Planning for ‘snow days’

About 5 years ago I was supporting an institution – who due to their geographic location, would have numerous days each year affected by snow. As an organisation they were determined to stay open as much as possible (otherwise they would go entire weeks without provision), and so they planned for ‘snow days’. These were a mixture of subject specific student paced activities that could be taught at any point during the calendar year, and then generic sessions teaching things like study skills, careers sessions etc. The idea was that if on a snowy day, half the teachers and a quarter of the students couldn’t get in, they could simple use these planned activities to provide education to the learners with the resources (teachers that had made it in). They even had a member of staff (who lived within walking distance) whose duty on such a day was to co-ordinate which students would get which activities to ensure they didn’t have wasted repetition. This model worked really well, the staff and students were used to it, and accepted it, and because the sessions had been planned in advance (and once planned are valid for future years) – they were quality sessions, not something thrown together at the last minute just to fill time.

Snow covered roadAbout 3 years ago, I was contacted by a college to provide training for some of their teachers. The idea being to improve their skills at creating ‘online’ learning activities that are self paced and can be run with minimal tutor interaction for that particular activity. The way that I ran the session, was to create online versions of the ‘snow days’. I had one attendee from each subject area, so the first challenge was to identify a part of the curriculum that can be taught in isolation to other parts, and most importantly at any time of the year between late November and the end of March. Once that topic was identified, it is then building the learning activities for that topic, usually in the form of 5 stages as following:

  1. Providing them with some content – e.g. links to websites, videos, or files.
  2. Asking them a set of challenging questions around that content, to help focus the learners on the key points, and to think critically about the content. Depending on the subject, these may be closed questions that can be tested with a quiz where the computer gives instant feedback, or open questions where students either discuss with their peers via some form of forum activity, or more individual questions, where the student either brings answers to a future classroom activity.
  3. Designing an activity in which the learners will use the information from the above, to do something creative. This could be designing a poster to explain the concept, writing a press release from the eyes of a certain person, creating a mind map of the key information, etc.
  4. Designing a ‘stretch and challenge’ activity – e.g. something optional that the more able students can do if they want, but are not obliged to. In simple terms, this is usually a challenging, discussion provoking question posted into a forum.
  5. Assimilating the above into an area on the VLE in a way that is self explanatory, can be hidden until required (and then un-hidden easily).

The idea here, is if the organisation has a ‘snow day’ or similar (flooding, swine flu etc.), they have something already planned, which is easy to administer, can be completed by both the students that have manager to get in, and for some of those that haven’t, and if the weather is such that it hasn’t been required during the year, the teacher can just run this anyway at a convenient time for them.

I have run similar training sessions with other providers since (including schools, and a University), and they have proved to be very successful – not just training staff in a different way of teaching, but at the end of the day they have a tangible product (a planned ‘snow day’), and for one organisation in particular, this was picked up favourably by a future Ofsted inspection.

If any organisations are interested in me running such training days for them, then please get in touch via http://www.a6training.co.uk/contact.php – I have already had 2 communications this morning, from teachers at organisations that will today be using the activities planned in these training sessions.


Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/winter-snowy-street-frozen-snow-1209348/

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Respect for teachers

The following cartoon I think sums up the state of education in the UK at the moment.

Teacher Christmas wish

There are 2 issues identified here, one is the state of funding, which is widely recognised across the state funded sector as having gone down in real terms in recent years (despite the Government pretending that it has gone up!), but the issue I want to mention here, is the general lack of respect for teachers.

Education has always struggled with its position in society in terms of is it professional or non-professional? For someone to teach in a school, they should have passed through the respected rigour of a degree and a post graduate education course or equivalent, and as such they are and should be seen as professional. In FE it is less clear, but all people teaching should be adequately trained, and even if not should be professional in their behaviour, conduct and attitude, so again this should be straight forward.

