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.

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