A Self Organised Learning Environment, and I wasn’t even there!

Sugata Mitra in his excellent and prize-winning TED lecture discusses the idea of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE). Essentially the idea is that children, given the Internet, can teach themselves and find the answers to big questions. He’s the founder of the Hole in the Wall computer in project. India. Watch the film to find out more.

There’s an idea I’ve pondered for a little while. I want to stop spoon feeding pupils. I want them to be confident to make mistakes. I want them to be able to solve problems independently. Actually some of this is quite hard to do as a teacher.

My year 10 class (age 14) have been learning JavaScript and HTML. I set them a problem; to create a web page that would convert a temperature to Celcius or Fahrenheit depending upon what the user requested. I gave them some of the code and also the formula. They worked on this problem for 5 weeks, 1 hour per week. I gave help only in extreme circumstances (if I felt an individual was just getting nowhere and was beginning to get down about it). They browsed, they debugged, they discussed and argued,and eventually they got it.

The more striking example came two weeks ago. I was out of school for a meeting so had left work for my classes. One year 7 class (age 11) were midway through a database project and had already created and populated their own databases. I set the work to carry out some sorts and searches on the table. I also asked that they provided screenshots of these and wrote about them to show what they had searched for and why this would help a user. I left the lesson plan on my desk with an example set of screen shots taped to the wall at the front.

On my return, the cover supervisor apologetically told me there had been a mix up with cover and she had only realised halfway through the lesson that they didn’t have a teacher. She was covering a rowdy year 11 class so only managed to pop in a couple of times but the children had seemed quiet and busy.

Next lesson I discovered the students had done all the work set. That’s relatively unprecedented for a cover lesson anyway, but they’d also taught themselves a new skill. Filters and sorts in databases aren’t rocket science but they hadn’t done it before and with something new I’ll ALWAYS demonstrate first.

What did this mean? Should I resign? Did the children need a teacher?  Could they just teach themselves from now on?

Well, no.  Ultimately there were certain factors I put in place for this to take effect:

  • example material on the board
  • video tutorials on the school intranet (very short tutorials, some only 30 seconds, teaching specific skills – I’ve been using these for years for self-paced learning)
  • ground work in the lessons before on this topic to design and create the databases and discussing how and why databases are used in society.

That was this scheme of work.  Last term year 7 created web pages using HTML and a bit of CSS.  They used Code Avengers to build up their own skills and I also showed them W3 Schools and encouraged them to find out new stuff for themselves.  One of my colleagues who is less confident with HTML effectively threw whole lessons over to W3 Schools and I think the outcomes from her class were better than mine!

So, I think Self-Organised Learning Environments have some benefit.  I do think Sugata Mitra is right in indicating that the structure of schools today is not as effective as it could be but I don’t think knowledge is obsolete.  Groups of children, given access to knowledge and the thirst to acquire it will teach themselves something.  Whether those Tamil children really understand the depths of DNA replication is questionable but I don’t think that’s the point.  They sort of got a bit of it.  I bet the day after he left they discovered Minecraft.

However what we as teachers do is set the frameworks in place.  The structure of learning is important and education as an internet-based free-for-all would result in a lot of surface-level knowledge.  That said, I think there is definitely something to be said for stepping away from the lesson sometimes and telling the students that any answer to a problem is fine, as long as it addresses the problem


My Ideal Planner

I bought a diary last week. Yes in the middle of the academic year.  I have yet to find a way of planning that works for me.

This year I have tried 2 teacher / lesson planning apps.  Teacher Planner for iPad and My Class Schedule for Android.  I’ve given up with both for various reasons.  So here is my ideal planner:

  • it must work in the cloud so I can check my lessons on my phone, tablet or desktop
  • fortnightly or weekly timetable
  • choose however many lessons per day you have
  • pauses for holidays
  • set all term dates in advance and lessons repeated automatically for the WHOLE year
  • have a “this lesson” and “next lesson” section for each lesson
  • carry over the “next lesson” section automatically into “this lesson” for the next lesson
  • sync with Google calendar so items from my personal and school calendars are displayed alongside lessons

So far I have found nothing that does all this.  They are all awkward and clunky.  I emailed Pirongs last year (who make excellent hard copy teacher planners) and asked then when they were bringing out an app version and they replied they had no plans to do so.  Well sorry but I think say goodbye to your business in 10 years or less if you have “no plans”.

