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Category Archives: School Management Systems

A First Look at Microsoft Teams for Education

I have to declare my bias up-front. My favourite Learning Management System is Moodle. I love the functionality of Moodle. However, most of the teachers in my school have gone for Google Classroom and I have gone along with that. What Google Classroom lacks in functionality it makes up for in simplicity. I am currently testing Microsoft’s answer, Teams for Education, which our Network Admins are punting, and I have to say I am somewhat torn. This may seem trivial, but my first reservation lies with the name of the platform, Teams. Had it been called Microsoft Classroom, for example, one would have had a sense that the platform was custom-built for educational purposes, rather than being a business tool adapted for use in the educational sphere. My fear was that it would prove a poorly adapted tool at that. A first glance at the interface did not inspire confidence either. Nothing about its look and feel suggests either ease of use or educational functionality. And yet persistence is rewarded by a sense of hidden power, something generally lacking in Google’s offering.

It is surprisingly easy to create a new Team (Class) or collaborative space. Let’s say you are creating a space for a class. You can add other teachers and students to the classroom easily by clicking on a button to add members. You can change settings and permissions in the general channel, and add other channels for different topics or purposes. Each channel comes with a OneNote Notebook which allows for the insertion of multimedia content, and gives each student their own notebook space. The power of OneNote is truly awesome and alone makes Teams a serious contender in the educational space.

You can also add other apps to the channel such as Quizlet or Flipgrid and any kind of file can be shared. This seamless integration of multimedia content and educational apps immediately catapults it ahead of Google Classroom’s functionality and puts it within spitting distance of Moodle! Assignments can be added and graded online too. Markbooks can be downloaded in CSV format.

Now, I have to say that I have not to date set up a real classroom for a real class with real content and assignments. Only once you do this will you get a sense as a teacher of how the platform meets your needs, and the extent to which students find it easy to use. But first impressions are somewhat promising. Teams for Education clearly has functionality, but it is also somewhat clunky and anti-intuitive. I will have to reserve final judgement until I have been able to use it as a platform in the wild!

 

 

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Big Data in Education – Big Brother!

The recent shenanigans surrounding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook reveals reasons why we should be very wary of Big Data in education. The argument is often advanced that computerization of the classroom will allow for the collection of large amounts of data on a student’s progress and for increased personalization and more effective pedagogical approaches to be adopted. Teachers are limited and when asked to teach large classes especially, are often unable to give the kind of individual attention we would like. This idea harks back to the teaching machines beloved of Behaviourist psychology and the dream that programmed learning paths could be built into instructional design in such a way as to deliver the right content at the right time for each individual, making learning much more efficient. I have two problems with this notion. Firstly it ignores the crucial understanding of learning as a social construct, reducing it to a solitary interaction between student and teacher (machine). And secondly it dovetails so neatly with the great push for Taylorist efficiency and the erosion of privacy as to raise alarm bells around our civil liberties. If they can gather so much data about us when we are young and in school, how on earth will they use it later when a student has graduated? Will that data be destroyed or sold on for profit? Will the data belong to the student, the school or the educational publishers producing the software?

At the risk of sounding like a Conspiracy Theorist, I do believe that it is incumbant on us as teachers to do everything in our power to protect the data of our students, especially such sensitive data as intimate knowledge of learning patterns and behaviours! If I know how you learn, I have great insight into how to control your behaviour, what shoes you will buy, or how you will vote!

As important as this point is, I do not want to dwell on it. Learning is not individual, It is social, as Vygotsky pointed out. We learn first socially and then internalize that knowledge individually. The distance between the two, Vygotsky termed the Proximal Zone of Development. We need more experienced others to show us not only how to do things or to pass on knowledge, but also to show us what is knowable. What we believe it is desirable to know is also socially constructed. I learn to do things first with the help, guidance and instruction of others, and then, after a while, am able to do it myself. Can machines fulfil the role of the more experienced other? In some ways, yes. Pressey’s testing machines from the 1920s or Skinner’s teaching machines from the 1950s demonstrated that programmed learning could be used with some degree of success. However, these machines, and the computer programs that replaced them have not been dubbed drill and kill for nothing! While there is some research evidence that they were successful for weaker students, their interface and relentless diet of machine delivered question and answer killed all motivation and they lost favour as the fortunes of Behaviourism waned.

