Practising what we preach!

We had an interesting visit recently from some members of the work based learning  Regional Support Centre.  They’ve recently set up a “Ning” (Innovate) for providers to share good practise in the use of ICT.  So far it’s quite quiet, but these sort of things seem to need a sort of “critical mass” to become self sustaining so I’ve been keen to post a bit on it.

I mentioned in particular the work I’d been doing with trainee blogging.  This led into a discussion, the upshot of which was  two of the e-learning advisors who’d started the Ning coming down to visit and have a chat about it, with the aim of putting an article about it in the newsletter. 

Focus on… Blogs” is the end result and is a nice summing up of what we’ve been trying to achieve.

Meanwhile the latest batch of learners have started on the “sandpit” phase of their project, experimenting and trying out the WordPress software.  It’s a bigger group than normal and proving difficult to do whole group teaching.  (Our classroom is long and thin and the distance from the whiteboard at the back of the room is a bit of nightmare).  I’m heartily glad the main body of the taught sessions are now done and they can start working in smaller groups.

In order to try and catch the copyright issues early this time, and make sure people know what is expected of a typical post, I created a practise exercise for them to work through, which is embedded into the Sandpit practice blog itself.  I’m still having a bit of trouble getting some of the class to see why copyright is important, as opposed to something to be “got round”.

Not all the practise posts are in yet, but it’s showing up some interesting problems and misunderstandings already.  I’m using the comment feature to point out corrections which need to be made.  I also put together a “model” blog post for commenting on other sources, since wholesale copy and paste continues to be a bit of a problem.  Since I can’t seem to stop them doing it, maybe I can at least get them to do it properly so no one gets sued! 

I think I’ll try and use posts on the Sandpit to cover more of the skills as we’re going along.  Maybe have them post responses to things like the planning documents.

Transferable Skills

I was reading The “Grumpy Old Teacher”‘s blog earlier today, talking about “ICT Across the Curriculum”, and it reminded me that I’d intended to post my “mapping” document for the blog project, lining up how I thought it covered the various standards the learners are working towards, including both IT and the Communications Key Skill.

So here it is — Blogging and Key Skills (PDF)

Or as a Word doc. Blogging and Key Skills (Word doc)

In a way we have almost the opposite problem to a school trying to incorporate ICT into other lessons — we’re primarily an IT training centre trying to keep ICT integral to the other things we have to deliver to our learners, like literacy, numeracy, personal development and groupwork skills!

The buzzword (buzzphrase?) is “transferable skills”, but to me that’s “ICT Across the Curriculum” by another name.

I do have equivalent mapping for using ICT to teach numeracy — unfortunately they’re still only available inside my head at present.  Must sit down with the syllabus and get around to writing those down.

Google Maps for Measuring, Metric, and Shape and Space.  Excel cell formatting for Decimals, Percentage & Fractions, Annotator for turning word problems into actual sums, CreateAGraph for data handling, the BBC Skillswise website for practically everything…

The Proof of the Pudding

We just had our first Key Skills verification and standardisation meeting since starting the blog project.

In general all was very positive.  The IV liked the work we’d done on the blogs and thought it a good use of IT and a bit different.

There were some issues with printing out, since by their nature blogs are designed to be looked at on-screen and never look as good printed out. Something like BlogPrinting might be a workaround for that, in conjunction with screenprints to show the design and layout aspects.

I found it a bit irritating that that was an issue, since all the current buzz is about “online portfolios” and so forth, but it’s hard to change overnight I suppose and we’ll continue to look for a usable “fudge” for now.

Trainee spelling and grammar was an issue but as trainers we were reluctant to moderate every post before displaying it, as we felt it took away a lot of the spontaneity and immediacy of blogging, which is sort of the point and a big part of the motivation.  Trainees are expected to correct errors using the edit function once they are identified however.

Most of us thought it was slightly harder to demonstrate level 2 skills in the blog, although graphs etc can be uploaded as images. Our IV also expressed a concern that since the blogs were worked on partly as a group the same topic could be used for both a level 1 and level 2 trainee, and clear distinction needs to be made between the levels.

As there is no specific guidance, we thought that compiling a list of what they considered “level 2 Features” of the blogging software would be useful. I think the “combining information” bit could be the same as the printed work — a graph, timeline, captioned images etc — the only difference is the need to upload it.