However (and this is a big however), education itself is very good at behaving professionally when it suits them, but then behaving non-professionally when it suits them. For example if a member of staff is performing badly, and isn’t capable of doing their job properly (and young peoples’ futures are being damaged by this poor performance), then that teacher ought to be supported, given additional training, but if they are still not performing, then the professional thing to do would be to remove them, but in many cases the managers take the unprofessional approach of keeping them on, and ignoring the problem, or worse still promoting them out of the way.

Then to add to this, there are numerous Government driven agendas to standardise and in theory improve education, when really when unpicked they boil down to a lack of trust and respect for the teachers and head teachers, to do what is right, and the damage that this has, is it drives many good teachers out of the classroom, it increases the workloads of the remaining teachers, and ultimately weakens the education our younger generations need and deserve.

I cannot offer any magic solutions to this problem, some of it is rooted historically, and some is too heavily politicised to change – but as an individual, and as a parent, I have a lot of respect for teachers, as I know that teachers will be working flat out until the end of term, and many will be working over the Christmas break with marking, preparation, and many other things – when really a true profession would allow them the time off that they need and deserve to do their jobs effectively.

Adding a date picker to Excel

As a huge user of Excel, I am often entering dates into cells. Different versions of Microsoft have had date pickers as an optional add on, but they haven’t always worked for me with all versions or consistently.

I have however just discovered this free tool:
http://samradapps.com/datepicker/

Which is created by Sam Radakovitz , which does exactly what I want.

Once set up, if a cell in Excel is set as a date, clicking on that cell, will bring up a small calendar icon to the right of the cell:

Image showing the calendar icon to right of the selected cell

Which when clicked on, will bring up the calendar tool, making it easier to enter dates, and not have to worry about the correct format, or whether the spreadsheet has been set up in UK or USA format.

 

F

Full credit to Sam for this one, I am just blogging about this mainly for my own benefit so that I can relocate this in the future when I change computers.

Blended learning is not ‘new’ – and calling it so is damaging

I was recently in a conversation about blended learning with a senior manager of a college, who kept referring to blended learning as being ‘new’, or this ‘new way of working’ or this ‘new approach’. At first I accepted these slips of the tongue, as referring to the fact that it was new to him and possibly his organisation, but as the conversation developed, I realised that he was seeing blended learning as being new in general, which of course it isn’t.

I don’t want to try and pinpoint the exact point in history that blended learning started (many other people have done that) – as that isn’t the purpose of this post, the point here is that it clearly isn’t new. Although we didn’t call it blended learning at the time, I was doing a form of blended learning about 16 years ago. In 2007 I started working on the excellent AASE programme at Loughborough College – which was and still is a hugely successful blended learning FE programme, and I have been working on blended learning projects almost exclusively ever since. So for me that is at least a decade, which in education and technology terms, is a very long time, and certainly not ‘new’.

Going back to the conversation with the senior manager. He was clearly scared of this way of working, and a way of coping with that fear, was to somehow make it sound that this was an untested, or experimental way of working that hadn’t been proven, and in doing so justified his lateness when arriving at the party. But the problem here, is that this inaccurate fear, and his overuse of the word ‘new’ (I don’t think he was conscious how often he did it) – is going to have a very negative effect on his organisation. If he has to stand up and inspire teachers to change their ways of working, he will struggle to do so, as he hasn’t even convinced or inspired himself.

Image of 2 characters, one on an upward arrow, the other on a downward arrowI also expect that this situation isn’t isolated to him or his organisation, and is quite widespread through education in the UK, and I predict is an issue that may take quite a few more years to go away. What I do expect to happen is a greater gap between those organisations that do and those that don’t, as the organisations with senior managers who simply don’t get it, being held further and further behind, whilst others progress into the future.

