The annual conference of ‘Frog’, suppliers of the market-leading learning platform of that name, and BETT 2013 ICT Company of the Year, is always good value. This year for example, they chose to grasp a familiar nettle by rather cheekily putting on, towards the end, a panel discussion called, ‘Is the traditional learning platform dead?’
Well, is it? Are Frog’s 10,000 schools and 12 million users world wide all backing the wrong horse? Watch this space, for we’ll return to that question later. And if you need a clue, then hold on to the qualifying word ‘traditional’.
Meanwhile, back to the start of the conference, which featured four keynote presentations.
The tone was set by Frog’s Managing Director Gareth Davies, who zipped through the impressive features of the latest ‘Frog OS’. Elizabeth Lopez, Head of Transformation Management at Frogasia showed some of the work being done in Malaysia, where Frog is the VLE of choice for all 10,000 schools, and Mark Chambers, CEO of NAACE gave a rundown their current projects and research including the influential ‘Third Millennium Schools’ project.
If there was a common theme to these presentations it was that of ‘teaching and learning comes first, ahead of technology’ – wonderfully exemplified by the ‘Third Millenium’ schools. It was most cogently emphasised, though, in the second of the four keynote presentations which was by Alistair Smith, Frog’s Education Director.
Alistair is a master of the art of drawing analogies and illustrations, and, having taken us all (well some of us) on a trip down memory lane to Tony Hart’s ‘Vision On’ (BBC TV 1964 – 1977) he made a leap to the concept of CFIT (‘Controlled Flight Into Terrain’) which is when an aircraft flies into the ground because the flight deck crew are focussed on a detailed issue of instrumentation rather than on the basic task of flying the aeroplane. (There are some scary examples if you look for them by the way.)
‘They lose the big picture,’ says Alistair. ‘And my job with Frog is to make sure we do not lose the big picture. And the big picture is to do with learning. There is a world of difference between anytime anywhere doing, and anytime anywhere learning’.
What’s striking, of course, is that what Alistair says is a like-for-like echo of Microsoft Education’s own and oft-repeated ‘learning first’ global philosophy.
After the keynotes, I made sure not to miss Microsoft’s Education Partner Lead Mark Stewart, and Partners in Learning Network Manager Mandeep Atwal running a workshop on ‘Innovative Teaching and Learning with BYOD’.
Mark based his part of the workshop on Ollie Bray’s Microsoft e book on BYOD, which takes as a theme Stephen Heppell’s quoted belief that,‘Every turned off device is a turned off child.’
What’s really powerful about Ollie’s e book, and Mark’s presentation, is not so much that it provides easy answers, but that it clarifies the key questions around choice of device, funding, school policies, security, infrastructure and, of course (with Controlled Flight into Terrain in mind) the central issue of innovative teaching and learning.
On funding, for example, Mark made the point that although the policy might be called ‘Bring your own…’ not every student will be able to bring anything suitable. If there is to be inclusion, then devices have to be purchased, which implies choice, and price. At this point Mark asked who’d heard of ‘Shape the Future’. Few, if any, had, which Mark found disappointing, and he spent some time explaining the scheme and showing some of the supplier websites.
Mark also emphasised the importance of bringing parents on-side, and ensuring student support.
Most importantly of all perhaps, and quoting Ollie Bray again,
‘If the teaching and learning environment doesn’t change after you’ve implemented the BYOD strategy, you really haven’t grasped the opportunities offered by one-to-one learning.’
To which Mark added the need for teacher CPD because, ‘It’s a cultural change, it’s new skills, asking for a really different philosophy within the school. And at the same time IT needs to be alongside the teaching community – it’s no longer acceptable for them to be in the back office.’
Mark finished by briefly explaining the Partners in Learning network – there were several PiL members in the room.
Mandeep then took the floor to explain, based on her own teaching experience, that BYOD makes for personalised, one-to-one learning. Add in the suite of technologies available with Office 365, and there’s the potential for a real change across four areas -- assessment for learning, teaching and learning day to day, flipped learning and 21st Century learning.
