Becta – Opportunities lost and opportunities gained.

As most people will have seen Becta will be cut as a cost saving measure by the Conservative – Lib Dem coalition government. There is no published timescale on this but a number of people have said they have been told it is by November 2010 (myself included).

As with many others who have experienced working with Becta over the years I would like to thank the various staff there and others who have worked closely with them (and yes … that even means consultants). I have had the pleasure of having input from Becta in 5 roles. The first was way back with I was an IT Technician (in a pretty forward thinking school) and I was able to attend various events include expert workshops and the Annual Research Conference. It shaped my view of technology as a tools for education, and with things like FITS for me to be an enabler. Next I experienced then as a middle leader … a network manager. They allowed me to talk on a level playing field with teachers and other Heads of Departments. As a Senior Leader their work helped give direction for my school, especially around the Self-review Framework and as an LA worker the advice, guidance and clarity means I can cascade this down to schools and support schools moving forward with using technology.

The fifth one? Why, it was their support (and patience) with EduGeek. The first EduGeek Conference in Corby had Becta staff coming along for the keynote and happy to take an ear-bashing from a bunch of techies … EduGeek members and mods (I don’t think we even consider calling ourselves admins, never mind staff!) had the chance to air their views about the IT Infrastructure documentation … I was invited to give input into the advice and guidance to schools on Data Protection.

So … yes, I have a healthy respect for what they have done over the years and I am really thankful for it.

Do I think some things could have worked out better? Of course I do … some of the targets they were given were political.

But where do we go from here?

It will take some time for all the projects to run their course, for legal and contractual requirements to be sorted out and for elements of work they do to be taken on by others. People should not make the mistake that just because the organisation is gone the work will finish. Until Becta, DforE and others sort this out we are all down to speculation.

However, there are some things we do know and can do. If nothing else, make yourself familiar with the Becta site and materials. Even if you have thought “They don’t have anything to offer me,” still go and have a look. Dig into the research section to see some of the background work done over the years, because just as the Laptops for Teachers and IWB projects were large funded projects they came from small beginnings.

Have a look at the different schools and teachers who have won awards from Becta. See if you can track them down today. Are they still in successful schools? Are they now senior leaders? Do they work for LAs? Consultants? See if you can speak to other schools they have worked with? Can you find some good practice you can use.

Look at how they examined emerging technologies. What criteria did they use for seeing whether there would be benefits to learning and/or teaching? Look at how they took on some of the procurement frameworks. See how they worked out how to challenge companies to get the best deals they could, even if it meant doing a bit of a deal with the devil at times.

Look at the technical documentation. Examine how it has changed over the years … try to spot where it is going to change again. Look at the work, both historical and fresh, on open standards. Will this have an impact on what you choose to use in the future?

Why all this effort though?

Simple … you don’t know what bit of this work you may have to do yourself, or find someone else who is already doing it with whom you can work with. Some part may be taken on by other groups … some might get dropped and schools / LAs / Companies have to do it themselves … but start preparing now for what your requirements for the future are and learn how to plan.

If you are a school which doesn’t engage with stuff then this will mean nothing to you … you will still plan poorly, have a panic every few years because you have a sudden bill for hardware, and you will see computers as something to keep kids quiet with.

If you are a very proactive teacher / school / LA then you will be happy because you can gloat about being able to do it all yourself anyway and will be able to tell everyone how wonderful you are … but please start talking to others about how that can be effectively shared without costing the earth.

If you are the other group … those who happily work away, waiting for the early adopters to do their bit and learn from the experience of others, who know that in the mountain of priorities which is education you sometimes have to put things to one side and pick up a bit later or you have to get the advice and info from others … well, now is the time to start developing those networks of support and advice. Stuff that could have been cascaded down via the LA might not be there because some of that stuff will have come from Becta …

As you form those links then let me know … I will be doing the same and happy to share mine with you. I’ll also happily share any news about what I find out about the future of what is happening with technology in education … and I hope you will do the same for me and others.


TeachMeet Hits its Fourth Birthday: Coming of Age #tmfuture

TeachMeet is entering its fifth year and the unconference for teachers, by teachers has helped hundreds – maybe thousands, in fact – to try out something new, alter the way they already teach and learn, join a community of innovative educators or completely transform their way of working.

The hope was that the model would spread. It has, but as those who have created and helped pull TeachMeet together over the past four years, we want to see it spread further, deeper and with increasing quality of input from practitioners. This post outlines how we think we might manage this. This is the beginnings of a conversation with those who care about TeachMeet. Add your views in the form of any blog post or comment or tweet – tag it #tmfuture

What are the goals of TeachMeet?
TeachMeet was originally designed to:

  • Take thinking away from the formal, often commercialised conference floor, and provide a safe place for anyone to pitch their practice
  • Provide a forum for more teachers to talk about real learning happening in real places, than one-hour conference seminar slots allow
  • Showcase emerging practice that we could all aim to undertake; sales pitches not allowed
  • Be all about the Teach, with only a nod towards tech that paved the way for new practice.
  • Provoke new ways of sharing our stories: PowerPoint was banned. We wanted people to tell stories in ways that challenged them, and the audience
  • Empower the audience to critique, ask questions and probe, all online, through SMS or, later, Twitter.

