User Experience Advice: for Fronter hyperlinks to link properly, Fronter should be already logged in – just another little Fronter idiosyncrasy!
Come back County Prep School! All is forgiven!
Earlier this year, I completed my first placement with mixed feelings about facing the gauntlet of IT leadership in an unreceptive environment: I loved the school, and the children were about as perfect as they could be: somewhere on a dusty shelf somewhere is an Asimov story about cloned schoolchildren who are just too good to be true. Those children were the ones. I loved many things about the school: the art and the music provision, the wonderful specialist teachers, the delicious food. However, I did not love The State of The IT Union at that school. I complained about many things in a reflective post. In retrospect, I think I was being a bit harsh.
After spending four weeks on my second placement in Dorset, I can only say:
"Come back County Prep School! All is forgiven!"
The New Gauntlet: The Noose
I should be clear about the purpose of this post. I would like to reflect on my use of the virtual learning environment, Fronter, general adventures in VLEspace, the receptiveness of the children, the limitations of implementing a VLE, and observations about my teaching and learning both in and out of VLEspace.
The Western Fronter
I experienced early issues with Fronter. Not Fronter’s fault; my own, for bringing unrealistic expectations of what I could achieve with the design and user experience. Others in our RoeLE group have remarked on design issues, navigation issues, page load problems, Java problems, pages not saving. I (luckily) did not experience any major hiccups, but I kept waiting for my room to look awesome… I kept trying to tweak and tinker (moving this container here; deleting that one, cut and paste into this new container, reformat… again. Repeat…). After a slow start, I realised (with some advice from lecturers and peers) that I should work within Fronter’s limitations, stop whining, and get on with it. And so I tried to be happy with something I could work with.
I liked Emma’s Olympic design (in spite of the Sans). I liked her decision to use images on a white background that blend well with the canvas, and the ordered layout that works with the container structure. I used this policy for my own design, but with a view to keeping Van Allsburg’s beautiful graphic style (which does lend itself well to rectangular containers): black, orange and monochrome shadings.
Sparking the Mysteries of Harris Burdick
I also made an important structural decision at this stage. Since the room was intended as a supporting tool for a visual literacy project, part of the English syllabus focusing on the picture book as a starting point for compositional writing in mystery and suspense, I did not want to pepper my site with games, gimmicks and exits. I wanted them to stay inside and focus on the book. I could have embedded some exciting multimedia and other e-tivities; but I decided to maintain the essential e-tivities that could be completed within Fronter, allowing my pupils to learn how to use Fronter’s navigation and inputs rather than focusing on imported material. Salmon is quite clear on this: ‘the web or other resources may be involved but this is usually to provide a stimulus or a start (the ‘spark’) to the interaction rather than as the focus of the activity’ (Salmon, 2002:4).
I used a 3 x 3 = 9 layout. I think it worked well, but depending on the browser and the screen resolution default (at the school it was set to 800 x 600… don’t ask!) the boxes would sometime misalign or vanish into the edge of the visible area while the annoying huge blue Fronter overhead banner and left navigation pane dominated the screen. It was at this point that I decided that Fronter, from a personalisation/customisation layout option perspective, is too archaic to survive.
Nevertheless, I had three modules in the room that were ready for guests: The Conversation (a forum about the book), The Vocabulary (a brainstorm of Harris Burdick words, which Fronter has displayed in customary graphic eloquence) and The Story (the key activity for the lesson sequence). Other modules were left as “mysteries” for subsequent episodes created either by myself or, as I was hoping, the children. I had not realised that only Ihad build-access, but I thought when the time came that I could get around that somehow.
Engaging the learners and sustaining momentum
The children, when I ran the first elicitation activity around the book and the VLE (in the library, not the computer lab), were excited about the idea of creating a podcast about the disappearance of the enigmatic author in which they would play the parts of experts and specialists exploring his fate and his artistic legacy. I may return to this next term. The interesting part is that the children saw the standby modules, Another Mystery… but not yet, as an opportunity for them to take control of the VLE room and build their own modules, which I also hope to revisit next time.
