Tag: UK (page 1 of 2)

Anarchy in the UK? The reasons behind the breakdown of social order.

I wrote this for another website with a mainly US-centric audience. They felt (quite rightly) that the following was a bit too ‘political’ to go on their site. Although there’s much in it I’ve said before about the riots and social justice, I didn’t want to let it go to waste…

Shop Fire

For four nights between the 6th and the 10th of August this year riots broke out across England. Now that the dust has settled on the violence and looting which spread from London to other major English cities many have been asking the question why did rioting break out?

BBC News magazine ran an useful  article on the various explanations that were given for the rioting. The ten they listed were:

  1. Welfare dependence
  2. Social exclusion
  3. Lack of fathers
  4. Spending cuts
  5. Weak policing
  6. Racism
  7. Gangsta rap and culture
  8. Consumerism
  9. Opportunism
  10. Technology and social networking

The trouble with these explanations is that they place most of the burden of responsibility and blame upon the rioters rather than understanding people as being (at least partly) the product of their environment.

As a Philosophy graduate, a former History teacher and a researcher into Digital and New Literacies the riots interested me greatly. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment behind this article in the Economist, for example, that we should “avoid moral panic and a rush to historically-illiterate judgement” as concern about the ‘youth of today’ is far from a (post)modern phenomenon.

But there is something wrong with England. As a friend confided, “people who are happy tend not to riot”. He has a point and I’d like to explain why, from where I stand, the riots broke out. The ten explanations highlighted by the BBC are, of course, all factors but I believe there to be one, underlying, cause: systemic injustice. Let me explain.

England is part of the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy making the entire population subjects of the Royal Family. Executive power is exercised by the government on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen with politicians elected through the First Past the Post system. This means, historically-speaking, that governments are more likely to gain a clear majority but also means that they (for a variety of reasons) are more likely to be formed from centre or centre-right parties.

This background is important when it comes to understanding the systemic injustice engrained in the political system. As subjects of the Royal Family we have no US-style fourth amendment rights, although we do have recourse through the Human Rights Act to the European Court of Human Rights (apart from Protocol 12 on discrimination). Interestingly (and worryingly) Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed such human rights for the riots, claiming that they “fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.”

The problem with England is not too much democracy or Human Rights, it’s not enough. The implicit social contract between the government and its people has been broken: young people can be imprisoned for up to four years for starting a Facebook group, whilst bankers in state-owned, bailed-out banks who precipitated the financial mess we find ourselves in still receive bonuses.

To blame rioting on social networking, then, is to completely miss the point. In a country where we now have over 20% youth unemployment (some of whom are subsequently forced to work for large multinationals for no pay), increasingly high-stakes testing in schools, and a new (expensive) university fee regime, young people are, perhaps, wondering what stake they have in this elitist society?

So, do I condemn the rioters? I condemn their actions, certainly, but I would ask just how an increasingly marginalised populace, young people who have seen the failure of peaceful, intelligently-run protests against the rise in university fees, can and should respond. The government wouldn’t take notice of them before. They’re certainly taking notice now.

What we have to guard against, after the opportunism of some rioters, is the opportunism of a right-wing government intent on pushing through reforms likely to increase structural inequality of our country. Evicting marginalised people from their council houses who were embroiled in the rioting, for example, may exact retribution but it is not in the long-term interests of the individuals themselves (or of communities and taxpayers, for that matter).

This is not a broken country, but it is sick. The way towards a cure it is not through reactionary, top-down measures that increase structural inequality and prevent social cohesion. The cure is through investing in people, by reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest in society, and in encouraging grassroots, horizontal ownership of communities. Only by doing this will we prevent another outbreak of what we saw earlier this month.

Image CC BY-SA AndyArmstrong

What would a post-test era look like for our schools?