Over the years, these ‘rules’ have altered, leading to some great innovations, others less so. The answer to “What is a TeachMeet?” has become a myriad of meanings, some pretty far off the original goals. We need to help and support people to organise, run and contribute to events that build on previous ones. We need to make TeachMeet as accessible to newbies as it was in 2005. We need TeachMeet to once more find its focus.

Supporting the “infectiousness” of TeachMeets

Organising TeachMeets should not be easy. Taking part in them should be. But more support is needed for organisers:

  • Sponsorship is hard if there’s no bank account into which funds can be sent
  • Without sponsorship, any event over 30 people becomes tricky to organise while also giving people a special night of learning, the time, space and mood that gets people over their self-conscious selves
  • Paying for refreshments and venues is impossible if there’s no organisation to pay them the precise sum.
  • The best TeachMeets provide social space, social activity, entertaining MCs, good refreshments, good online coverage and some form of online ‘conclusion’ – this needs coordinating by the organiser(s), but it’s not a skill everyone will have the first time around.
  • We’ve got a superb opportunity to curate the best bits from all these TeachMeets that are happening weekly – this needs a degree of oversight.

A means to make TeachMeet more sustainable, easier to use for sponsors and organisers, and have the ability to do something spectacular
TeachMeet is owned by the community that shape it – but there needs to be a body to manage sponsorship and sponsors, and provide support for new organisers so that they maintain the TeachMeet goals. We assume that if someone is organising a ‘TeachMeet’ they would like to emulate the success of those popular early TeachMeets, and better-supported national conference ones (e.g. SLF and BETT).

What would support look like? (is this for new organisers of events? support from the TeachMeet body?)

  • Seeking of sponsorship all year round – including ways and means to get your message to as many teachers as possible
  • Brokerage of sponsorship – i.e. one place sponsors and those seeking sponsorship can come together, in a transparent manner
  • Recommendation of onsite support (good venues at discounted rates/free, A/V, event organisation [for bigger venues], catering etc)
  • Suggestions for various formats that have worked in the past
  • Mentoring from previous TeachMeet leaders including on-the-night help
  • Featuring of content and promotion of the event in a timely manner on an aggregated, higher profile TeachMeet site
  • A group calendar so that events can be seen by geography and date
  • Promotion of TeachMeet through international and national events, using contacts of existing TeachMeeters
  • In-event publicity (e.g. if you plan an event at a regional ICT day or national event, then we can help broker paper materials for insertion into packs etc)

But, above all, TeachMeet is reaching a point of saturation in the UK – things are going really well in terms of enthusing teachers about their own learning. We have a great opportunity to carry over a small proportion of the sponsorship and contributions towards creating a TeachMeet culture in countries where teacher professional development in this way is still blocked by barriers physical, financial or cultural. This is just one idea, harboured for a long time but unable to realise in the current setup.

This body can take the form of

  • A Limited company (with a Director and shareholders)
  • A Charitable Limited Company, with a board of directors and voting rights for fellow ‘shareholders’ (we could work out some way of people being ‘awarded’ shares based on [non-financial] involvement?)
  • A Social Enterprise, perhaps formed as a Limited Company (see more information on what this means and how it might work (pdf))
  • A Charity (this feels like a lot more red tape to pull through and perhaps not entirely necessary)
As we take things forward we invite you to contribute your ideas and thoughts to make things work smoothly. We want you to comment, probe and make your own suggestions before the end of June, using the tag #tmfuture

Pic: The main room awaits TeachMeet Midlands 2009 :: Ian Usher
eSafety IT Management Uncategorized

Safeguarding student email – Safermail and Exchange

Original article posted at for LearningPossibilities

I’m pretty sure that most people know my position on the use of technology to routinely lock down and block what people can access or can do. Basically, I think that not enough thought goes into it, it takes control away from the teacher and that it puts an unfeasible workload on whoever supports the school. It removes a large chunk of the classroom management which could (and should) go on … and also does not replicate what users (students *and* staff) will see in the real world (ie when they get home, or even on their mobile phones).

So, it was quite interesting to see in the recent paper from OFSTED that schools who are good and outstanding when it comes to safeguarding, there is a clear link to those that look more towards the ‘managing’ side of technology, rather than those who look at technology just for ways to block things … to lock things down. Of course, to go along with the management side of things there is a large chunk of education which is required, and there is plenty of advice and guidance out there about how to educate users when it comes to safeguarding and esafety, but I still want to delve a bit more into the technology side of things and spend some time looking at how technology becomes a positive tools for managing safeguarding.