I cannot offer any magical solutions to this problem, as I feel it is possibly ingrained within the ‘DNA’ of the individuals – I just hope that over time enough people come into the senior positions that do get these ideas and notions, that there can be the widespread cultural change to stop treating things that have been around for years as ‘new’.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/white-male-3d-model-isolated-3d-2064871/

The future of flexible learning requires flexible working

A couple of weeks ago in the UK, the clocks changed. Most people in the UK rejoice at the October clock change as they get an extra hour in bed on a Sunday morning. Personally I rejoiced as it meant I could get an extra hour of work done on the Sunday morning. I appreciate that this makes me sound either very sad, or an egotistical workaholic – but one of the beauties of my work is that I have the ability to work flexibly, and can therefore choose what hours I work. I regularly get up early and do a couple of hours of work before breakfast, even at weekends, but then I take time off during the day which is much more useful to me and my family life. The key here though is about choice. Most weeks I take at least one half day ‘off’ sometimes more, and I try not to work too much during school holidays, so have about 12 weeks holiday a year – yes my income is reduced significantly as a result, but that is all part of the choice process that comes with flexible learning. As part of my work I support many clients both within the UK and globally – and subsequently, I regularly have to work at unusual times to account for global time variations, again this is part of the flexibility that my work requires and I enjoy.

Image of someone working on a computer outside on a bench with a cup of coffeeSo – coming back to the title of this post. We have identified for many years the advantages that flexible learning brings to the learners, but we don’t appear to have caught up yet, that to truly support flexible learning, requires better flexible working from the teachers. I regularly speak with senior managers in organisations about things such as blended learning, and often discuss options such as providing tuition outside of normal working hours – but I am often given the excuse that ‘Teachers won’t want to work weekends or evenings’. This is clearly nonsense, as any teacher or former teacher (like myself) will tell you, that they have to work weekends and evenings anyway to keep up with the planning and marking, as part of their job. Some teachers would welcome the option to work outside of normal hours to formalise the work they are doing anyway at those times.

What the real problem is, that many parts of education are still stuck in the factory/office mentality of working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday. There is also an inherent and sad distrust, that if teachers were given more flexibility, they would somehow abuse this and not do the work (which is again nonsense) if they are not on the premises where they can be checked up on, these two issues are genuine barriers to organisations taking flexible learning seriously.

So – what do I propose? If a teacher is being expected to support a significant numbers of learners that are studying flexibly (by whichever means), I think that teacher should have one day a week where they have the option to not come into work on that day. In other words, the timetable is constructed such that, that teacher has no timetabled classes on that day, giving them the freedom to come in and work in the office, or stay at home and work, or do something totally different, and then work flexibly in the evening or at the weekend. I wouldn’t have any sort of ‘clocking in’ system – I would simply trust the teachers (who by default is already doing more hours in a week than they are paid for), for them to use their professional judgement, as to what needs doing, how much needs doing and by when.

If we take this model further – if an organisation sets up genuine hot-desking in an office (and I have worked at a college that has done this successfully) – you can get away with significantly smaller and more cost effective staff rooms, as you don’t need to provide a desk for every single person, only for that desk to be unused for about 70% of the week whilst they are teaching. Rather than sticking desktop computers onto the desks; you provide teachers with laptops, and have docking stations on the desks so they can use a proper mouse, keyboard and monitor when there. Get rid of the landline phones, and replace these with mobile phones for teachers (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/if-you-are-serious-about-blended-learning-give-teachers-a-mobile-phone/)

This does require a major culture shift within organisations, and going back to the issue of choice, some teachers won’t want increased flexibility, which is fine, but for those that do – then now is the time to explore this way of working. If done well it will reduce costs, improve quality, keep teachers happier (which should reduce turn over rate of staff), and should increase the satisfaction of the learners.


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/laptop-notebook-work-keyboard-2443739/

Stop blaming the tools, and invest in CPD

There seems to be a recurring theme in education, where tools are blamed for poor practices. PowerPoint, Interactive Whiteboards, Tablet devices and various VLEs have all fallen foul of this phenomenon, and yes the tools themselves may contribute, but in most cases it is the way that they are used that is the problem.

If I use a sporting analogy – if I play cricket and I get out cheaply bowled (which is sadly too common an occurrence) it is not due to the fact that I have a cheap bat that is over 20 years old – it is due to the fact that I swung the bat and missed the ball. I would never blame my bat for my inability, nor would I head to the local cricket store and spend £200 and expect to suddenly start scoring 100s – I would still get bowled cheaply, just with a more expensive bat for decoration.