Maybe I’ll build my own.

CAS South East Wales Hub Meeting January 2013

Thanks very much to Laura Roberts from Technocamps for hosting the meeting at the University of Glamorgan.

We discussed the ICT Steering Group and potential changes for the ICT curriculum in Wales.  I am on the Steering Group but obviously cannot discuss the details of the meetings and discussions we have!  The introduction of Computer Science into the whole curriculum (including primary) is considered to be key.  The key bullet point from the Written Statement is :

Computer science should be introduced at primary school and developed over the course of the curriculum so that learners can progress into a career pathway in the sector.

CPD continues to be a sticking point and we’re waiting for money to be made available for this and for the CAS Network of Excellence to be funded in Wales.  Ideas for CPD in the mean time include:

  • Python programming
  • Practical use of Raspberry Pi’s in the classroom
  • Computational Thinking
  • Sessions for primary teachers

It’s something I will look to provide for future sessions.  Technocamps can probably help with this.

We discussed ideas and applications for teaching computing at various ages.  For reference these include Scratch, Kodu, Logo, YOUSRC, App Inventor, Python, Mozilla sites Thimble and Hackasaurus, Codecademy and Code Avengers.

Laura introduced the new Technocamps competition for which they will be able to loan up to 10 Lego Mindstorm and Arduino kits per region to schools in EU convergence areas.  Sian from Dark Skies Wales demonstrated the Lego Mindstorms.  Thanks to Sian for giving up her time for this

For future meetings I hope to focus on Raspberry Pi’s.  Many schools have bought one or two but we all want to make sure we can use them effectively and not just as an alternative desktop.  I also hope to have an event after school for primary teachers to focus on Scratch.  I’ll also make sure we have some more time allocated to chat and network.

Edmodo – a year on

edmodo badges

edmodo logo

A year ago I came across the social learning network Edmodo.  Probably via Twitter, I’ve no idea really.  What started out as a small-scale trial is now fully embedded across the department and also used extensively by other groups in the school.  It might be useful to share how and why this has happened.

I teach a relatively large class, now in year 11 doing a coursework-only vocational ICT course (DiDA).  There are 28 students and as they have very different abilities, by March of year 10 had got to the point where they were all working on different things and managing their own work well.  The full DiDA qualification has 4 units, each equivalent to 1 GCSE in points.  Each unit contains probably 12 separate pieces of work. Every piece of work needs to be reviewed, receive feedback and be re-drafted.  Most are screen based and therefore not suitable for printing.  Over the two years that’s over 1,300 pieces of work I need to look at if I only look at it once.  I usually look more than once.

I REALLY wish I hadn’t done that calculation 😦

Anyway I needed a way of keeping track of what I had looked at, and for the students to record my feedback.

The first group was set up for the students working on the graphics unit.  They developed logos, example packaging, shop fronts and digital posters for a “healthy takeaway shop”.  They uploaded, I gave feedback (based on exam board marking criteria) they resubmitted and I gave more feedback.  As an aside they also realised that if they uploaded relatively large png files it took forever but if they converted to gif or jpg the upload times were much better!


After about 3 weeks (I’m impatient with trials – if it works it works). I rolled out to my other classes who were soon uploading all their work.

In September we decided to start using Edmodo with year 9 doing the Essential Skills Wales qualification in ICT (I won’t dwell on that).  One of the requirements of this is that students submit two drafts of much of their work.  Many forget (who ACTUALLY saves 2 copies of a presentation when you know the 2nd is much better than the 1st?) so Edmodo handily keeps these drafts for us.

