What's in a name?

10th March 2006 at 00:00
To some it's an umbrella, to others a gateway, a VLE or a learning platform. But whatever you call it, it's what it does that's important, reports Dorothy Walker

Learning platforms are no laughing matter. But Dave Tyler did brighten my day when he explained his problem with the terminology. "You find a platform at a railway station. How exactly does that lead to ICT?"

Dave is headteacher at St Thomas primary school, Swansea. He is worried that the phrase "learning platform" will turn teachers off. "They don't know what it means," he says. "There is a real problem with the jargon that's making its way into schools. It took a long time to build teachers'

confidence with technology, and we should be careful not to lose it."

What do teachers think of this latest buzz word and the concept of learning platforms? I persuaded a few to take time out at the end of a busy week to discuss their experiences.

John Morris, headteacher at Ardleigh Green junior school, Havering, thinks that schools may already have learning platforms without realising. "We have been using ours since 1999," he says. "It's called the London Grid for Learning; it's at the heart of our curriculum and it's fantastic. But it was only at the beginning of this academic year, when I looked at the new agenda on platforms, that I thought: 'We're already using one.'"

A brief definition? "An ICT system that offers every learner and teacher a personalised online learning space. It gives them a personal portfolio (a home page and web space), and enables them to communicate (via email, live discussion and video-conferencing). The key is that it allows pupils, staff and parents to develop and enhance teaching and learning."

John thinks schools could be frightened off by new terminology that's used to describe something they may already have in place. "Some have what they call a 'shared area' for resources; others have websites for use at home, or employ the term 'pupil portfolio' - but all are kinds of learning platform," he says. "Amid the mystique that surrounds this subject, it's important to celebrate what we are already doing and take a reality check to ensure that whatever you do is appropriate for your pupils."

At Crocketts Lane primary school in Sandwell, West Midlands, Alan Dodson provides this definition: "A one-stop shop for resources, communication and collaboration between staff, parents, governors and pupils - and even the wider community."

Alan's platform is the Shireland Learning Gateway, used by 28 schools in Sandwell. He spends part of his time as its content manager. "Very few people need to know how it works - it's much more important to concentrate on what it can do," he says. "The big thing is the online personal space, where everyone can store work and share it. There was a wonderful moment this week when one teacher said to another: 'I saw your planning on the gateway. There was a brilliant idea there - do you mind if I use it?'"

Sue Wood is e-learning director at Coopers technology college, Bromley. She says: "We think of our platform as an umbrella, because it has brought together the elements we already had. Before, we could set students assignments online and they could send them back for marking. Our platform brings that side of things together with our email, discussion boards, document libraries and online surveys, in an engaging format.

"After 18 months, we are still in the experimental phase, exploring how we can use the platform and the benefits it might bring for students. Many schools have hung back, and those that haven't made a move on any of this have a mountain to climb."

At St Ives school, Haslemere, deputy head Miles Berry prefers the term virtual learning environment (or VLE) to learning platform. "That's the name used in higher education," he explains. "The word 'platform' suggests to me an object on which things are delivered. With the shift in terminology, I wonder whether we are losing some of the significance of the social space - and even de-personalising the learner, failing to recognise the vital contribution that learners make to the online community."

Key points

* You may be using a learning platform already, even though you don't recognise the terminology.

* Take a reality check - much is possible, but is it all appropriate for your school?

* Two-way communication is the name of the game - everyone should be able to contribute, rather than simply having things delivered.

* Take time to experiment. When people start sharing work and collaborating, they prompt new ideas about what can be achieved.

* A classroom is a rich social environment, and learning platforms should embrace and extend that dimension of learning.


ICT at Ardleigh Green junior school runs this cross-curricular scheme of work, which is designed to ensure that all pupils have the skills to make the most of the school's learning platform. John Morris says it has been taken up by 200 schools around the country. "It is a good example of a scheme that has a learning platform at its heart."


Shireland Learning Gateway

Find an introduction to this platform at www.thelearningbank.co.ukgateway

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