As Constructivist learning theories gained traction, learning machines were ditched in favour of new theories about how machines could be used in the classroom. Seymour Papert’s influential Constructionism and approaches such as Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow came into vogue. Computers were to be used by students to author content and as tools for active learning. But beyond this, with the advent of the Internet, computers came to be seen as above all else tools for communication and collaboration, well suited for affording contact between students. Google docs, with its capacity to allow multiple users to author a single document simultaneously unlocked the power of collaboration. Skype could bring other students from across the globe into a classroom, or allow videos to be exchanged across continents. These are hugely engaging uses, and if used properly, can have enormous educational benefits. But they depend on being almost invisible. When you are collaborating in a Google hangout or a Google doc you are not concerned about the technology, you are engaging with other people’s minds! Learning is social, meaning we learn by, with and from others.

The notion of the computer as a device that could track student progress and provide just the right input and feedback at just the right time never quite went away, however, and the growing capacity of computers to do this has led to a resurgence in the belief in personalized teaching machines. Many platforms allow student progress to be tracked and content unlocked depending on progress. Khan Academy, for example has such an interface, and programs such as MyMaths allow teachers to track progress on a dashboard. While this may seem innocuous and indeed beneficial, the drill and kill effect is often cited by students who resist, or try to subvert such programs when they are used in the classroom. These programs are sold in the name of personalization and with a Big Data tagline. The technology may improve, but at the moment these uses of technology are viewed by students as boring and alienating.

And if the technology improves, the Conspiracy Theorist in me starts to be afraid, really afraid!

 

School Management Systems – Looking For Nessie

The other day I blogged about School Management Systems, and why we love to hate them. Today I would like to look at the change management side of transferring from one system to another. Any change is threatening to staff: there is a double threat of increased workload, or of redundancy! This can lead to resistance. A new SMS can therefore loom large in the imagination as a shadowy threat that might or might not exist, a Loch Ness Monster of a thing! On the one hand it is seductive, but a vague sense of menace is never far from the mind.

But of course Nessie does not exist, and like a bad dream disappears as your gaze dispels the shadows! From the ra-ra-ra of the sales pitch, eventually comes the training. I must say that I have really enjoyed the training with Engage. I don’t usually plug proprietary products, but I will make this exception because it is germane to the discussion that follows. What sold me on the platform was its combination of ease of use and sense of enormous potential. This is an unusual combination. If you’ve read my thoughts on Moodle, a powerful Learning Management System often lambasted for being hard for teachers to learn, you will know that I believe that ultimately it is the power under the hood that gives a platform its traction. My hope for Moodle is that once teachers have got used to the idea of an LMS like Google Classroom, which is easy to use, but lacks functionality, they will slowly graduate to Moodle! With Engage I don’t believe this is a problem as it combines a very user-friendly interface with huge functionality.

Educational Technology and change are hot topics,but the relationship is often assumed to be unproblematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. By educational technology I mean hardware such as computers, tablets, paper, books and school buildings as well as software such as Moodle, PowerPoint or Excel. But I also mean processes. Crop Rotation is a technology, and pedagogy itself can be seen as educational technology.

A useful way of looking at how educational technology impacts upon process and decision-making, is to see them as either relatively hard or soft. Hard here means that it strongly determines the form processes take, while Soft indicates that processes are relatively weakly determined. For example the size of a school building strongly determines what kinds of activities can be conducted inside it. If a school hall can seat a hundred, but there are five hundred children in the school, full school assemblies are not able to be held in the Hall, but would have to be held on the Field, which can accommodate many more. Things like school buildings are not easy to change. Sometimes people try to do so by adding temporary partitions and the like, but generally speaking buildings, once erected tend to make other activities conform to them rather than the other way round.

Human beings, on the other hand, are far more adaptable. We probably owe the existence of our species to this. We are able to make changes quickly and effectively. When there is a time-table clash, for example, teachers are even able to be in two places at the same time, as anyone who has ever taught one class, and looked after a colleague’s next door, can attest. Pedagogy is thus a soft technology. Teachers will often change teaching method in mid sentence if they see that an approach is not working.