Other things we thought might distinguish between a “Level 1” and “Level 2” effort, were:

  • Text based embedded hyperlinks (e.g. linked text not just pasted web address)
  • Images with hyperlinks attached
  • Use of the “more tag” to split posts (so you get a “teaser” and click through to the longer article)
  • Categories & tags
  • The advanced paste features:
  • Paste From Word (converts tables and fancy formatting into something WordPress can cope with.)
  • Paste As Plain text
  • Remove Formatting
  • Styles
  • Insert Special Character
  • The AnswerLinks to insert hyperlinked definitions of technical terms (built in feature)
  • Passworded private posts.
  • Widgets
  • Custom Headers
  • Pages, and subpages

Is there any one else out there using blogs as part of Key Skills with other ideas?

We also thought that the groupwork elements of the blogging might generate good evidence for the Working With Others Key Skill if we ever find the time!

The next batch

I took a different approach with this latest group and used a full afternoon to cover all the basic tools of WordPress in one big hit.  The drawn out nature of showing them and having them try it out on the “Sandpit” last time, meant it was a long time before we actually got blogging and I wanted to avoid that this time around.   This worked quite well, and to my surprise hasn’t really led to the trainees needing a great deal more support.

The enthusiasm levels have been good, with several learners who were not keen to start with, really taking to it, and even asking if they can create another blog for their personal use.

Copyright issues have been integral this time, and I’ve only had to edit a few posts to remove unauthorised content.  I developed a one page “Copyright Crib Sheet” to lay down some ground rules.

The ICT Key Skills qualification, which we are using the blogging to contribute to, calls for learner to “combine information”, for example by annotating an image, and I’ve been exploring the use of online image editors such as Splashup and FotoFlexer (that last suggested by a learner!) to cover this.  I want to use our fledgling Moodle site to put up some notes on how to use these extra tools, as I’ll never have time to teach them all!

Also important to the Key Skills are the planning elements, and this was the first time I’d used the “How To grow a Blog” worksheets with the learners.  I had wondered about this, since I find the metaphor of a plant a good one, but wondered if my adult might find it a bit too child-like.  No one remarked on that aspect though, and the comments were reasonable.

The staff found them useful as evidence, though I have private doubts about whether the trainees themselves ever pay more than lip-service to “planning” their work!  It’s hard to make them see the advantages and we find the same issue with the Improve Own Learning Key Skill.  They’re far more product than process focussed — nature of adult learning I suppose, but at odds with my own inclination which is to experiment and try things out and think out other methods.

The commenting on each other’s blogs has also improved this time around and there’s some good back and forth going on.  One particularly interesting exchange occurred between a learner posting about immigration policy, and another who actually is an immigrant, their training course being done here in a second language.  Interesting expanding of horizons for several I think.

I tried to plan the groups around the learners I knew were regular absentees so no one group got hit too badly by having people missing, but the trainees have still noticed the problems when a key person — say the one individual who is the Admin, is away and they have to ask me to edit something instead.  Hopefully this will stand them in better stead in the workplace and appreciate the importance of attendance to group and team projects.

I wonder how much of the trainees confidence is down to the fact that I’m more confident this time around, having worked out some of the hiccups with the first group.  I’m looking forward to starting the next group, and will feel less put off by any initial disinterest, since this group have developed so well in spite of their initial doubts.

“Things that can go wrong” (again)

This time around I combined the “must do” topics – Health & Safety, Internet Security, and Copyright into one session dubbed “What can go wrong”.

Again I was surprised by how much they already knew on this topic.  Of course the security of personal information has been very much in the news lately with various governmental blunders with data security, including Child Benefit payments, and the DVLA.

Since I recently had to field a polite and sympathetic, but very firm request from an external organisation to remove their copyrighted material from learner’s blog, we also spent a good amount of time discussing copyright issues.

There were a few misunderstanding to clear up here, but nothing too unexpected.  Hopefully this time it will sink in and there will be less wholesale copy and pasting.  I will certainly be keeping a close eye on it.

Experimenting

And finding time to do it…

I taught a class on Internet search strategies recently. The course demands that learners know the difference between search engines, directories, and metasearch.

I find this a little irritating to teach, as the Internet has evolved a fair bit since these syllabuses were written and things seemed to have converged somewhat. At the level to which they’re working, it’s hard to find good examples of things which can’t simply be found by banging them into Google!

I deliberately kept the advanced functions of Google for last because I knew once I’d hit Google Maps and they spotted the aerial photograhy, that would be it for keeping them on task!

Then I caught myself — the learners were enthused, searching and playing with the resource and I was feeling impatient and wanting them to “get on with some work”.

Arrgghh! No! This is exactly what I WANT them have time to do.

Alright they were “only” doing (predictably), “I can see my house!”, but they were thinking about it and when they got unexpected results were reasoning it out.