Multiple-choice

“[I]s anyone surprised that a huge swath of our population can’t speak intelligently about the larger issues that face us? No doubt, the financial mess we’re in and climate change and the Middle East and the rest are complex, fast changing issues that can be difficult for anyone to keep up with. (I’m no exception.) But again, have our schools really been cultivating the learning dispositions needed to grapple with those topics as they evolve? We give a lot of lip service to problem solving and critical thinking and the like, but I’m not convinced that those and other really important skills and literacies are showing up meaningfully in more than 10% of classrooms in this country because in large measure, they’re not on the test. It’s about content and knowledge, not learning.” (Will Richardson)

Introduction

My son, Ben, is four years old. He’s just finished his first year in school nursery and will move up to Reception class in September. For international readers, it’s important to bear in mind that in England children do not have to go to school until they are five years old – we could have chosen to enrol him in January 2012. He’s very much enjoyed wearing his school uniform, meeting new people and learning new things. Ben loves going to school.

But.

There’s two classes next year into which Ben and his friends are to be divided. Both are Reception/Year 1 mixed. To cut a long story short, the rumour went around the parents at the school gate that one was a ‘more able’ class and one a ‘lower ability’ class (which, from a teacher’s perspective is ridiculous: you’d just split them into Reception and Year 1). In addition, my neice who has just finished Reception (in a different school) has just been scored at 104 out of 117. For what, you may ask? Exactly. But we’re all proud of her anyway.

The Perils of Testing

The amount of testing that children in my family will undertake during their educational career is even more than my wife and I had to undertake when we were at school. And that was more than enough. Testing is a form of competition which seems to be the dominant discourse in society. This saddens me. In the quotation from Will Richardson above he’s concerned that teachers focus unduly on the test. As a former teacher who attempted to rebel against such a system I can confirm that, at the end of the day, it’s a choice between selling-out (and teaching to the test) or quitting. My wife, a Primary school teacher, and I have both been asked several times in our careers to change teacher assessments because they didn’t demonstrate linear progress when plotted on a graph. That’s just not acceptable; if children’s progress is to be charted it should be done properly.

A data-driven culture in schools would be fine if the numbers in a spreadsheet mattered less than the individual child, but I’m not sure that they do. As I explained in Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy? these numbers stay with, and label children, throughout their educational career. It’s performativity at its worst: to be successful children have to learn how to ‘do school’ rather than learn those things which will help them function in society.

The Solution?

When my son Ben stops enjoying doing something he moves onto something else. And that’s fine by me – although I’m fairly hot on discipline, I work with his interests and attention span. Whilst I’m confident that this has been the case this year whilst he’s been in school nursery, I’m not so sure it will continue throughout his educational career. Unless our family manage to instil in him a growth mindset he’s likely to equate test results with some kind of ‘inate ability’. That’s dangerous territory.

What happens when children start demonstrating what Carol Dweck calls ‘fixed’ mindsets? If they’re successful they choose the easy option to prove their ‘intelligence’. If they’re not so successful they’re liable to disengage with schooling. For some, this involves staring out the window, for others poor behaviour, and for yet others voting with their feet. According to The Guardian truancy is on the rise – and it’s increasing even in Primary schools.

I think we need to step back and take stock. As with Purpos/ed (asking what is the purpose of education?) we need to ask what is the purpose of assessment? Once we understand that perhaps we’ll be able to decide whether we care about PISA, whether high-stakes testing does more harm to our society than good, and whether what we’re currently doing is conducive to developing growth mindsets in young people.

Perhaps a good place to start would be investing in meaningful continuing professional development for teachers and trusting their judgements? Now there’s an idea.

A Post-test school

What would an education system look like that had moved beyond testing? Perhaps we should look at Finland. According to this article, the Fins manage to do very well without high-stakes testing:

There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism, they can trust their teachers. Their motto is “Trust Through Professionalism.” The difference between the highest performing school in Finland and the lowest performing school in Finland is less than four percent, and that’s without any testing at all.

I believe a post-test school would be collaborative instead of competitive. It would be project-driven. The staff would be happy and the children relaxed. Truancy would be minimal.

But how, I hear you ask, would universities and employers decide who to employ? How would we identify talent?

