short and why students feel unable to raise this through normal channels.

Lots of educational content is now appearing on YouTube and the case given above cries out for disciplinary action against individuals and/or closer policing by staff of the social area (a bar staffed by college employees) in which the incident took place, rather than a blanket ban of a potentially useful (though bandwidth-challenging!) web site.

The banning of PowerPoint is almost unbelievable. I wonder if the same college banned use of Overhead Transparencies in the days before computers took over, because a lot of the use of OHPs in those days was abysmal. One of my bug-bears is the phrase "Death by PowerPoint". There's no such thing. We take the easy route of ignoring bad presentation skills, blaming it on the software because that way we don't "upset anyone". This example cries out for staff development on presentation skills and there isn't an educational organisation (or any other organisation for that matter) that couldn't benefit from some of that. I was at a conference in Wales the other week when a presenter turned his back on the audience to read from the screen... That is not the fault of Microsoft's software.

And lastly - a real life conversation between a student and myself...
"Sir, Sir - I've been banned from the Network, Sir!" (this with a huge grin)
"Really? Why is that?"
"I was looking at porn Sir!"
"Well you shouldn't be doing that on college computers should you?"
"No Sir."
"So how are you going to do your work now? Do you have to work on the network with a member of staff with you?"
"No, I've been using my mate's password..."

Moral of the stories - IT staff are not there to carry out discipline of students or staff.

The best reason for allowing and encouraging students to use blogs that I have ever heard came from speaker Josie Fraser of Childnet. I know we were encouraged at the start of the conference to report without attributing but this deserves the credit. She said, "I would much rather employ a plumber whose blog is full of comments from satisfied customers than I would a complete unknown from Yellow Pages."

The EEP is the European Education Partnership.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Project Management Workshop

I was at the University of Hertfordshire one day last week, delivering a Project Management workshop for some of the university's administrative staff. A familiar face walked in the room and was a touch surprised to hear me recount meeting him 20 years ago on a BTEC Higher in Public Administration at what was then Preston Polytechnic! Obviously he must have made a bigger impression on me than I did on him! :-)

Feedback was good - we have a 3-point scoring system so it's either "poor", "satisfactory", or "excellent" and of 90 possible marks I got 74 "excellent" plus 16 "satisfactory".

Some individual comments under the headings on our feedback form:

Organisation of workshop - order, pace, time spent on each topic
"Felt a bit rushed - a lot to take in"

Appropriateness of content - tailoring of session to audience
"Very good fit to our requirements"

Presentation - style, use of visual aids
"Excellent presentation, made the subject very interesting"
"Lively, funny, and very useful"
"Excellent presentation"
"Very good"

Activities - interactive elements of the workshop
"Liked the small group work"

Additional comments
"Lively, great examples and illustrations. Many thanks"
"Very useful as had an HE (Higher Education) flavour"
"At times felt like a hard sell of infoKits" (our free online resources)
"Good overview of Project Management, good to point to the website for more in-depth stuff"
"John's style, subject knowledge and delivery was excellent"

Many thanks to the delegates for so many comments - one of my colleagues from another organisation was talking to me about feedback sheets the other day and said "Isn't it strange how you can knock yourself out putting on a good workshop and all the comments are about the food or how hot or cold it was...!" I think the University of Hertfordshire staff gave the lie to that one then!


Welcome to John Burke's Education Project. So called because it's a project that will never end, there's always something to learn and increasingly in new ways.

I've worked in Post-16 Education since 1985, in both Further Education and Higher Education. I currently work as a Senior Adviser with JISC infoNet, one of JISC's Advisory Services.

My background is in Information Systems, mainly Student Records systems, and I am currently involved in writing materials and running workshops for JISC infoNet in Project Management, Risk Management, Change Management, Process Review and other related topics.

I have an interest in all things e-Learning related and in the use of technology in education and learning.

That's me - the door is open to dialogue!