We then started using it with large numbers of students.

My 10 year old son watched me marking at home and told his year 6 teacher about it.  She’s set it up for his class and I also log now as a parent!

School Stats

We now have over 1000 students, 31 teachers and 38 groups on our Edmodo.

It’s being used in ICT, Art and Maths as well as for general 6th form communication, student parliament and vocational activities such as 6th form buddies and Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

My colleage @ademuzzy has presented once to the whole staff on Edmodo and once as a 1 hour CPD to a few teachers.

Lessons Learned

Students really engage with this (“it looks like Facebook!”). They like choosing their favourite quote, learning style and career aim.  We’ve kept a bit of an eye on the profile pictures to avoid the pouty ones.
It’s great for students to submit work and get comments.  Written feedback on work is very important and something we are focusing on this year in school.  Writing comments on work gets a bit samey after a while and if your’re anything like me the students at the bottom of the alphabet can get a raw deal.  However, like with reports, you often want to write the same thing, with a few alterations on many students’ work.  Yes I copy and paste comments – but I then change the 20% of the words which are important.  Saves tons of time and means I write much longer and more meaningful comments.

It’s excellent for discussions.  For OCR Cambridge Technicals in year 12 I set a question (below) and asked students to comment.  The resulting discussion can be used as evidence for their qualification!

edmodo discussion

As a Head of Department I really like that I can see all the work that students are submitting and all the comments my colleagues make.    Not because I am keeping tabs on them (although it IS part of my job) but because if a colleague makes a really positive comment about some work I have a look at it.  I wouldn’t have seen it before and it means we can ALL share in the good work.  I don’t have special access as a HoD – colleagues can also see my comments.

This means we can use Edmodo as an easy way of moderating work across the department which we plan to do in March.

We can set up a group for a particular group (e.g. year 10) then small groups within that for particular classes. The same assignment can be sent to all small groups but if you’re careful each can have a different due date. (Bit fiddly this – at times I think we have micro-managed).

Students really take note of the due dates of tasks!

The smartphone / tablet apps are excellent cut-down versions of the main site.  When the WiFi works in my classroom I walk around with the iPad discussing student progress with individuals.  Great!

I can link it to Google Docs (as can the students) and all my Google Docs can be transferred into Edmodo seamlessly.

The students like the backpack feature – they can put work in their backpack to take home.

I can give parent codes to parents to see what their child is doing.  Now as a teacher I had no idea what this looked like but when my son came home with a parent code I logged on (different account).  I can see what assignments he has due, the work he submitted and the marks and comments his teacher gave.  It means I have a MUCH clearer idea of what his teacher is looking for and can have a really meaningful discussion about his work with him.  As a parent I’d actually rather this than formal reports.

It’s made marking loads of fun!


Well no it hasn’t, but it has helped.  The notifications tell me how much marking I need to do and it’s satisfying to tick them off.  I can also create badges to award to students who pass particular criteria.  There are lots of generic badges on Edmodo, you can share badges with other teachers and also create your own. Ideally it would link up with Mozilla Open Badges but I guess you can’t have everything.  Incidentally year 11 scoffed at the badges when they first saw them but now have a bit of a competition going on.

edmodo badges

We can also link up with other teachers and groups round the world.

Probably most importantly, Edmodo runs really well on our dreadful internet connection! (currently<8Mbs for the whole school.  Welsh Government cash set to change that soon!

There are inevitably some downsides.  Sometimes it doesn’t quite do what we want, but that’s a small price to pay for a free site that in the space of a year has revolutionised the way we run this department.

Ultimately any teaching tool has to be judged by whether it raises attainment.  We won’t have the results of these qualifications until August 2013 and there are too many factors to enable a straight comparison to last year to take place.  However as a teacher, I know exactly where all my classes are on all pieces of work.  I am giving much better feedback to students on their work.  Students are reacting to my comments and redrafting their work.  As a parent I am having really high quality discussions with my son about his work.  How can all of this NOT lead to better attainment?