I’ve written before about the different types of monitoring and filtering, the idea of reactive and passive solutions. Being able to actively look, in real time, at activities in the classroom will always be my preferred option for effective classroom management through technology and being able to be interactive with the students there and then is important, but occasionally you do need to take a step back from just the teacher / student relationship.

In a conversation earlier in the year with a Head I know, we were talking about concerns about filtering and how people rely on it too much to prevent unsuitable materials being available, and how some schools need to sit down and try to look at what they want to get out of any systems they use. For me, I still have concerns about email. Over the years people have seen the whole idea of what you use email filtering for has changed. Yes, you still have to deal with spam as that is still a massive issue. For Northamptonshire schools alone, I have seen 82% of email traffic being spam (that is a total of nearly 2,350,000 emails that are spam) and this is a fairly good month. Spam is a massive problem and the blocking of inappropriate emails from the outside world is important. When a student or member of staff goes home and uses a Windows Live account they find a spam filter … if they use a mail client such as Apple Mail there is a junk rule … and this is before we get into the malicious emails category. Yes, there is still too large an amount of viruses which are moved about via email. So, if you don’t block spam and potentially malicious emails / files then you are just on a hiding to nothing.

Then we get to the other aspect of email filters, something that not all schools see. Depending on which system you use for your email you have the situation about one student sends another student an offensive email. Because this has not come from the outside world (or being sent to the outside world – don’t forget we also need to protect the world from us!) then the normal filtering might not apply. Also we have to consider that we want to be more relaxed about communications between our own students.

Now the majority of filters are based on the idea of ‘if it is a naughty word then block it or at least quarantine it!’ … and you have massive lists of what the system will deem as inappropriate. Now don’t get me wrong … we are the people that put this list in here and it is full of words we have concerns about. I’m not going to start listing them here, partly because it would mean a chunk of people would not see my blog anymore as it would be filtered, but also because there are some words in there *I* had to look up! I am obviously not down with the kids anymore. So, we have set up this list, we decide to add or remove things from it (or in many cases the LA /RBC will decide) and we leave it at that.

Well, I am not happy with that … I want people to start taking more control of what is going on. Most schools don’t realise that some of the questionable emails that are sent (ie not clearly enough spam or abusive) might get quarantined … put into a pot to keep it out of the way until someone looks to see if it is ok. The problem we have here though is time. It is hard for schools to set the time aside for double checking quarantined emails.

And what happens if there are some words you are ok about, but it is the context which make them offensive. Another term for a cockerel is fine in many contexts but not all. So this is where you get into the increasingly intelligent technology. How about if you put a score down for certain words. Then set a threshold of 20 points and if it gets to that point then someone in the school gets an email to say “hey, there is this questionable email … I have let it through but you might want to check it out.” If it is 40 points then it doesn’t even get through and a stronger email is sent to a designated person in the school. Why do I like this model so much? Well … you get to spot trends. You get to see if certain students are extracting the urine, you get to also see if any new trends in language are cropping up to allow you to fine tune the filters, you get a chance to monitor on a number of areas of safeguarding including bullying and esafety.

Now I am not saying it works overnight … the first time I worked on this sort of scoring system (1999-2004) it took some months to fine tune … and you have to invest time in it to check false positives and further tweaking. Then you have to look at how you will deal with this information. Have a look at your pastoral structure for who the best person to work with this intelligence is (and yes … it is intelligence … you have now entered the arms race) and how it will be integrated into existing procedures. This is a very important fact here … there is no point in using this in isolation. If it is not part of a joined up system to deal with issues then it is technology driving the agenda and not technology as a tool to support it. It sits right alongside information that peer mentors may be given by other students, next to comments from staff and concerns from parents.

But back to the conversation between me and the Head … yes, he had a very valid point that if you are not careful having filtering on emails will just force the problems elsewhere … via text message, verbal abuse on the bus home … but these will also happen anyway. By taking control of how the filtering works for you, you can take control of that information. And then we get onto the education side of things … it changes from “Don’t swear or the filters will block it” to “Are you sure that this is appropriate language to use with one another?” We both recognise that all filtering solutions without the education to back it up will be misused. Everything from sending your first few emails, through to advanced netiquette … from protecting your identity through to understanding about data protection … but we have to start somewhere.

So this is why, when working with LP+, we have worked hard to make sure the email provided on the enable learning platform has a filtered email solution and is as granular as *you* want it to be. Anyone running an Exchange server should not only be filtering their incoming and outgoing emails, but also the emails between users, in a fine tuned manner, not just a blanket ban!

Anyone running an Exchange server should not only be filtering their incoming and outgoing emails, but also the emails between users, in a fine tuned manner, not just a blanket ban! Anyone taking a filtering system from their LA / RBC should be asking about how it is configured. Schools should take a look at the options different technologies can give them to support pastoral issues. It might be that you only need to look at this occasionally, you might not want to put the time to it as you need to concentrate on other options, but, as always, an informed decision allows you to plan for all areas and make better judgements.