Again, I think we need to step back and look at the wider picture and challenge the paucity of our collective imagination. It baffles me why we abstract away from personality and interests to represent ourselves on paper in black and white, sending an application to persons unknown at an educational institution or organization we barely know. Far better would be to change the whole system, to predicate it upon relationships and much richer, informative and – yes – passionate representations of ourselves. Why not have such institutions and businesses approaching young people and job hunters rather than the other way around?

Conclusion

I don’t know of anyone who knows about education in the UK who thinks that the status quo is desirable or tenable. Everyone is dissatisfied and the elephant in the room is our assessment regime. Let’s do something about it. Let’s kick up a fuss. Let’s tell the world that whilst we’ve got qualifications of which we may be proud, they’re not necessarily relevant or desirable for our children. And while we’re at it, let’s get back to human relationships rather than children-as-spreadsheets.

Who’s with me?

Image CC BY-NC-SA COCOEN daily photos

You don’t ‘build’ better teachers.

Teachers are not robots. You can’t add new modules, reprogram them, or expect them to work regardless of context. These seem to be facts completely alien to Elizabeth Green, writing in an article for the New York Times which appeared in March 2010. It genuinely surprised me that she’d actually set foot in a classroom, never mind being a ‘fellow of education’ at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Whatever that means.

It’s far from a logically-structured article. But an article doesn’t have to be logical to be dangerous – the Daily Mail is proof of that. To summarise, Green seems to be advocating, through a clumsy juxtaposition of quotations and roundabout argumentation that:

  1. Teaching is a science that can be taught.
  2. We need ‘better’ teachers (and the only way to measure this is through student test scores)
  3. Doug Lemov is awesome because he published a book highlighting basic teaching techniques.
  4. Money is probably the most important factor in recruiting better teachers.
  5. Classroom management and specialist knowledge are key to teaching.

Number five is obvious and the other four are obviously wrong: teaching is more art than science, teaching and learning are about much more than examinations, Lemov is just another author, and no-one goes into (nor would go into) teaching for the money.

Simply writing a misguided article isn’t dangerous. It’s dangerous when the author confuses and conflates several different issues to create an ambiguity in the sixth way defined by William Empson:

An ambiguity of the sixth type occurs when a statement says nothing, by tautology, by contradiction, or by irrelevant statements; so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another. (Seven Types of Ambiguity, p.176)

By neglecting to state explicitly what makes a ‘good’ teacher, Green fosters an ambiguity that, by the end of the article, she seemingly wants you to resolve by believing in the following howlers:

  • She criticises “proponents of No Child Left Behind” for seeing “standardised testing as the solution” but later quotes with approval findings that show “the top 5 percent of teachers” being able to “impart a year and a half’s worth of learning to students in one year, as judged by standardised tests.” (my emphasis)
  • By constructing a narrative (through the juxtaposition of third-party quotations) the article seems to show that paying teachers more leads to an improved ‘calibre’ of teacher. Measured by? “Standardised test scores”. These quotations, it becomes evident by the end of the article, merely mask the author’s opinion.
  • Green snipes at constructivism, “a theory of learning that emphasises the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else”. No it doesn’t. Do your homework.
  • She assumes that there is one way to be a ‘good’ teacher, that this is unchanging, and that it is independent of context. Quoting with approval Lemov’s assertion that classroom management is as “learnable as playing a guitar”, Green turns on the hyperbole (in what quickly turns into a puff-piece for Lemov and his book) with phrases such as “he pointed to the screen, their eyes raced after his finger.”

Usually I would ignore this as just another article written by another just another American in just another country. However, it would seem that the even-more-dangerous Michael Gove, a man against whom I tactically voted, is determined to bring the education system in the UK to its knees by a slavish aping of the worst parts of the American education system.

I despair.

Media Literacy: the biggest enemy of UK ‘digital literacy’ initiatives?

This is my (very) first draft of the UK element to a chapter of my Ed.D. thesis where I’m looking at government policy in relation to ‘literacies of the digital’. I’ll also be looking at the Norway and the EU more generally, Singapore and North America (US/Canada). I really hope I’ve missed the point with what follows and that there’s massive UK government interest and funding for proper digital literacy-type initiatives…

Whilst pockets of discussion about ‘digital literacy’ exist both in official reports and online, the main focus around ‘literacies of the digital’ in the UK is upon ‘media literacy’. Initiatives in this area include bodies such as the BBC, Ofcom, UK Film and the British Library. Bodies such as Futurelab mention digital literacy often in their publications but, as is the issue with all externally-funded bodies, the money follows government pronouncements and policies.

Following the Digital Britain report (DCMS & BIS, 2009) the aim of the UK government was to promote ‘digital participation’. The follow-up plan was to encompass ‘three distinct but interdependent strands’: digital inclusion, digital life skills, and digital media literacy – with the latter defined as “the ability to use, understand and create digital media and communications” (DCMS & BIS, 2010). However, the National Plan for Digital Participation [PDF] was ill-fated, launched only a few months before a General Election saw a change of government. The Digital Participation website, set up alongside the National Plan, now states:

As part of the major review of public expenditure, the Government has re-scoped the digital participation programme. The limited funding which is now available will be focused on supporting the activities to encourage people to go online and led by the UK Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox.” (accessed November 2010)

The institutions mentioned above have staked their claim in the arena of literacies of the digital. Media literacy, the promotion of which since 2003 has been the responsibility of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) is considered separately from ‘digital participation’. The latter, more narrowly defined since the advent of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government, is concerned with connecting all homes with broadband by 2012. The Race Online 2012 website sets out a manifesto with two key aims, “no one should retire without web skills” and “everyone of working age should be online”. Curiously, the ‘manifesto’ makes no commitments by the government, rather seeking to ‘challenge’ individuals and organizations in the UK to meet these targets. Some may call this empty rhetoric.

Evidence of the UK government’s low-level basic skills definition of ‘digital literacy’ can be found in the pronouncement within the Race Online 2012 manifesto:

Digital literacy is a great enabler of social mobility. It is a way for those who have had bad experiences of institutions to re-engage in learning. And it can break down feelings of social isolation. It is a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. (Rt. Hon. Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Department, Work and Pensions)

‘Using a computer connected to the internet’ and ‘digital literacy’ are seen as synonymous not only in this manifesto, but in wider publications by the government. The critical element of literacies of the digital is served by discussion of ‘media literacy’ with ‘digital literacy’ reserved for basic skills:

‘Get Digital’ will work with residents, scheme staff, RSLs and the wider community including local schools, as well as DWP, to promote, deliver and sustain digital literacy skills for older residents in sheltered housing. (DCMS & BIS, 2010, p.43)

In 2004, after a Communications Bill that would lead to Ofcom, the UK Film Council and Channel 4 organised a seminar entitled Inform and Empower: Media Literacy in the 21st Century. This seminar, attended by two hundred delegates including representatives from the BBC, the British Film Institute, “government, Ofcom, industry, education, [and] media arts organisations” (UK Film Council, 2004:2) was addressed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Whilst the introduction by the Chair of the UK Film Council espouses a standard definition of media literacy (“learn[ing] about the power and influence of moving images” – UK Film Council, 2004:3) the report of the Secretary of State’s address states shows signs of the basic skills definition the UK government later settled upon implicitly for ‘digital literacy’: “It is the content delivered to people that matters” (UK Film Council, 2004:8)

This seminar led to the creation of a Media Literacy Task Force (MLTF) with membership comprising the BBC, the British Board of Film Classification, the British Film Institute, Channel 4, ITV, the Media Education Association, the UK Film Council and Skillset. The MLTF came up with the following wide-ranging definition of media literacy:

A media literate society is… not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons – as we try to make sense of a sea of Reality TV, iPod downloads and streaming video on the Internet.