Image of computers in a skipGoing back to PowerPoint – the staple presentation giving technology that is used and abused by many, and yes sadly there are many low quality presentations out there – but then you look at some of the things that I (any many others) have done with PowerPoint, and realise that it can be an excellent tool. So what is the difference? Well usually having the time, desire and opportunity to learn how to use it effectively. When I first started working freelance just over 10 years ago, I was regularly running training sessions on the effective use of PowerPoint – but nowadays, I run very few, as people think it is ‘old-hat’, everyone knows how to use it (which is clearly not the case) and it isn’t seen as fashionable to run this sort of training. People have tried using or encouraging others to use different tools such as Prezi, Keynote, Google slides, Sway etc. but without investment in CPD in these, the same problems will occur. Rather than people creating bad PowerPoints, they just create bad Prezis (which is like a bad PowerPoint, but additional sea sickness thrown in), and so these tools will get blamed for the poor use, and we will switch to the next ‘new’ miracle tool, and around we go again.

We currently have a similar situation appearing within the VLE market. For many years – the two heavy weights were Blackboard and Moodle, but Canvas has arrived on the scene with a bang, and many institutions are switching to it. It’s main selling point is its simplicity of use, which is obviously attractive, but talking to decision makers in organisations that are switching, I am again sensing that people are switching because they are blaming the previous tools, rather than the lack of CPD opportunities about effectively using the tools. My prediction for the future, is there won’t be enough CPD for the use of the new tools, they therefore won’t be used as effectively as they could be, and in 4 or 5 years time, they will switch again.

The decision to change VLE tool, is a huge decision for an organisation to make – there is the cost involved, the disruption, the transferring of existing courses etc. so not a decision that should be made lightly – but my current fear is that people are making the decision for the wrong reason. A more sensible approach would be to invest more in the CPD of your existing tools from the start, so that they can be used effectively, rather than blaming the technology.

So please, can we stop blaming the tools, and focus on the CPD?


Image Source: https://pixabay.com/en/computer-scrap-technology-garbage-2049019/

Free multi-choice patience activity template

When I worked as a teacher, as well as using technology during the teaching and learning process, I also often used it to create activities that didn’t use technology during the actual session. One such activity that I created is something I have called ‘multi-choice patience’. This is a series of ‘cards’ that are printed out and given to the students. Each card is numbered and contains a multiple choice question, with 4 possible answers (1 correct and 3 wrong). Answering each question directs the learner to the next card. To complete the activity the learners have to create ‘loops’ e.g. if using the 36 card set, the answer to the 6th card, should point back to the 1st card in that loop. If it doesn’t then one of the 6 questions has been incorrectly answered, but the learner doesn’t know which one, so they have to go back and try different options, until they correctly complete the loop. Once a loop is created, they pick another card from the pack and start again trying to create a ‘loop’.

Multi choice patience

Screenshot of the multi-choice patience activity

I generally used this activity in the last week of term, when the learners were not up for anything too heavy – I would have the learners in groups of about 4, and they would race against the other groups to see which group could complete the challenge the quickest.

To create the cards, I created a template in excel, where I entered the questions and answers, and the computer randomised the answer order, and worked out the ‘loops’, randomly changing the options each time, and it is this template that I have shared so others can create similar activities.

If a teacher wants to be even cleverer, you get the learners to design the questions in one week (and you could set up something like a Google form that the learners populate) – you then check the questions, copy them into the grid, print out and cut up.

I have recently changed the template, so rather than being limited to having to have exactly 36 questions, it will now work with either 36, 30, 25 or 20 questions.

The template itself can be directly downloaded from:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/MultipleChoicePatience2017.xls

A complete example can be downloaded from:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources/MultipleChoicePatienceEXAMPLE.xls

And other similar activity templates can be viewed at:

http://www.a6training.co.uk/resources_class_management.php

A video showing how to use the multi-choice patience template is: