This penultimate post about my Fronter project is a continuation of my progress report on Fronter, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and pupil feedback. I hope to revisit this discussion after the next part of my placement.
Here, I will discuss iterative development of my VLE room based on reflective thoughts about the school and the pupils; peer feedback and formative feedback from our tutor.
Containers Are Go
The first thing I did based on Helen’s feedback was to remove any containers and modules that had no existing purpose and make sure that every container in the welcome area led somewhere. My original idea of have a couple of mysterious blank modules (Another Mystery… but not yet) as a way of inviting pupils to create new modules themselves (a podcast was one possibility that the group was excited about) is something I might return to when I go back to the school next term.
Emergent Learning Forums
I created a new module called Pixels Talk, which is an open forum for the pupils to discuss all things related and unrelated to the project. Helen had noticed that one of the pupils had asked another about how to import images (emergent learning?), and this type of exchange would be more noticeable to other pupils in a forum designed for open communication unrelated to a particular learning outcome. So I did that.
The Disappearance of Google
I also created a new module called The Disappearance, again based on Helen’s advice to add some extra challenge for gifted and talented pupils as an extension activity. I have attempted to integrate Google Maps into Fronter without much success so I have temporarily inserted an image as a stimulus to enable my pupils and I to leave Fronter (yes, we’re leaving!) and explore Google Maps as a resource to support my visual literacy lesson.
Feedback Automation and Functionality
Going back to my original series of lessons in the VLE, I was very happy with the results I achieved in such a short time with the pupils; all credit is due to them, not to me or my room design. I think the fact that the Mysteries of Harris Burdick is such an excellent children’s book may also have something to with it. I did spend time on the forums giving each child personalised feedback; I enjoyed this very much and the processes epitomised everything I love about teaching. I considered developing automated feedback processes as a way of improving efficiency. One option was to include one or more tests with closed answers that could be marked by Fronter, but I decided against tests simply because of the aesthetic of tests in Fronter.
If you have used tests in your room you will know that the visual feedback you get when you submit your test is very poor indeed. I have completed some tests in rooms created by colleagues and I was disappointed by the way my results were reported back to me. There is no dynamic feedback; answers appear in a bizarre shade of green that you have to squint at to perceive… — no thanks.
I have found a way of slightly automating feedback though. I can cut and pate standard responses, but I’m not sure my pupils would like that very much! If there was some secret process in Fronter to make feedback and testing more enjoyable, then I’m sorry to say I missed it.
Smart Device Access to Fronter
This raises a question about Fronter’s ability (or lack thereof) to alert the teacher of pupil activity and for pupils to receive immediate updates from the teacher, say, to and from a remote device such as a phone or tablet dashboard. This type of functionality is now becoming the norm, rather than the exceptional bonus. It is something that must be improved by Fronter and Pearson if they expect Fronter to survive.
From Textese to English
The way the children used SMS language and then shifted to standard English for shared writing (while keeping smileys) shows that they were experiencing the tension between their creative impulse (composition) and self-imposed discipline (transcription). I had mentioned this during the lesson. Telling pupils that textese and chatspeak is not appropriate does work if they want to write. But they have to want to write.
It’s All About The Book
Informal learning was assured by the fact that each pupil had their own copy of the book to take home, and the forums were always available for them to enter their responses and homework. Sometimes the forums were buzzing – and that was gratifying to see. But the key artefact in the learning process was the book, not Fronter. Fronter’s role was to support the learning and enhance digital literacy, but the touchstone was the book itself. In that respect, both the book and Fronter did their jobs, but the book went beyond the call of duty. It seems to me that the process of blended learning through VLE and supporting children’s book worked well. One result that I was very happy about is this amazing piece of work, which I feel deserves to be mentioned in support of the blended approach:
Pupils used the brainstorm forum to brainstorm vocabulary they thought went well with the book. But Fronter does not handle the mapping of ideas very well. The idea is surrounded by frames, commands and pictograms. The ideas get lost in Fronter's poor visualisation. I will try to use another mapping tool next term.