I resisted the urge to rush them onto something else and wandered the room, listening out.

“Hang on there’s loads of'”John Streets’ in different places — try putting the town in as well.”

“I’ve spelt that wrong.”

“Would putting the postcode in work?”

“What does that button do?” “Don’t know – try it”

Is it directly relevant to their course? Maybe, maybe not. But they’re undoubtedly developing their learning skills.

Same old-new!

Maybe I should have a regular Good Stuff / Bad Stuff spot.

Today’s good stuff

Several completed Key Skills, two in particular standing out for excellent use of the tools, even my current pet favourite Bubbl.

The words “I could do the blog from my home computer couldn’t I?” issuing from a learners mouth!

 Today’s not so good stuff

The ongoing battle with the recalcitrant and thirsty colour printer.  As a colleague pointed out seeing their work in glorious technicolour is motivational, and the other learners who see it also comment on how good it look.

Unfortunately”happy trainees” is a rather intangible thing to put a price tag on whereas the colour toner cartridges have a very definite and LARGE price tag!

The upshot

I’d love to go over to e-portfolios and forget the grief of endless printing altogether but in spite of enthusiasm for the idea from all trainers, that seems to recede further every time we discuss it.  The extra time it would take to experiment is hard to find, but maybe it’s time to return to the idea and try it out.

It’d need to be with one our our more confident learners as I feel that our less experienced learners need that concrete reassurance of seeing the physical results of their hard work.

I’m looking forward to our next verification visit to see what the ‘official’ word is on our using the blogs as projects. 

The latest group are keen to get stared, but as they’re a small group I’m holding off until the next large group starts so I only have to go through the paperwork once!

Commenting & KeySkills

We started discussing the use of comments today.  The group all seemed pretty savvy about spam and risks from viruses etc which was pleasing.

They did decide to err on the side of caution and enforce moderation on their comments — I suspect I’m going to have to prod people to check their queued messages.

The are still adding content to the blogs.  More slowly than I’d like as I keep having to drag in the paperwork and construction of the Key Skills portfolios and an hour and a half jsut flies by.

I wish I could get them to use the blogs a bit more in the course of the normal trinaing day instead of only touching it during the designated sessions.

Attendance continues to be poor, this week being particularly bad as a lot of our learners have no childcare over the  half term.

We’re also a bit miffed that everyone is leaving early and not using the allocated self study time.  We’re considering making that non-optional, as we’re really going to struggle to get qualifcation completed on time with the current level of absence.

To add to our woes, the next blog session was scuppered entirely by the company internet connection collapsing on us, a new intake of learners of which two dropped out before even attending induction, and the dispiriting discovery that the only trainee showing any enthusiam for using my new favourite tool Bubbl, was also the only trainee on whose PC Flash Player hadn’t been installed properly!

These things are sent to try us…

Overcoming “But I don’t know what to write”

All happy and positive again today! Managed to keep the taught session down to a quick whizz through adding links and maintaining a blogroll, before everyone had the better part of an hour to work on their blogs.

I was pleased to see a lot less copying and pasting going on this week and a lot more self-written content going up (along with plenty of spelling errors mind you, but at least there’s a proper genuine feel there. Spelling we can fix.)

Spent a lot of time with one group helping them add images, and was intrigued by the amount of time spent selecting just the right image from the Creative Commons tagged content on Flickr. A nice sense of pride in their work developing there.

A few people were struggling with what to write about, including one poor soul who’d found themself the only member of their group not absent!

I resorted in some cases to having them print out a website on relevant a topic of interest and get out pen and paper to summarise in their own words before posting.

I’ve seen a nifty tool at http://www.diigo.com which looks like you can do something similar actually online, but haven’t had a chance to play with it myself yet and have a gut feeling that some of the less confident learners need something down on a physical bit of paper to give them the impetus to start in any case. The feeling of having to make it up on the fly which posting online engenders is off putting to some of them.

One tool which I did find useful for those who were having trouble thinking of what to write is the ThinkTank from the 4Teachers website.

This allows you to enter a generic research topic and depends on type of topic (history, place, person etc) narrow it down to a list of questions. This then forms the outline of your topic and gives you something to go away and research online or type up.

The learners who were keen but found their chosen topic of, say, “My Town” too broad to start off with, found this useful, as it could be narrowed down to something more specific like “If I visited this place, what things would I want to see the most? What is interesting about this place?” or “When was this place founded? Who founded it? Who settled it? Why was this place chosen?”

Two to three questions seemed about right for a single blog post.  More questions or detail could be added for a full length Key Skills Project, and I may recommend this to some of them later on.