Cleveratom (2006-2011)’s Hal MacLean talking about schools of the future…

Great to see our own Hal MacLean published in 21 Century Schools….

Cleveratom (2006-2011) continue to consult in the Building Schools for the Future Programme. Hal travels the length and width of the UK to talk effective learning space design (both virtual and physical).

Here is what Hal had to say in his four page article:

Virtually Building Schools of the Future

Building a new school is a major undertaking. Building a new virtual learning environment is no less demanding and requires a clear understanding of the processes involved. It’s as much about change management as anything else, of course, but without a vision for online learning then it will be more of a struggle to get right.


It’s unlikely that you have missed the initiative completely, but to quote from Becta’s website:

  • by spring 2008 every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio (provided by their local authority)
  • by 2010 every school should have integrated learning and management systems (a comprehensive suite of learning platform technologies).

In response to this Cleveratom (2006-2011) were commissioned by the Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning Foundation to investigate the approaches schools were taking and the lessons they have learned along the way. The approach we took was to create a series of case studies and video evidence to illustrate the processes that had been started, and published these in a book and DVD called ‘Virtually There: Learning Platforms’. The overwhelming message from the work was that there is little in the way of a co-ordinated approach to this between schools, and vastly different levels of understanding existed about the benefits of using online tools for learning.

That isn’t to say that the schools we visited were doing anything inherently wrong or were confused about what they were doing. The ones we visited have been on the road to implementing their platforms for several years, and are in fact pathfinders in their own right, but for each that we visited there are many that are not even on the journey yet.

To try to set this in context a little we need to go back a few years and examine the major influences in online learning within the UK education system. Two massive and unique examples spring immediately to mind amongst many that have come and gone over time.

In the late 1990’s, the Tesco Schoolnet 2000 project (TSN2K) became the largest online repository of children’s work ever created. By encouraging children to add their work from within supermarkets around the UK as well as from school and home, the collection grew massively in a very short space of time. Amongst other things it demonstrated that people want to share their work and will do so willingly if there is a strong purpose and the right conditions are available. The current information for this project, which is continuing to evolve, can be found at the website:

About the same time as the TSN2K project officially ended, the start of another major piece of research began. The creation of the National College for School Leaders (NCSL) needed to include a ‘virtual’ arm. Leveraging the power of Oracle’s ‘’ software (another excellent innovation and example of online learning tools vastly ahead of their time), the ‘Talking Heads’ online community was created to help reduce the isolation felt amongst newly appointed school leaders.

The space was a collection of online communities hosting a range of different discussions and projects using vastly superior tools to any online web forum. The overriding impression is that these spaces were light years ahead of anything else in the UK even remotely associated with online learning. The outcomes from the original research are available from NCSL in a publication called ’70,000 heads’.

Since these two landmark projects there has been a massive increase in the proliferation of social software – blogs, wikis, personal spaces and places such as YouTube, Flickr and MySpace where users can generate and share content and comment upon it. Suddenly, sharing thoughts and resources became ‘cool’ and these spaces have become the place to put your thoughts, images, reactions to events, videos and all manner of responses to things happening in your life. The spaces are free from being institutionalised or closed off to all but the select few and their existence in such numbers indicates the levels of demand. There is little doubt that online tools for collaboration and discussion are being embraced all over the world in an anarchic way that is exciting and exhilarating to watch.

If only a learning platform could capture some of that!

Learning is not, and never has been static. We now understand more about learning than we have ever done before and should be moving towards embracing the personal side of learning more and more. However, given the shortlist of software suppliers that schools are being encouraged to select a solution from, learning platforms are already appearing to be suffering from institutionalism. The social software sites fit nicely within the realms of social constructivist learning, and the visible trends in learning only strengthen the need to embrace these spaces in schools. The learning platforms we are seeing being introduced are seeking to control and formalise the spaces they create, many of which are an attempt to replicate the face to face learning but little else.

Surely, if there’s one thing we have learned from TSN2K, Talking Heads and the range of different social spaces being used across the world it’s that having the tools available to enable the user to appropriate the space, and having the flexibility to be creative, is essential. Simply recreating spaces in an all encompassing piece of software will not necessarily encourage the users to contribute. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the learning platform will be engaging and vibrant, but absolutely certain that it will need a lot of managing, updating and financing year on year.

If possible, schools need to harness the power of the spaces that children are already using and appropriating for themselves. Whilst it is unrealistic to expect learning activities to be created online in YouTube, the technology to embed the YouTube clip in another web site already exists. Equally, aggregating text from other websites and keeping track of useful resources are also already possible using tools like RSS and Furl. Making use of existing technologies like this would enable a pretty vibrant learning environment to be created at minimum cost.

A side effect could be a stronger sense of purpose for the spaces that children are already very familiar with and schools could then be much more creative with the online learning activities since almost all of the sites quoted make use of the exciting ‘Web 2.0’ technologies already. Not many suppliers are able to say that their platforms are already able to do the same.

The main criticism of this thinking revolves around one of two themes. Either there is no suitable way to protect identities and ensure safety, or that with such tools being used there is no way to adequately assess work and keep track of the assessments made. What this appears to come down to is the belief that everything needs to be in one place in order to keep track. It’s a very old-fashioned ‘teacher-centric’ and isn’t a very imaginative argument when the same technologies for pulling together all of the children’s pieces of work could be used to pull together the assessments as well. What is required then is a standards based tool to collect together the information that is held in different places around the web. This is a very different beast to any of the learning platforms being touted as having ‘passed muster’. It requires a little imagination to see it, but essentially a combination of a cleverly crafted online environments set up on a server which the school controls (or the local authority if you wish to go along that road) could pull together all of the different pieces from the mass of user based participatory or socially driven sites on the internet. Each child or learner could choose the exact software platform to suit their preferred learning style. It could be that one person uses ‘Wordpress’ and another ‘Drupal’, whilst yet others will use ‘MySpace’ or ‘Blogger’. It simply wouldn’t matter as the important parts can be collected together using the power of RSS feeds.

Podcasting could be included in an instant both for teachers delivering particular aspects of a lesson or for children offering a viva on their work. Peer review would become a normal activity. Group collaboration could exist with dynamic and exciting creative projects making use of innovative spaces. Users could select the place they wish to work, and all that would be needed is a simple feed back to the central server where it gets collected together.

An added bonus would be that the data storage for things like video files is handled by the service provider and not taking up valuable space on a school server or in local authority data centre. It will all be stored on a plethora of different servers, all of which probably provide far superior back up routines to many school-based networks. There is a huge potentially saving at school level to be had.

Another thorny issue would also be solved. When a child moves from school to school there is no need to repackage their work and send it on, they simply re-point the feeds at the new school. File compatibility issues would be a thing of the past. In fact, since the work could be created online using things like Google Spreadsheets and documents as well as directly typing into web pages, much of the common software used in schools and costing thousands of pounds would also not be needed.

We haven’t even begun to discuss why mobile phones no longer need to be banned, and how schools can start to leverage the incredibly sophisticated technologies they offer, or why they will be the new ‘laptop’ computer of the very near future. Keep an eye on the horizon as there are untold possibilities and endless opportunities to support, extend, engage facilitate and enthuse your learners. We only have to lift our heads above the digital parapet and take a good long look.

Hal can be reached by phone on 0845 868 9020

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