Fronter: The Final Analysis
Clicking the back button on Fronter is a little like playing a slot machine. With this essential dilemma in place, using Fronter becomes an exercise in continuous incertitude.
Initially, we see the basic benefits of Fronter:
- It works very well as a portfolio of evidence for the trainee teacher and school
- It offers a basically good communication matrix in the form of multiple forum styles
- Good reporting helps monitor pupil activity and engagement
- By offering a basic suite of services, it keeps teaching and learning focused and centralised, closed off from much of the weird nonsense on the internet
- Fronter introduces children to the rigour of a good corporate knowledge management system and in doing so, prepares good little knowledge workers of the future (this may not necessarily be a benefit if you agree with in Ken Robinson about changing paradigms)
- Fronter works well as a repository of pupil knowledge (knowledge management), but not as a tool for knowledge transfer (learning management)
When we attempt to reconstruct the functionalities we expect from Web 2.0, we run into problems:
- No batch processing of setups and replications
- Switching between edit and view is time-consuming and irritating
- Containers can have a background colour, but no background image
- You can't see what you're doing… Where's the save button?
- Inability to move containers to other pages (unless they are archived) in the way Ajax will allow. I found myself trying to drag the container around the desktop or at least right click the container to bring up a menu which might suggest options like archive, move or what have you
- When using forums, only really workable and graphically sane format is the conversation – the others don’t make sense to me
- The ‘Fronter metaphors’, that Fronter is a ‘digital school building’ with ‘rooms’ as classrooms is a poorly executed, because the entrance hall does not feel like an entrance hall. It look and feels like a typical ‘Sharepoint’ type user environment. And the room is a box that says ‘Room’ on it. Am I missing something?
- You could contribute to a forum or someone could respond to one of your forum posts; and it would be days before you notice because Fronter does not offer a basic functionality of most forums the RSS or email alert
- Fronter does not offer semantic recognition of text, so the tests are purely arithmetic
- The fact that such a common test an arithmetic test cannot even be created with a methodical layout. The type of multiple choice layout for the questions, answers and results is firstly non-mathematical, and secondly so poorly laid out as to be almost invisible for a child with limited eyesight or poor spatial perception. One might argue that algorithmic or vertical layouts could be created by the teacher, but isn’t one the supposed qualities of Fronter that it takes way the drudgery and tedium of test-setting? Not only test tedious but they are unattractive. There is no discernable benefit other that the MIS advantage but I would rather enter my own results into spreadsheet than keep using Fronter for arithmetic tests.
- You cannot expect to teach pupils to a high standard of visual and digital literacy when the very tool that is prescribed for use across the school system is of a poor standard from a visual (aesthetic) and digital (functional) perspective.
- There are no design template built it, you have to do things over and over again. Why is not possible to copy containers? Fronter is neither powerful enough for experts, nor simple enough for amateurs; it straddles some bizarre netherworld of frustration and obviousness.
Some things I have learnt while doing this
Many of the Web 2.0 tools we take for granted, such as wikis, blogs, microblogs and mobile apps have demonstrable benefits in the classroom. Fronter could include these tools as part of its toolset, but it does not do so in a persuasive or convincing way.
So the obvious response is to move away from Fronter and work with these tools outside the borders of the school VLE – but then we run into well-documented e-safety problems.
So we can stick with Fronter, and stay ‘safe’ (even though many of our activities will have led our pupils outside Fronter) or we can seriously discuss the need for a new a paradigm: the web itself is bigger and better than any VLE; we just have to be careful about which tool we employ for particular learning objectives. Fronter makes the choice very easy, but the process of excellence and creativity too difficult. I would rather choose a bit more difficultly at the initial choice-stage and have an easier time being creative with the tools that are out there.
Buckingham, D. (2007) Beyond technology: children's learning in the age of digital culture. Oxford: Wiley
Carr N. (2010) The shallows: what the internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton
Gillespie et al (2007) Learning and teaching with virtual learning environments. Exeter: Learning Matters
Richardson, W. (2009) Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities. London: Kogan