This is what encouraging media literacy is really all about: giving people the choice to communicate, create and participate fully in today’s fast-moving world.  And this will help create a society in which everyone is enfranchised – whatever their economic, social and ethnic background – and in which the UK’s creative and knowledge economies are able to draw upon the widest possible bank of creators and producers.” (http://www.medialiteracy.org.uk/medialiteracy)

It is arguably this all-encompassing, ‘umbrella’ definition of media literacy and its subsequent formalisation and dissemination through the form of a charter that has marginalised the kind of ‘digital literacy’ initiatives seen elsewhere in the world. The MLTF, disbanded as of December 2009, promulgated the charter to other EU member countries with Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden becoming also becoming signatories to the identical European Charter for Media Literacy.

Given that the MLTF no longer exists and digital literacy in anything other than a ‘basic skills’ sense is not currently part of the UK government’s financially-crippled ‘digital participation’ plan, it is difficult to see from where the critical element of ‘literacies of the digital’ will come from. Whilst some work by JISC (2009) and more informally by Josie Fraser (2009) has pointed the way in the educational sphere, the momentum, interest and willingness of other nations who have embraced digital literacy is lacking. Initiatives, reports and resources such as Film: 21st Century Literacy by the UK Film Council have meant that the room for discussion about digital literacy and its relation to media literacy, remains small.

The bibliography for my whole Ed.D. thesis as it currently stands can be found here.

Unlike the rest of this blog, this post (because it relates to my unpublished thesis) is Copyright, All Rights Reserved.

Why we need Proportional Representation [infographic]

For those who’ve been under a rock it was General Election time in the UK this week. The results were pretty much a slap in the face for all of the parties involved. What was clear was that, given the current system, no party really had a clear mandate from the electorate.

I didn’t actually see the great David McCandless’ effort until after I finished mine but we’re effectively showing the same story: the electoral system in the UK needs to be reformed. We need to move from a combative first-past-the-post system to a fairer system that promotes negotiation and compromise.

Proportional representation (PR), sometimes referred to as full representation, is a type of voting system aimed at securing a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates obtain in elections, and the percentage of seats they receive (e.g., in legislative assemblies).

PR is often contrasted to plurality voting systems, such as those commonly used in the United States and (much of) the United Kingdom, where disproportional seat distribution results from the division of voters into multiple electoral districts, especially “winner takes all” plurality (“first-past-the-post” or FPTP) districts.

(Wikipedia)

Why I’m using iPREDator now the Digital Economy Bill has been passed

Introduction

We just love our unelected leaders in the UK. Not only did Gordon Brown get to become Prime Minister without being elected to the position, but Peter (now ‘Lord’) Mandelson has his fingers in more pies of government behind the scenes that I think most people realise. I always think of Gríma Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings when I see him.

And now, of course, Mandelson is ‘First Secretary of State’, an honorific title all but making him Deputy Prime Minister. Oh, and he’s also Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills as well as President of the Board of Trade. It’s a complete coincidence, of course, that his interest in the Digital Britain agenda (and ‘protecting’ intellectual property rights) was piqued after being wined and dined by David Geffen, co-founder of the Dreamworks studio with Steven Spielberg.

The Digital Economy Act

You would have thought that after all the scandal about MP’s expenses that Parliament would have cleaned itself up. Unfortunately the closest they get to this is a process called ‘wash-up’. Unfortunately, as Martin Bell writes in the Guardian:

This unfortunately has nothing to do with cleansing parliament from its many stains of corruption – more necessary now than ever. It is the term used to describe the negotiations between the parties to decide which bills will survive at the end of the parliamentary session and which will not. It is a secretive process, the modern equivalent of the smoke-filled room. Those taking part are the parties’ whips and business managers, plus officials from various government departments. Those excluded are the rank and file of MPs, together with independents and crossbenchers in the Lords. The wash-up is a stitch-up devised by and for the main political parties.

Whilst you can read the Digital Economy Bill (and subsequent Act) online, it’s best summarized in articles like this one. The bits that really irritate me?

