Imagine a school that is open all day and all night. Where resources are available to students when they are ready to work, where teachers at any time can set up courses and resources and assign students to them, where they can communicate with and support the assessment of individuals. Where parents, guardians or carers can see what children are working on and how well they are doing at any time. Where the school administration has access to pupil information, attendance, timetabling, e-portfolios and management information. That is just a small part of what a learning platform could do.
The intriguing aspect of a learning platform is that it challenges all thinking about learning: it takes you back to the first principles. The Government has said that by 2010 every school should have integrated learning and management systems.
However, issuing decrees is probably not the most appropriate way of introducing some radical thinking about teaching and learning into schools. Making productive use of a learning platform transforms teaching and learning in a fundamental way. "Buying and effectively using a learning platform creates more essential change than acquiring a new building," one guru has asserted.
A platform - a blend of hardware, software and services - enables more dynamic ways of learning. It can give more responsibility and resources to students, making them better able to structure their own learning. Teachers can monitor the progress of students and give support, as well as use tools for creating resources. Because everything is online, parents, guardians or carers can see the work and the progress of students.
Most importantly, the platform can assist with the personalisation of learning. Assessment and tracking are at the heart of the platform. Well used, it can blur the boundaries between home and school and the outside world.
Unfortunately, a recent survey, Harnessing Technology Schools 2009, found only half of the ICT co-ordinators (52 per cent) reported that their schools use a learning platform. The report notes: "It may be difficult to reach the target for all schools to be making full use of learning platforms by 2010. The researchers found "that reasonably large proportions of teachers do not have a full awareness of learning platforms and their potential for supporting teaching and learning".
Jacqui Johnson is aware of the gains to be made. "I have been teaching since 1986 and I think that the learning platform is one of the best things ever."
Eureka Primary School in Swadlincotes is appropriately named, because when you listen to Ms Johnson, the schools ICT co-ordinator, eureka! is what she felt when she realised what a learning platform could do for the school.
Full of drive and enthusiasm, Ms Johnson has since October 2008 made the learning platform a core feature in the life of the school. "We use it to support staff, for sharing ideas for planning. We have interest bases, with all the agendas and minutes stored on the platform. There is no more paper shuffling and it is so much easier to keep ourselves informed.
"Parents also have their own interest base. They can keep up with what their children are doing, see the work, the videos, the resources, the wikis, the blogs. Parents can raise matters via the platform and they can communicate directly with staff or stimulate general discussions. Parents are almost in the classrooms with us. It has certainly increased parental engagement."
Assessment via the platform will be implemented later this year. And the effect on the learners? "The children would eat it for breakfast."
Matt Eaves of Cleveratom surveyed a group of schools to discover who had been successful and unsuccessful with their learning platform. Local authorities in many cases had given schools platforms, assuming that was all they had to do. Matt believes each school needs its own tailored solution.
As part of the research, Matt observed that schools that handed over the direction of the platform to the ICT staff were less successful than those that used the leadership team to drive it forward. Schools that involved students right from the start were much more successful than those that did not. Platforms that were closer in type to software such as Bebo, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter were better received than platforms that encouraged teachers just to upload and download work.
Doing a great deal more than uploading and downloading worksheets, Dominic Tester at Costello College Basingstoke argues that the learning platform is about exploiting the creativity of teachers and encouraging the creation of exciting resources.
"Platforms can become stagnant and clinical. Children have seen the power of social networking and they have high expectations," he says. "They are critical and you have to capture their attention, make things visually appealing. They don't want it to be just a delivery platform: they want to collaborate with other learners."
The maths department at Costello has been creating video podcasts with worked examples from past papers. One video teaches how to do simultaneous equations. Students can watch and listen to the explanation on their iPhone or iPod.
They can pause and replay the material until they feel they have understood. Whiteboard sessions can also be captured in that way and stored on the platform for viewing later on computer or iPod (see the podcasting feature on page 34 for more on this topic).
"It is not enough to digitise worksheets," argues Mr Tester. "You are doing the same thing you have always done - just in a different medium. A learning platform allows you to create material with audio, video, images and that gives you more chance to appeal to different learning styles. The payback is massive."
Parents have their area, where they can see what goes on in lessons and get an insight into the homework. They can look at behaviour and see positive and negative aspects. There are news feeds and signposts to resources, videos and podcasts. The school has even got its own area on YouTube (www.youtube.comuserCostello TechCollege).
"The learning journey" is how Mr Tester sees the implementation of the platform. How has he done it so far? "It is a mixture of top-down, middle-out, bottom-up. You have to drip feed - not too much at once. You need clearly focused targets. What was really important was creating a feeling of shared ownership.
"To engage most people, you need shared goals, a shared vision. We had an e-learning group thinking and meeting for eight months before we chose our platform."
Choosing the right platform is crucial. Lack of take-up in school might mean the wrong platform was chosen. It is not too late to change; many schools have started again and have ensured a better implementation.
"The payback," as Mr Tester says, "can be massive."
What's it all about?
A learning platform is about enabling better ways of working in and out of school by bringing together a range of ICT tools. The work of teachers and students can be stored and accessed online anywhere.
There will be software for assessment and lesson planning. The platform will have information on school admin, student details, timetables and portfolios. Communication will be made easier through blogs, email, chat and forums.
The cost of a platform depends on factors such as size of school and degree of assistance from the local authority.
THE GOVERNMENT'S E-STRATEGY REQUIRES ...
- That by spring 2008 every pupil should have access to an online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio.
- That by 2010 every school should have integrated learning and management systems.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
- What are the barriers to increasing use of the platform?
- Do staff see it as techie toy or a tool for learning?
- Is the platform intuitive, easy to use?
- Is the platform driven by the senior team?
- Is there a tradition of preparing and using online resources?
- Have we looked at successful use in other schools?
- Is the broadband capacity sufficient?
- Is the platform a whole-school venture?
- Is the platform peripheral or central to the learning life of the school?
- Is training easily available?
- How can the platform be refreshed and developed?
- Do we have the right platform?
- Have we involved parents?
- Thought Park (www.cleveratom.co.uk)
- Kaleidos (www.learningplatform.rm.com)
- Frog (www.frogteacher.com)
- Studywiz (www.europe.studywiz.com)
- Fronter (webfronter.comfronter3uk)
- Netmedia (website.netmediaeducation.com)
- Viglen (www.viglen.co.uk)
- Ramesys (www.ramesys.com)
- Serco (www.serco.co.uk)
- Synergy (Moodle) (www.synergy-learning.com)