Thoughts on WAN and WordPress

The difference the
WAN upgrade is going to make can't be overestimated. There's clearly a large latent demand from people who are avoiding use of it just now. It would be interesting to capture some stats on what it's doing now, if only to be able to quantify the benefit of the investment.

Today I met a parent of an S6 student. Her son has been frustrated by slow internet access in his school. On the positive side, though, he'd been very enthusiastic about
Mr Bray's Geocasts as a revision tool at home. Mum reported arriving home and being very puzzled to hear Mr Bray's voice in her living room. She was pleased to hear the news of the upgrade.

I also met a teacher this evening who's now doing all email at home, as it's now taking too long in school to be usable. She's also looking forward to being able to use web sites with her classes without having to carefully select web-based applications that can be downloaded and started up well before the class arrives…

I'd a useful conversation with
Ewan about Exc-el site development. It looks like migrating existing Exc-el weblog posts to WordPress will be straightforward, but migrating comments won't be. Our plan is to migrate all the posts across for each weblog, and then manually move the most recent comments. The archive of eZpublish Exc-el weblogs will be left on-line, so full comments will be accessible there.

If you're an Exc-el blogger, maybe you could have a think about what name you want for your new blog? They'll be of the form Ideally, we'd like the names to be more helpful, and meaningful, than they are just now. The owner's name may mean something to us, but a name that conveys what the blog is about would help potential readers.

Hopefully new
WordPress blogs will be live this week. Just need to sort out a conflict between the requirements of
eZpublish and WordPress. Each application installs a
.htaccess file for server overrides. It would be nice if you could just put the separate commands into one file, but it's not proving that simple… eZpublish doesn't like the WordPress bit!

Exc-el has moved house

Exc-el has now grown up and gone off to live on its own. It lives on its own server now, instead of sharing a home with lots of other little web sites. This is a common stage in the growth of a web site. The benefits of doing this include:

  • Improved performance: The performance of our shared server was sometimes slow, and this was off-putting for contributors.
  • More storage capacity: Additional space was needed for additional applications such as WordPress blogs.
  • More flexibility: We are much less constrained in what we can do as we now have more control of the server software.

The changeover took place over the weekend, and I've been working to resolve teething problems yesterday and today. I was having difficulty logging in, which I seem to have fixed by increasing a server time-out setting. I've been able to see from log files that some other people – sorry, can't tell who – have been hitting the same problem.

Please test out everything, and let me know either by
email or by leaving a comment here if you notice anything that's not working as you'd expect.

Internet safety: Good article and site

This comprehensive piece (7 screens full, whatever that is in words)
via Jenny Levine at The Shifted Librarian looks a good resource for internet safety work. We're planning to run some sessions for parents on internet safety: this looks like it will be a help us make sure we cover all the concerns.

"Decoding MySpace – It's the coolest hangout space for teens-but parents might be surprised at what their kids do there. Here's how to help keep them safe online" – Michelle Andrews at

It mentions I've not explored that yet, but at a first glance it looks very comprehensive. It's run by a 9000-strong volunteer group, which is even more than we've got behind Exc-el.

What do you think of it?

More musical training to improve learning in East Lothian?

Alan Coady has sold me on the importance of music in schools. Yesterday's Scotsman carried more evidence:
Schools 'need music as tool of education' , based on the
editorial in the current Brain Journal. There's a more detailed 1-page story
here that describes the method and conclusions. Unfortunately the original paper is a $28 download.

What they found:

  • "After one year the musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ."
  • "It is clear that music is good for children's cognitive development and that music should be part of the pre-school and primary school curriculum."

It's been picked up by the media in a big way:

Music clearly has an important role in the future
3-18 curriculum . It would be a particularly good keystone for an "
Extreme Learning " project if it could surreptitiously improve learning ability in the other subjects…

I wonder if any has ever looked at the statistics to see if there's a significant relationship between learning an instrument and attainment in subjects that use these intelligence skills? Of course, we may not have the stats; if not, maybe this is data we should be capturing and analysing?

Learning from SETT

SETT, the Scottish Learning Festival, proved a rich source of ideas for Exc-el. I'm helping support
Glow, and was there to start on mentor training. That left plenty time to attend other events. I went for those I thought might help with Exc-el:

I'll do some more posts with thoughts on each.

P3 bloggers roll their sleeves up

Today we tried to set up the PCs – a mix of Windows desktops and iMacs – to enable the students to log straight in to their accounts using links stored in the Internet Explorer "Favorites". Tests had previously shown that this worked, but today we realised that this wasn't consistent – there must be some variation between them. Anyway, it didn't take long to ensure they were all logged in before each of the 2 classes arrived. That made all the difference – they were able to concentrate on their writing!

The WordPress (multi-user) interface doesn't seem to present any difficulties, even at this age. By setting them up with Author rights, they're presented with a lot less menu options – just the ones they'll need. They were again enthusiastic about describing likes and dislikes. Motivation was sufficiently good there was no need to introduce any more features yet. Things like changing the appearance may become rewards for good work…

We've also now started adding a Blogroll, or list of favourite links, to each which will enable them easily to find one another's blogs. The idea here is to enable peer commenting. Here's an
example of what they're looking like now.

Take 23 P3 students, add 23 weblogs…

We've jumped in the deep end, and we didn't drown. Here's some things we learned from the first 2 sessions, each with 23 children.

  • Create shortcuts to the individual student blogs: Although Robert had burned the midnight oil creating the blogs in advance, and had created shortcuts to the blog web site (James Farmer's ) on each computer, we could have made things go much more smoothly by creating individual shortcuts that led directly to each student's blog. That would have avoided the need for students to key in blog URLs, usernames and passwords – all these led to plenty of hands going up!
  • Focus on "hands on" as soon as possible: With the first class, Robert gave a short introduction using a projector, showing each child how to type in the URL of their own blog. They then moved to the computers and tried it, but many needed support. With the second group we concentrated on getting them at the computers from the start, so that they could perform the task immediately after the demo, and that saved a lot of time.
  • You don't need a lot of bandwidth to start whole-class blogging: The whole school shares a 2-channel ISDN network connection, so there's only a maximum of 128Kbps available. We were pleased to find that performance was acceptable. The wireless Mac laptops (12) were noticeably slower, but still fast enough to get by. Clearly things would be different if a lot of images were being uploaded, or browsed!
  • There's something special about having your own blog! It was interesting to see the positive reaction when the children got logged in and saw the home page of their own blog, with their (first) name prominent in the header. That perhaps helped with understanding of what blogs were all about, and they quickly showed a sense of ownership. Of course, at this point they were all using the default design (
    Kubrick ). We mentioned they'd soon be able to choose their own design, and they liked that idea!
  • Writing to your blog is fun!: All were asked to write a Post titled something like "Cool Stuff" describing things they liked. All were enthusiastic about the task, regardless of their writing ability.

For the next classes, we're planning to:

  • Create login shortcuts for each blog, with password stored: We proved that by checking the "Remember me" box on the
    login screen while logging in, then creating a browser shortcut (Favourite), we could get an instant login. As a bonus, the shortcut had a meaningful title, which identified the blog by name, like "Aarron’s Blog › Dashboard — WordPress".
  • Prepare seating plans to control which PC each student uses: Favourites are stored locally on the computers used. By controlling seating, we can avoid having to create a shortcut for each student on every computer.

Next update will be tomorrow..

Using blogs to support Assessment is for Learning

If AiFL means nothing to you, you're probably not a teacher. It stands for Assessment is For Learning, and it's about improving learning using some proven techniques. There's solid evidence, for example, that formative assessment techniques lead to better learning. (See, for example, the section headed Why Take Formative Assessment Seriously on P2 of
this look-inside extract from Paul Black's book,
Assessment for Learning: Putting it into Practice .) If you want to know more,
Learning and Teaching Scotland have an
AiFL web site .

What's this got to do with Exc-el? Exc-el is about improving teaching and learning too. The common thread is IT, particularly the internet, and its potential to enable new ways of working. If IT could help with AiFL, it could help improve learning. There are opportunities.
Personal learning plannning , for example, is causing
controversy because of the bureaucratic burden involved.

But what if IT could help with that? That's what Robert Whiteside at Haddington Infant School is exploring. By using weblogs as an engaging tool to support
personal learning planning , he aims to find out if they can help beat the bureaucracy. Not only that, because they're on the web, and interactive, a new possibility exists for improving
partnership with parents in the process.

Today we worked out a plan for using
WordPress blogs. The idea is to set up a blog for each child in P3, and use these as
learning logs . Robert sees opportunities for using the blog commenting features to provide a mechanism for
peer feedback , too.

Each child will have an individual login with the rights they need to post new entries to their blog and to reply to comments. The "master keys" to each blog will be held by the teacher, so that any incoming comments can be moderated. This will provide a high degree of safety. The owners of the blogs, of course, will not be identifiable.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this goes. First trial is planned for tomorrow, so we'll soon know…

New blogging system

Started the day by meeting Scott Lavery for a talk about the
Enterprise section of the site which he now maintains. Scott's picking up the eZpublish system quickly – along with the rest of his new role – and has already made a few changes to improve that part of the site.

Spent most of the day on WordPress migration. I'm hoping it won't be long now until we can transfer our blogs onto
WordPress . We're planning to offer
WordPress Multi-User , which is a state-of-the-art system developed by a dedicated community. More details
here . It will provide a robust, scaleable basis for extending blogs into the classroom in large numbers. Although the installation runs smoothly, there are still one or two gremlins to be sorted out. This is par for the course for the multi-user version – although it's much simpler to use than our current eZpublish, even the community admit it's complex.

Listened last night to
John Connell's first podcast which I found inspirational and reassuring as I try to get to grips with what exactly SSDN, now
Glow , will offer. If you're catching up on this, you'll find this tells the story of SSDN from its earliest days 2001, and puts the whole thing into context very well. He describes the early recognition of the need for a web-based technology architecture to accomodate the diverse range of software and hardware in schools around the country. It's particularly interesting to hear his take on the impact of social software such as
wikis and Google's
Writely collaborative, web-based, word-processor. He describes the current use of these as the first ripples of a tidal wave. Reassurance came from the clear recognition that this isn't about creating a walled garden for a closed community, but about simplifying the creation of interest groups of any size, including guests from elsewhere on the web. It was also good to hear recognition of the importance of putting power in the hands of student users, and the risks of unnecessary control.

Looks like I'll have a chance to talk to Liz Nicoll and her colleagues in the Home Economics Subject Support Group on Friday about the using the Exc-el site for HE, and to support
Health Promoting Schools activities. Hopefully we'll gain a number of new contributors. Memo to self – must check there aren't any IT outages planned!