Budgies, foul-language and e-learning: tenets for improvement

Simple questions are often the most difficult to answer.

A budgie surfing (Yes! I know…)

A week or two ago I was fortunate enough to work with an “outstanding” Agricultural FE College in Kent. Being a city lad (and a scouser at that) I was of course impressed with the size of the campus and the excellent facilities but completely bowled-over by their massive aviary full of budgies, exotic parrots and tiny little quail. The few moments that I had outside in the beautiful Kent sunshine between staff sessions, were spent trying to get these exotic animals to swear. But they didn’t … just me … shouting profanities…on my own …in front of a collection of bemused (and possibly traumatised) birds. Not for the first time to be honest 

After a successful day of staff development , the College’s e-Learning coach and mentor began a conversation not just around online safeguarding, but around the whole subject of creating a learning technology environment for FE students that met a set of clearly defined entitlements. Entitlements that could inform a functional specification of how technology could shape learning.

It got me thinking. I thought I knew what it looked like somewhere inside my head…informed by years of exploring innovative technology; using empowering software; fast and unfettered connectivity; modern classroom design that had ambient technology at its heart; flipped practice; flexible learning spaces. And yet, summarising why all of that might be necessary required a distillation of the basics into clear and unambiguous tenets. Tenets that would inform how technology is purchased, implemented, used and developed.

So the question was “What are the entitlements of FE students to obtain an exceptional level of e-learning? From a student’s perspective what do we need to focus on?”

My first thoughts

The technology, infrastructure and connectivity an organisation provides should meet the aspirations of the students. It should at least be as fast, flexible and enabling asthe solutions they provide themselves

So think of the resource and connectivity most FE students may use throughout their day; technology that they have brought with them. Most have good connectivity on cheap tarrifs: a wide range of the latest and innovative apps that together form a diverse set of tools for sharing, creating, communicating and accessing that they themselves have chosen; clear, fast and


unfettered mechanisms that interface with each other; mobile devices, cheap to purchase and easy to replace. And 4G is on its way!

Now think of a static PC with login, standard desktop, Office Apps, College VLE and filtered internet connection. What are you going to want to use?

I am typing this at home in a lovely log-cabin with fast 60Mb Virgin Connection on a hip device (iPad). I haven’t once nipped off to access porn or bully someone. Why? Because most people don’t.  We should be designing environments for the many, not the errant few!

The online spaces and mechanisms provided should empower users to communicate and share a variety of media in any way that they feel supports their learning.

So we come back to this issue of how and why we share and that the mechanisms should be in place to share everything; what should govern us is our ability to intelligently manage our own flow of personal data. Users only become victims when they are not empowered to do exactly that. And let’s face it, we don’t really teach that aspect of Digital Literacy well. Most young people have got themselves to this stage with very little intervention from a formal education system designed to prepare them for life beyond. Facebook have an ethos of a completely transparent sociality that is very attractive to a generation reared in the shadow of that online giant.

Staff should be free to use technology in a way that not only supports their own professional needs but allows them to engage in online environments that students already inhabit. They should be developed to understand the potential of that technology and have the sophistication to exploit it to inform their role as professionals.

We know from our own data that staff development around online safeguarding (and indeed technology in general) fails to keep pace with its inevitable evolution and is one of the weakest components of school self review. And yet if we require sophisticated use of technology from our workforce, it requires a sophisticated approach to developing those aspects of technology that staff need. And that is not easy … remember NOF training anybody?

However, lately there has been a focus not just on general awareness raising (which is still important) but also developing discrete pools of expertise amongst a staff to support their roles. In the case of safeguarding, that might be focusing on child protection officer, administrator, senior leader; those people who can affect change in the areas for which they are being trained. Take EPICT for example.

The other aspect of this is empowering those staff who embrace technology. Freeing access and choice to those staff who need it; it seems ironic that a staff account needs to be locked down in such a draconian way to demonstrate duty of care, when we give teachers our most precious possessions to care for: our children. Incongruous to say the least. If you are in an organisation where staff have the same access as the pupils, insist it is changed!

That the college understands the risks and benefits of operating within these environments and promotes a culture that ensures they are safe, supportive and empowering for all users.

And of course, here is the E safety pitch. Except it is about inclusion more than it is about exclusion and obstruction. In all of the E safety Mark schools we have visited, the one common factor is inclusion: everyone gets it. It has been canvassed: there is a sense of ownership and understanding throughout the whole culture. And when things go wrong (and occasionally they will) there will be in place a culture of challenge, reporting and support that will ameliorate many of the issues that arise.

When you sign an Acceptable Use Policy, you are not signifying deference: you are publicly declaring “I’m in! I get it!”

How to achieve all of these things is based on the organisation’s capacity to provide the right technical infrastructure and support; is at an organisational maturity to begin to introduce commissioning of personal devices and that it has developed a set of positive ethics that are underpinned by sound policy, reporting and sanctions that have been established through common agreement and are respected by all.

When I discussed this with a close colleague and friend he remarked “Yeah! But that’s a utopia you will never reach”. He may be right.

But to get an organisation and its members to work together; to create a singular approach needs that journey and its expectations mapped out so that everyone who want’s to come along can say …

“I get it!”

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