  • Government powers to cut off internet connections of those suspected in illegal file-sharing activities.
  • More government control over who can register .uk domain names and for what purposes.

As many commentators have pointed out, once the heavy hand of the State is upon you, the burden of proof will rest with you to prove that you haven’t been engaging in illegal activities. Proving that you haven’t done something is obviously a lot harder than you have.

iPREDator

Fortunately, there’s others who think like me. Not least the people behind both The Pirate Bay and the Swedish Pirate Party who have come up with iPREDator (named, ironically, after the PRED legislation in Sweden). It gives users a way of staying anonymous online.

How does it work? Via VPN (Virtual Private Network). Basically, they provide a tunnel through the internet and a proxy server through which to access everything online. You route your internet traffic through this and they guarantee not to spill the beans.

Why do I feel the need to cover my tracks? I’m not a massive user of Bittorrent and I’m certainly not engaged in any terrorist activities. But I do object to the State spying on me and potentially accusing me of stuff to shut down my internet connection. So I’m protecting myself.

How about you?

Assessment in UK schools: a convenient hypocrisy?

Dilbert on graphs

There’s a couple of lines in the otherwise-average film In The Loop that not only made me laugh but made me think. At one point in the film, a British civil servant is remonstrating with his US counterpart. They end up in a very modern-looking chapel within a government building. The British civil servant starts shouting and swearing at which point the American reminds him that they’re in a sacred place, adding:

Neither of us believes that, but it’s a convenient hypocrisy.

I’ve realised that convenient hypocrisies happen often. Unfortunately, I believe it happens with assessment in UK schools every day. 🙁

Now I’m no expert on assessment, but even I know that research has established the following:

  1. Students regress as well as progress due to emotional, psychological, sociological (and other) factors.
  2. National curriculum levels and sub-levels are intended as summative, end of Key Stage assessments.
  3. Not all students progress at the same rate.

Yet, in all of the schools I’ve worked in during my teaching career, we’ve done the following:

  • Used National Curriculum level descriptors on a half-termly (or even a weekly) basis.
  • Set students targets based on the number of National Curriculum sub-levels an ‘average student’ will get through during a Key Stage.
  • Make few allowances as to the reasons why students’ attainment might fluctuate.
  • ‘Level’ as much work as possible when we know that doing so destroys any impact formative comments may have.

Using data systems based on numbers for assessment purposes looks impressive, gives control to senior leaders and produces pretty graphs and reports for parents. But is it useful to students? I’d argue that it’s not. Students become hung up on progressing through National Curriculum levels that aren’t always coherent and meaningful. It’s also very easy for Heads of Department to artificially inflate the National Curriculum levels of students whom they’d like to take their subject at GCSE. After all, if you’re a Year 9 student and you’re on a Level 6b in Geography and a 5c in History, which one are you going to take?

The reason for my inclusion of that particular Dilbert cartoon at the top of this post is that I reckon most UK teachers couldn’t differentiate between a Level 4b and 4a in their subject. In fact, the distinction’s pretty meaningless. I’ve seen some schools use the sub-levels as following:

  • Level 4c – some work at Level 4 standard
  • Level 4b – most work at Level 4 standard
  • Level 4a – all work at Level 4 standard

In that case, why use the sub-levels in the first place? :-s

It’s my belief that Assessment for Learning, that buzz-phrase from a couple of years ago, has been hijacked and contorted into something it’s not. I’m certainly not arguing against students knowing where they’re at in a subject and how to improve. It’s just that using National Curriculum levels as a means for doing this smacks of laziness to me. Instead, professional teachers should be able to convey the key skills, processes and subject knowledge students need to be able to progress. That’s just good teaching.

If the above has left you feeling the need to brush up on your knowledge of assessment, you might want to read Beyond the Black Box and/or view the TeachersTV videos on the subject.

What are YOUR views on assessment? :-p

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Introducing TweetMeet

TweetMeet

Twitter‘s great. It allows you to not only network in semi-realtime, but also to have access to a network of experts and engage in borderless conversations. Usually, these are people with which you share something major in common. In my case, almost all of my Twitter friends are educators.

