Platform for change

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Jack Kenny discovers how introducing a learning platform has transformed the way in which pupils at St Ives girls' prep school learn

There are many people who talk about learning platforms; in the next few months there will be many more. However, there are relatively few who are actually using one and doing it successfully.

Miles Berry is deputy head at St Ives, a small girls' prep school in Haslemere, and he is the first to admit that, compared to most teachers, he is in a privileged position. Nevertheless, the work that he has done has lessons for all schools. Going into Miles' classroom for the first time, watching him teach and hearing the reactions of his pupils, it was obvious that what he was doing could be reproduced in other schools.

Moodle, an open-source product, is the learning platform that Miles uses.

Devotees are keen to point out that it is free but they rarely cost in the time it takes to tailor the software to their requirements. Moodle tends to be favoured by enthusiasts and Miles is certainly one of those, but the work that he has done is not dependent on its use.

A teacher like Miles is the learning platform. He uses the platform (also known as a VLE or virtual learning environment), not because he likes the software, but because it suits his philosophy of learning. Miles is a thoughtful teacher and his conversation is peppered with his beliefs and the principles that animate the way that he teaches. The main feature of his work is the way that classroom work is integrated with the home.

Although Miles is technically accomplished, he is able to see above the technology. He is insistent that his work is driven by how he teaches, not by technology, with student autonomy at the heart of what he does.

The learning platform is not much used in class; it is used to extend the classroom into the home. "We use Moodle as a way of pulling things together," he explains. "Our usual way of working is to go into the computer area. The SMART Board enables us to work as a group, and, because the girls are sitting at computers, they can quickly work as individuals.

The part of the lesson where we work together is recorded on Blueberry, a screen capture tool. It captures voices and it also records everything that happens on the board as a movie."

The school uses mathematics enhancement materials from Plymouth University.

"If we are doing, say, probability, we will play some probability games with Flash Spinner. The screen recorder captures the exposition and the introductory phase." Eventually Miles crops that file down and puts it into Moodle. Any pupil who was away will be able to see the main parts of the lesson. Also any pupil, a few weeks later, will be able to refer back, for clarification or revision, to the work that was done on the day.

"The advantage is that the students, when they are working on their own on the exercises, can discuss with each other or ask me. There is instant feedback," Miles explains. "This is the social aspect of learning. I am more, in that awful phrase, 'the guide on the side'. I need at some point to nudge some who have made inappropriate choices. Others will have chosen to work on materials from the Nrich site. The aim is to make them more autonomous."

Through Moodle, Miles has a log of what the children have done and how long they spent on it. If they have chosen to do one of the tests, the result will be logged too. Miles is keen that the students learn from mistakes.

Because of the mechanisms within Moodle, work is marked right away. Pupils discover errors immediately, rather than waiting for the next day or the next few days. "It will be the exceptional child who can learn from mistakes when they have had to wait for so long."

It is obvious that a great deal of work has to be put into preparing materials. Miles claims that it takes about an hour each day. He points out that he does not have to spend as much time marking, and he adds that once the work is done, then, in subsequent years all he has to do is to tweak the material to suit the idiosyncrasies of particular groups. The discussions that he encourages in class continue out of class, with students online contributing to forums or the synchronous chat.

Once you turn on to learning platforms it seems no one wants to go back.

Getting on board

* Start small and develop some on-site expertise

* Make sure that the developments are driven by teaching needs rather than technology

* Developments should embody the school's vision of learning

* Enjoy the benefits of online assessment

* Maximise the extension of the learning community beyond the classroom Contacts

* Moodle Moodle is an open-source application for education

* Schoolforge-uk A community group supporting open source software in schools

* Ubuntu Linux Easy-to-install Linux for ordinary people. If you have fought shy of Linux, you can obtain free disks either to install Linux on a machine or to run it from a CD.

* Open CD Open-source software for Windows

* Plymouth University's maths enhancement programme

* Blueberry Flash Back Express Screen-recording software, pound;19 single copy

* Flash Spinner Game for exploring probability www.shodor.orginteractivateactivitiesspinnerwhat.html

* Nrich Mathematics problems, games and articles

* St Ives School

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