Entries in hack day (4)


Improving Digital Education

On June 23rd 2010 Osmosoft hosted a workshop at the Osmoplex where we brought together a group of school pupils and their teachers.  The purpose of the workshop was to try and tackle the problem faced in many schools where the IT knowledge of the pupils often exceeds that of their teachers.
Our approach for the day was to first try to understand the root causes to the problem, and then splitting into small groups each come up with a proposal, and where applicable a prototype, to demonstrate a potential solution.
The level of knowledge in the room was of varying nature.  On the side of the pupils it ranged from someone who was confident hacking their way around XHTML, CSS, and PHP through to others who were comfortable with the basics of using a computer.  The teachers in the room ranged someone who taught ICT to someone who was happy to admit that technology baffled them.  On the Osmosoft side our gaps in knowledge were around understanding the education syllabus as well as infrastructure & processes currently in place within schools.   
What's the problem?
The day started with a roundtable session with particular focus on listening to what the pupils had to say.  I have admit that I had an initial concern that this discussion would be dominated by the adults in the room, but expert facilitation by Jeremy Ruston and a willingness from the teachers to hear-it-like-it-is [for which they should be applauded] led to some frank and open discussions.
One of the key issues that surfaced early on in the discussion was ''slow network connectivity'' - this caused by a combination of poor bandwidth coming into the schools as well as heavily locked down and constantly policed computer builds restricting any optimisation for performance.  From switching on a computer to being logged into the schools network was typically a 25minute wait [now, where have I seen this before?] - not great when you're in a 50minute lesson.
"School computers are too slow and locked down. If I need to find something out I just whip out my Blackberry"
The ''availability of home computers and internet'' was also raised, and although all the pupils attending the workshop had access to home computers - and better access than they have in school -there were a handful of their peers who weren't so fortunate.  For them it meant that completing homework, which in many cases was mandatory to be done on a PC, had to be complete in school after classes had finished.
Something that I was rather expecting, although shocked to the extent, was the ''filtering of websites'' allowed to be accessed via the school network.  Valuable sources of information such as Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube are all blocked.  And just recently one of the schools reported that Google search had also been added to the blocked list!  On this point the teachers commented that many of the pupils were well enough versed in the creation of proxies [and other things which baffled me] to work their way around the firewall - although the most common catalyst for this was to access Facebook and other social networking sites.
Something that I found particularly encouraging was that a number of pupils recognised the value to be gained in having access to information from across the blocked sites and rather than hacking their way around the school network, or simply waiting until they returned home there was a growing trend of pupils bringing in netbooks and accessing the internet via 3G.  And whilst it'd be a stretch to say the teachers actively encouraged this it did appear that it wasn't being discouraged.
On discussing the content of ICT lessons this is where we got to some of the core, and seemingly most easily addressable problems.  There was a general consensus that ''ICT lessons were boring and repetitive''.  Lessons were often scripted from worksheets and focused on learning how to use basic functionality of applications rather than applying the application to achieve something cool.  There was a feeling that the lesson plans all too often catered for the lowest level of understanding, which unfortunately in many cases was the understanding of the class teacher.  Of the teachers in the room they freely admitted that they struggle keeping up to date with the latest technology and their lessons are written by 'oldies' [their choice of word and not mine] based on their understanding from 2, 3, 5 years ago.  Not exactly cutting edge.
"ICT is all about using Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, Spreadsheets. Over and over again. Boring!"
''Compatibility between applications used in school and applications used at home'' was a major problem for most students.  The school syllabus is predominantly built around Microsoft Office applications - even to the extent of using Powerpoint to build websites! But with expensive license costs most of the pupils opted to use open source equivalents at home.  When bringing homework back into school there were frequent compatibility issues.
"We were asked to design a website and we were told to use Powerpoint.  I tried to handcode the website using HTML and my ICT teacher told me I had to use Powerpoint!"
As we went through the discussion it became apparent that many of the issues faced in ICT education weren't too dissimilar to those faced within the enterprise.  
The breakout sessions
After the roundtable we split into three teams.  My team consisted of two pupils, Vicky and Becky; an assistant Head Teacher, Jonathan; and fellow Osmosoftonians Martin and Simon.
As a group we explored some of the problems raised during the roundtable and started to play around with some idea's about what a good ICT lesson might consist of.  There were certain themes that were prominent in both Vicky and Becky's minds, especially when it came to sharing and collaborative working. When asked to pull together a wish list for what they'd like to see fixed the following came out as top priorities:
  • Better compatibility between tools used at home and those in the school
  • Increased network speed with better reliability
  • Access to modern software
  • Access social networking sites to help collaboration
  • Online schedules which are easier to be kept up to date
  • A list of trusted resources that can be used for research
  • An archive of achievements and qualifications gained throughout time at the school 
Aside from perhaps network speed and reliability all of these priorities could seemingly be addressed via the web and it was at this point we began discussing what a potential solution might look like.
What we ended up sketching on paper was a scaled down version of Facebook for the school - kind of back to where it started from then!  The idea being that the following functionality would be available; 
  • An interactive website that could be accessed both at home and in the classroom
  • A place to allow chat with classmates whilst in school and friends outside of school whilst at home
  • Video chat to ensure the person you are talking with is really who they say they are
  • An online diary containing details of school activities such as study groups and social events
  • A place to create and edit and share documents online
  • A list of trusted resources to help with research whilst at home
  • A place to capture any achievements and qualifications which can be added to my CV when I leave school
The idea was that the platform could provide functionality across the internet so that the same toolset was available in and out of school.  Certain functionality would be restricted when the site was accessed via the school network - for example the chat functionality might only be available outside of class times.
Based upon the sketches produced Simon and Martin hacked together a quick prototype to demonstrate how the site my look, whilst Vicky, Becky and I pulled together the notes for the end of day presentations... 
The presentations
The day ended with the pupils presenting their proposed solution back to the rest of the group - a daunting task for most people, but by this point in the day there was a great sense of camaraderie amongst the room and everyone handled the task extremely well.
Each of the solutions followed a slightly different theme but all addressed key problems.  It is worth pointing out the prototypes were the result of around an hour or two's hacking.
First up were Sam and Marley with DUCK, Dynamic Understanding Communications Konnections which provided a way of getting the syllabus onto the web in such a way that pupils and teachers could view the syllabus and explore the topics being covered, as well as provide a place to collaborate on the syllabus to help improve upon it.


Next up were Vicky and Becky [my team] MyBook which was about how we can use the web to bring communities together to share information and learning parties in a Facebook for the school type of fashion as discussed above.
And finally, we had Issy, Alwyn and Harriet presenting How IT Works which provided a bill of rights which people could get behind to help drive the approach for ICT education.
Overall the day was a tremendous success and I for one learnt a huge amount.  I was blown away by the enthusiasm of the pupils and their ability to integrate into what I'd assume is a totally alien environment for them.  However, like all prototypes they are only as good as the output which becomes reality so with that in mind it'll be interesting to watch what happens in this space, hopefully we've at the very least planted the seed for some change in a very important area.
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