Mandeep’s presentation was a mine of information on what’s available for teachers – Office 365, the Partners in Learning Network, the Microsoft Innovative Expert Educator scheme. And, as she emphasised, most importantly, ‘Everything I’ve told you about here is free of charge.’
So how did the audience – divided roughly equally between teachers and IT staff – take what was offered?
They were actually very quiet, offering little in the way of reaction. It’s clear, though, that they were there to learn. A very few had implemented BYOD already. Slightly more were planning it, the vast majority were thinking about it, none at all had rejected it on principle. All were interested in the presentation. Typical of the seekers after information was Donna Hay, head of ICT at Abbeywood Community School in Filton, Bristol. I collared Donna on her way out of Mark and Mandeep’s workshop to ask where her school was with BYOD.
‘We’re looking at moving to BYOD,’ said Donna, ‘Looking at all the issues mention in the workshop – choice of device, appropriate use. We’re thinking of having student digital leaders, and ways of convincing staff.’
I’d guess a lot of schools are in exactly that position – making plans, moving cautiously, keeping people on board. And as Mandeep points out, there’s so much available to help, and networks such as PiL and MIEE to assure teachers and leaders that they aren’t alone on the journey.
Mark’s point about the need for partnership between IT professionals and teachers is well made, too. It’s very noticeable that schools which are leading the way in terms of learning which is effectively supported by technology have brought their IT leaders into real partnership with the leaders of learning. As the consumerisation of IT proceeds, and BYOD changes the dynamics of IT provision in a school, it will cease to be viable for the IT team to be a separate kingdom working to its own agenda.
After the workshop, I spent some time at Microsoft’s stand, just watching and listening. It attracted lots of visitors. Many were interested in Office 365 Education, pleasantly surprised that it’s free to schools. Some wanted to look the ‘Surface’ device, discussing the merits of the ‘type’ and ‘touch’ keyboards.
Finally, though, what about that self questioning session I mentioned at the start -- ‘Is the traditional learning platform dead?’
Quite bold, you might think, given that the latest ‘Frog OS’ is claimed to be ‘The UK’s most advanced learning platform’.
It’s a valid question, though, that confronts head-on all those people who speak of disillusionment with their learning platforms. Often they’ve tried two or more, and now have one sitting there almost unused. The discussion, chaired by Mark Chambers of NAACE, featured Dai Barnes, head of ICT at St Benedict’s School, London, Gareth Davies, FrogTrade MD and founder, and Microsoft’s Mark Stewart. And what were the conclusions? As you’d expect, to paraphrase Mark Twain, they generally agreed that, ‘Rumours of their demise are greatly exaggerated.’
Except that maybe the key lies in the word ‘traditional’, because the continuing success of the Frog learning platform is that it’s committed to increasingly leaving behind the concept of the ‘do everything’ VLE. The focus – emphasised both by the work and influence of Alistair Smith and the personal commitment of founder and managing director Gareth Davies – is increasingly on supporting classroom learning. Technologies, where appropriate, can be provided by partners. Hence, as just one example, the integration with Frog of Microsoft’s Live at Edu mail, to be overtaken over the Summer by full, single sign-on integration with Office 365. Gareth put it like this,
‘What defines Frog is that hub which brings everything together. There’s lots of tools out there for education and people should be allowed to use them, while we should be focussed on the educational side of things, on teachers innovating in the classroom.’
Mark Stewart endorsed that and referred to Shireland Academy in Sandwell where a richly resourced learning platform serves a highly innovatory learning culture.
The concept of BYOD and flipped learning, and learning at your own pace, using the power of the device means integrating the right resources.’
The ‘hub’ concept was in the mind of Dai Barnes, too.
‘It’s important that a learning platform is flexible and light, and offers core functionality in a reliable and stable way. Once you have that, teachers and students will do the rest. ‘
The conclusion that seemed to emerge was that yes, there is a place for a learning platform (Frog’s international success testifies to that) but it cannot and should not try to do everything. Instead it has to be a learning focussed hub that offers a convenient single sign-on link to other supportive technologies.
Video and slideshares of the Frog13 Presentations and Workshops including the numerous useful sessions not mentioned here, are currently available at http://www.frogtrade.com/index.phtml?d=2548726