School Management Systems are relatively hard technologies in that they often determine a work-flow process or what decisions are possible. For example on a web-based form a required field might block an online application if the applicant cannot supply a value. The more flexible, therefore, the better. It is not ideal that decisions are driven by factors other than ensuring optimum efficiency. The core business of any school is education, and all activities should be subservient to that. Since logically pedagogy is the technology with the greatest effect on learning, all technologies within a school should be softer than pedagogy,

This is seldom the case. A Constructivist teacher timetabled to teach in a lecture theatre will find it hard to conduct student-centred lessons, and is much more likely to revert to Instructivist methodologies in response. This is one of the great contradictions of schooling over which even administrators have little control. Making sure that you are using the softest, ie. the most flexible School Management System is therefore crucial.

The quest for a soft SMS may well be chimerical, but should be undertaken nonetheless.

What sold me on Engage was thus a sense that it was far more flexible in its features than other SMSs, certainly than the one we are currently using, and that it has the power to conform to best educational practices rather than determine them. Much like Nessie this is a mythical beast many hope to find, and is well worth the quest!

 

School Management Systems – A Necessary Evil?

Nobody loves their School Management System. It can never do everything you need it to do, and over time the things that get in the way of being more efficient somehow seem to get larger, and what you liked about the system begins to shrink in comparison. You begin to curse its name whenever a report prints with a sudden and random font face change, when not all the names in a class list pop up on your screen, or when random students are added to the netball team for no apparent reason!

img_20160927_115307So it was with some trepidation that I set out to attend a one day user group conference for our new School Management System, Engage. There’s nothing I like less than product sell presentations, so the prospect of a whole day of ra-ra-ra filled me with dread.

By School Management System (SMS) I do not mean a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Moodle or Google Classroom, although some SMSs include an LMS component. An LMS deals with classroom management, facilitating the storage of learning materials, assignment submission and online grading, discussion and feedback. School Management Systems, on the other hand deal with school management, attendance, administration, fees, asset control, reporting and so on. Not everyone makes this distinction, but I think it is important to differentiate between the two functions, even when they come in the same package.

Both are vital in the 21st Century school.There are still teachers who use paper grade books or hand-write their lesson plans, but increasingly one of the great benefits of using technology is to free teachers from some of the drudge of recreating learning materials. I remember when cyclostyled worksheets were the order of the day. Each year they had to be re-created. A computer allows materials that work to be edited rather than endlessly re-typed, allowing energy to go into creating new materials. Technology has also allowed text only resources to become more multi-media and interactive. One of the huge advantages of a good LMS is the ability to store these resources online within learning plans that can be edited and good to go in a much shorter time.

Similarly the advent of the SMS has revolutionized school administration. This is not something that I think about very often. As a teacher I have a very hazy notion of what goes on inside the school office. I know they answer phones a lot, and send messages out about how so-and-so will be late because their puppy died, and provide us with class lists and newsletters and stuff. But teachers are either in their classrooms teaching or whinging in the staff room, and seldom question the amount of school administration that supports work at the chalk-face.

This year I was asked to give up some of my classroom duties to become the systems administrator for our new SMS. I have suddenly had to learn a great deal about school admin as a whole, and hence the conference. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is the level of support that the SMS provider offers. Support tickets that go unanswered are the last thing you want, and a good Help Desk is worth any number of features. The main reason we decided to switch SMS was in fact the lack of support. This is not to say that the features offered by an SMS are not important. Of course it is. Much of the Engage User Conference dealt in fact with new features, some specifically developed for South Africa.

For many schools different software packages have been cobbled together to do different tasks. A School Management System really needs to be a one stop shop, integrating different features within the school. A prime requirement is to find a system which can replace different applications as seamlessly as possible. However, it also needs to be user-friendly so that even the most Luddite teacher can use it. It should be secure, and meet privacy requirements. This is a tall order, and might explain why levels of satisfaction with an SMS often fall after the honeymoon starts to wear off.

Engage manages to be both a user-friendly and a feature rich package which includes Accounts, Fees, Administration and Learning Management Systems. In presentations which whip through everything any software has to offer I have to admit to a certain inattention. It is all a bit bewildering. At this Conference we have a software developer from the UK skyping us on the big screen walking us through using the gradebook. What strikes me the most is the necessity of great flexibility to suit every school’s way of doing things. Schools are such wonderfully idiosyncratic places! In discussions over lunch we talk about the timetabling module. Each school has a different set of criteria. I feel for the software developers, having to try to satisfy so many different needs.

I am crucially aware of what awaits me trying to sell the changes to my staff, who are used to doing things on other systems. I have a feeling I will have my work cut out for me.

 
 
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