That’s all well-and-good, but there’s really nothing like meeting up face-to-face to discuss things. That’s why conferences still thrive in this Web 2.0 world. To facilitate Twitter meet-ups – or ‘TweetMeets’ – I’ve set up a new website:

http://tweetmeet.eu

Why .eu? Well, the domain name was cheap… 😉 (feel free to use it worldwide!)

Head on over! I’m not allowing just anyone to edit the whole thing as I don’t want it taken over by non-educators. If you’d like a login to be able to organize TweetMeets, send me your email address via direct message on Twitter. (d dajbelshaw Hi…)

If you want to discuss TweetMeet, can I suggest that you use the global hashtag #tweetmeet please? (# is ALT-3 on UK Mac keyboards) You can then track the conversations at Twemes.com 🙂

Edit: Inugural TweetMeet planned for Saturday in August – either 2nd or 9th. Tweet @dajbelshaw with your preferences for meeting up in the Peak District, England! 😀

Gym’ll Fix It!

(This post is mainly going to be of benefit to UK-based readers of my blog. I’m not affiliated with PruHealth in any way!)

Hannah and I are big fans of the Money Saving Expert website run by Martin Lewis. He’s a minor celebrity in England, having his own TV programme (albeit on Five). If you haven’t already signed up for his weekly newsletter, I really would. 🙂

Last year, one thing he recommended was PruHealth. It’s a private health insurance scheme which rewards you for becoming, and remaining, healthy. We looked into it but really couldn’t afford it at the time. Also, with Ben having just been born, time wasn’t really something we had in abundance. Now, however, things are different. Life with Ben is a bit more calm and structured now and with my new position next year we’ll have (slightly) more disposable income.

Just to give you some idea of how good a deal this is for us in particular, it would cost £42 each to join the gym we’ve just signed up for. With the PruHealth scheme, our premiums are £27 each per month and we get the gym free! Granted, for the first 3 months it’s slightly more whilst they assess your usage, but if you average 2 or more sessions per week, all you pay is your health insurance premium from then on. If we do the health checks every 6 months and average around 2.5 sessions per week our premiums will more than halve. Yes, that’s right: next year we’ll probably both be going to the gym and have private health insurance for less than £25! 😀

I went for my initial PruHealth check and gym induction today. Much as Steve Dembo is doing with Wii Fit, I’m planning to post my fitness levels every so often. I used to post details of the GPS-tracked runs I did via my Nokia N95. I stopped that as soon as I realised people would be able to pinpoint exactly where I live (or used to live – we’re moving this month!) 😮

So, what follows is my baseline. Please bear in mind that I haven’t exercised more than about once per week since Ben was born (16 months ago), that I’m mildly asthmatic, and that I had a huge cup of coffee this morning! The latter probably explains my high blood pressure reading (hopefully…)

  • Weight: 81.4kg (171 pounds)
  • BMI: 23.2 (should be 20-25)
  • Blood Pressure: 139/89 (should be 120/80)
  • Pulse (after 3-minute step activity): 106 (lower = better)
  • VO2* Test: 38 (should be 42+)
  • Cooper’s Run**: 2.51km (further = better)

There’s a selection of gym’s to choose from, but our local one is Cannons Health Club in Doncaster. Alongside the gym, there’s a studio for various classes (I like the look of Body Attack – a combination of boxing and keep-fit), and a swimming pool, sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, etc. We’re all going after church tomorrow – Ben’s going to have weekly swimming lessons from his Daddy (I used to swim for my county many years ago…) 😉

With the advantages PruHealth gives us and with the requirement to go at least twice per week, this is a long-term deal which could just revolutionise the life of the Belshaw family!

*VO2 Test = volume of oxygen you can consume whilst exercising. This was tested by using a treadmill to walk for 3 minutes whilst measuring heart rate and taking into account age, height and weight.
**Cooper’s Run = the distance you can cover by running on a treadmill for 12 minutes.