I was privileged to work with eight amazing children on this project: they taught me more than I could have taught them. They were allocated to me by the class teacher who described their abilities as “varied” but from their work on the forums and especially in “The Story”, I can only describe their input as outstanding and inspiring, especially T’s cosmological, astronautical twist on the final Burdick mystery, which I only wish I could reproduce here.
In retrospect I am satisfied that of nine planned modules in the room, I created and delivered three modules over five lessons, since I was not afforded the opportunity to do as much teaching as I would have liked. There were too many other important things for the children to do, such as rehearsing for the play or making pom-pons.
I will explain the operational issues of teaching the subject in the next section.
“I felt like a real astronaut! But a failed one”
The was an impassably huge gap between my ambitions and hopes for the pupils working in VLEspace and creating their ‘e-portfolios’ (Gillespie et al, 2007:50), and the operational realities of daily teaching, existing curricular obligations, nativity plays and actual ‘ICT teaching’ which was considered separately to my VLEspace programme. I will return to this topic in a future post. Meanwhile, attached below is a sample of what supposedly constitutes a suitable IT-related lesson worksheet.
As we have read elsewhere in Blogfolio, piloting Fronter presented a complexity of problems depending on firewalls, LGfL e-safety policy, and computer health – but in some cases, we have seen that Fronter was in constant use at the particular school and this allows for smooth operation of new Fronter projects. Even in those cases there could be logistical problems of when and where, how many, space, noise, disruption and forgotten passwords.
My main issue was getting access to teaching time for my eight pupils. I felt, at times, that my teaching requirements were not being taken seriously and had to lobby for teaching opportunities. Effectively, it was rational to have taken a gradual approach to the room development because we did not reach the point of using multimedia (podcasting) in the room, which I very much wanted to do. Since learning is a gradual process, I had to be satisfied with the literacy aspects of the Harris Burdick lessons and the slow build-up to The Story module.
The Story was a simple conversation forum but the children and I got a lot out of it. They also worked on it at home, which I was able to monitor by viewing their access timestamps. This was very rewarding for me. I had not explicitly set homework, but they were happy to work informally on the VLE. This reinforces what Futurelab tells us about informal learning. I made sure to provide feedback in the “summarise” option (it’s not really “summarise”, is it?) and fulfil my formative assessment (AFL) requirements. This was so easy to do, and I enjoyed it very much. I would like to have responded more quickly to their work. Fronter does not have the facility to alert you when something is updated (Blogfolio, PBworks, and many other social tools do this); I think this is the one thing about Fronter I really cannot forgive. Why should it not be possible for Fronter to ping you when your pupil does something? Pedagogic design negligence, in my opinion.
Thank you, Mr. Van Allsburg
I was observed by my SET during one of The Story lessons. I should share some of her observations. She thought I spent too much time describing the activity and too much talk time in general, which is a fair assessment. After all, the children were able to work by themselves at home, so in future I will take a detached approach to VLEspace teaching. Show, don’t tell! The SET was impressed with the quality of the pupils’ work and said that they were inspired by the material. I think this validated my choice of material for the VLE.
I originally had doubts about using a picture book as a basis for a VLE room. I thought it would not be "edutechy" enough. I seriously thought about restarting with a science-related project, which might have worked well with interactive science games, quizzes, videos and other fun things. I am glad I stuck to my original idea. I think it worked quite well and I would like to reopen the VLE in May for a new exploration of Harris Burdick.
Chris Van Allsburg is a children’s author and illustrator of many beautiful books. Like Eric Carle, our inspiration for last year’s scratch game, he is a legend, and I enjoyed teaching English and ICT based on his work.
Asimov, I. (1951) The Fun they had. The magazine of fantasy & science fiction (February) ??-??
Gillespie et al (2007) Learning and teaching with virtual learning environments. Exeter: Learning Matters
Merchant, G. (2007) Writing the future in the digital age. Literacy, 41 (3) 118-128
Pritchard, A. (2005) Ways of learning. London: David Fulton
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