The Future

Several things have occurred in the last few months that have led me to writing this post.

Firstly, we stopped our subscription to the fantastic Bett award winning Mathletics website. This was due to increased subscription costs, the need for pupils to remember multiple usernames and passwords and the admin of running multiple usernames and passwords.

Then our school’s chosen learning platform, Studywiz, went into administration and went through a management buy out, my understanding is this was due to a rapid expansion coupled with the worldwide economic troubles.

Whilst all this was going on I was continue to experiment in the classroom with web tools such as Storybird, Wallwisher, Twiddla, DimDim, Voicethread, Primarypad/Ietherpad, Prezi, Audioboo, Dabbleboard and Timetoast. Then Storybird announced the ability to create class accounts.

Then it was announced that there would be a Google Teacher Academy in the UK. I was in the middle of multiple crises at the time so couldn’t apply but keeping a close eye on the back channels through Twitter and blogs during and after the event confirmed a lot of my thinking.

Subsequently, I discovered the expensive (for 1 account per pupil) but rather impressive looking Myonelogin when cruising Google Apps Marketplace.

Then, this morning I was given access to Aviary’s suite of tools for education (currently in beta) which has similar class account facilities to Storybird and at first glance offers fantastic opportunities for integrating into the classroom.

Phew! Glad that’s over. I realise it may be a bit odd mentioning the past in a post called the future but bare with me…

The starting point for the future has to be where do we want to go? What do we want children to be able to achieve? What effect do we want to have on children’s motivation and enthusiasm? My answer to this has not really changed. I want children to become equipped with the transferable skills, in any curriculum area, that will help them be happy and succeed in education and in life. In my opinion technology plays a key role in this. Not just through ICT subject skills but in supporting learning and enthusiasm across the curriculum and beyond.

Taking that as a starting point, what is the best match with this philosophy out there? Well, as every teacher and every pupil is different, I would say as wide a ranging choice of tools for learning, leadership and management as possible with as simple and controllable administration as possible that each school can tailor to their own requirements.

Getting down to practicalities, looking at the possible tools and associated costs, what is the best combination or outright winner? Well, having moved away from Google Apps for Education in 2009 with a learning platform sitting alongside (I have written about this in a separate post), I think I have a decent perspective on the positives and negatives of running it and running a learning platform. However, cue a Godfather like “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in” for Google. The possibilities for cloud storage, sharing and collaboration was the primary reason and is something I have been trying to solve for the last couple of years (previous post about my experiences here). Indeed, a primary reason in the choice of learning platform when moving from Google Apps was because of the promise of added functionality to the very clever ‘eLocker’ file storage system that Studywiz employs (coupled with excellent useability, cutting edge ideas and a good range of learning tools). If you could access and edit documents online it would make the product more complete, although the cost comparison with Google Apps is a no brainer (Google Apps Education Edition being almost free). So with Google Docs pulling me back to Google we could ditch 95% of our school network and move it online, allowing for anytime, anywhere access with privileges.

It’s important to note that if we ditched the school’s learning platform in the future (not happening any time soon) we would be without the learning tools that were the main reason for the move to a full learning platform in the first place. I still believe that even in it’s current state, Studywiz’s tools and useability puts it head and shoulders above its commercial learning platform competitors. The other big arguments I have always used since moving from Google Apps as a reason for deploying a full learning platform is the easy management (some now integrating automatically with SIMS) and the ability for non-ict specialists to create activities for pupils to use, for me the single key reason that a learning platform is necessary.

However…

All the mentions of web apps that can be used in the classroom at the start of this (increasingly mammoth) post, got me seriously considering my opinion about ease of use for non-ict specialists. Most of the web apps outlined are incredibly simple and intuitive to use and will only become more so as time and technology progress. Therefore, what is stopping schools moving to a Google Apps for Education system for communication between staff, with a range of web apps adding functionality and learning tools?

Well one thing really as far as I can see…

Logins.

It would be completely unfeasible to create individual accounts for more than two or three web apps and expect the teachers and children to keep track of all the usernames and passwords, even setting them the same on each account would prove problematic due to the ability for users to change passwords. It would (and has) been manageable for me as an individual teacher to do this for one class but it is no use as a whole school strategy. Therefore the only option going down this route would be to use some kind of single sign on system, such as the one mentioned at the top of the page. The two issues with this would be cost and availability of the web apps through a single sign on system. Our school has 350 pupils and at a cost of $30 a year per user that’s converting to roughly £7000 a year for all pupils. Clearly not good value for money in terms of impact. Now you could say ‘well foundation don’t need access’ etc to get costs down but that really defeats the entire point of having a whole school plan, and my belief is that there should be ample opportunities for children in foundation to use tools as they do in year 6, just different ones. So what is left? Well why not consider a class or year group account that can be shared across the class? With 14 classes, the class teacher responsible for accessing their class, each with their own unique single sign on, that would be less than £300 a year. Tasty. It obviously doesn’t have the same privacy and security due to the shared nature of the account but personally I think it would still be at a secure enough level as long as pupils didn’t have images and video of themselves on the web apps without the correct permissions. I don’t know about other people’s school servers but ours is shared between all pupils and I can only think of possibly one example of a pupil deleting someone else’s work in six years.

As a word of warning, web apps could disappear at any time, especially free ones, so it would be important to plan what to do in case of this occurring if this method was to be considered in school. In my case, I would train and describe web apps in terms of the tool they provide rather than the actual site. For example, when access to Wordle was temporarily taken down, other ‘word clouds’ were readily available.

Perhaps in the not too distant future a single sign on system will be shared between web apps creating suites of compatible tools. Who knows. For now though, after all the above, my long term direction for use of technology in school in order to fullfil the philosophy outlined towards the start of this post is:

Use Google Apps for Education at the system for communication for all staff. That means email, calendars, docs, sites (for the school website — which would also act as a repository of sites for parents, pupils and staff).

A single sign on system is then used to create accounts for each class. Some tools that right now are available are WordPress (class and school blogs), Animoto , Ning even Google Apps itself so classes could have a shared area for online document creation, for example. The myonelogin website says there is a bookmarklet to add your own. I’m not sure how the whole system works and so can’t comment on the extent of additional functionality, but it could be massive! **Updated** I’ve tried out the demo account and the way the system works is you can basically add any website (apart from ones that have flash logins like Voicethread) and you just add the username and password details in the main myonelogin console area. It has a couple of small niggles but it really could actually just…well…work! I have also tested an alternative system (Onelogin) which is significantly cheaper opening possibilities for individual user accounts. Imagine the possibilities with just a few other tools added such as Edmodo, Storybird, Avairy you really would be able to offer pupils a great set of tools for learning and beyond.

Cost wise, with Google Apps only needing a domain name and hosting, the cost for lets say a one form entry primary school of seven classes you would be looking at a base cost of less than £250 a year. Compared with a full vle that’s just insane. Yes it doesn’t offer the same unique login for each pupil but within each tool they still have the ability to show their individuality, use learning tools and develop E-Safety skills (including respecting each other and their work). At that cost, individual schools could pick and choose any commercial sites that they really wanted to push, affording them flexibility without having to pay over the odds for things they just won’t use.

I’d be really interested to hear what other people think. This whole process has been bumbling around my head for a long time now. I’d be particularly interested in hearing what people think about the ‘class’ login as opposed to the ideal solution of an individual login, particularly with regards security. I’d also really like to hear from anyone who has used a single sign on system successfully and really any comments on anything i’ve mentioned!

Image courtesy of Laurence Whittmore.


Originally published at primarypete.net on July 31, 2010.