Image: Quick Start by akeg @ Flickr

What is a VLE?

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about VLEs and how schools will soon be required to have them. It’s easy for parents (and teachers for that matter) to get a little confused. :-s

So… what is a VLE? Easy! Wikipedia has the answer:

A virtual learning environment (VLE) is a software system designed to support teaching and learning in an educational setting, as distinct from a Managed Learning Environment (MLE) where the focus is on management. A VLE will normally work over the Internet and provide a collection of tools such as those for assessment (particularly of types that can be marked automatically, such as multiple choice), communication, uploading of content, return of students work, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collecting and organising student grades, questionnaires, tracking tools, and similar. New features in these systems include wikis, blogs and RSS.

While originally created for distance education, VLEs are now most often used to supplement the face-2-face classroom, commonly known as Blended Learning.

End of blog post? Not quite. 😉

Becta (“the Government’s lead agency for Information and Communications Technology… in education, covering the United Kingdom”) has specified certain requirements for VLEs, which must be implemented in schools by the beginning of the new 2008/9 academic year. I was going to list them here, but the requirements are quite large in number. You can see the functional specifications for VLEs (also sometimes called ‘learning platforms’) on the Becta website here.

There are 10 ‘approved Learning Platform Services Framework’ suppliers (name of product in brackets – unless same as name of company!):

Sadly, Moodle, the open-source Content Management System (CMS) doesn’t make it onto the list, although, pleasingly, Fronter is based on open technology with the source code available to clients. 🙂

There are other VLEs available – for example Doncaster, where I teach, has gone for FrogTeacher from 2008/9 onwards. Despite the bizarre name, I was quite impressed with it when I had a play with it at the BETT show earlier this year.

***I had criticized TALMOS in this section, but they contacted my school to ask me remove my ‘potentially commercially damaging’ comments. It’s a shame to be effectively silenced through legal threats when all I did was compare their offering unfavourably against another…*** 🙁

The QIA Excellence Gateway has a useful diagram for gaining an overview of the functionality of a VLE:

The problem I have with all this is twofold:

  • The focus doesn’t seem to be on learning. It seems to be upon assessment and streamlining communication between educational institutions and external agencies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but to call it a ‘learning environment’ or ‘learning platform’ is something of a misnomer.
  • The majority of ‘approved’ VLE suppliers aren’t education-specific. Therefore, however much they may protest that they’ve built their VLE solution from the ‘ground-up’, it’s likely to be heavily influenced by the world of business. As I’ve argued elsewhere and (metaphorically) until I’m hoarse, schools and businesses are not, and should not be, alike. They have different needs and methods of operation.

To my mind, and you’ll have to read the aforementioned Becta functional specification for VLEs to really see what I mean, everything that should be ‘mandatory’ for a VLE seems to be merely ‘recommended’. Instead, it’s those things such as communication, record-keeping and assessment that are mandatory and core to the specifications. What does this mean in practice? The potentially transformative Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, VOIP tools, RSS feeds, etc.) mentioned as ‘recommended’ in the specification take second place and will either not be included at all or take second place to the other features. I really hope that pressure from teachers, parents and students means that all VLE suppliers are forced to enable these tools in a meaningful way.

The Doncaster approach, where schools are (in effect) given free access to a chosen VLE solution, could be useful. This potentially creates a district-wide intranet similar to the GLOW network in Scotland. Whilst the latter is likely to be the result of a lot more joined-up thinking, the former could lead to a situation of more collaborative teaching and learning. I can’t help but think, however, that having a well-thought-out and useful government-funded national intranet is a much better way of going about things than perpetuating a marketplace in education for companies more interested in profit than personalisation of learning. As Martin Weller (Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University) pointed out last year, VLEs are already out of date – the way forward is loosely-coupled, not central-and-monolithic… :-p

I’d be interested to hear YOUR thoughts on VLEs, whether or not you live in the UK. Has your institution got a VLE? Are you happy with it?

Further reading:

css.php