Tim Rylands 1963 – 2017

timr

I first met Tim around 2006 shortly after he had deservedly won a Becta teaching award. We worked together on a series of conferences for a major ICT company and we quickly struck up a friendship as we travelled around the country, presenting on stage together, and sharing stories and jokes in preparation and relaxation.

I was in awe of the man, and maybe a bit in love… For his charisma, humour, creativity, zest for life, humanity, and his unique blend of professionalism and anarchic wit. I was struck, as were all who saw him at work, at how he could communicate, engage and inspire children of all ages – and teachers of all experience.

His passing leaves a hole in the world of education, his family, his friends and his partner Sarah. Together, he and Sarah toured the world inspiring thousands of others. Their stories, laughter, practical advice, and living example, illustrated perfectly the many positive and creative potentials of technology.

Tim, you are sorely missed.

About Tim Rylands

 

Creating a ‘squeaky’ classroom…

One of my favourite education-focused essays is, in fact, an old Charlie Brown ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strip.

It features Lucy arguing with her teacher about the grade she’s just received for her coat-hanger sculpture. I love Lucy’s arguments, especially the comment “Was I judged on what I had learned about this project? If so, then were not you, my teacher, also being judged on your ability to transmit your knowledge to me? Are you willing to share my ‘C’?”

peanuts-lucy-brown-assessment

In later years I came to learn more about teacher assessment following principles such as validity, reliability, usefulness (to the student) and fairness. Not always easy to understand, remember or apply. But in those days, I simply pinned the cartoon to the wall beside my classroom desk as a useful reminder of things to think about when assessing students’ work. Lucy’s arguments are still a good reference tool.

But the phrase that really struck me, it was the first time that I’d come across it, is Lucy’s final remark as she turns to face the reader, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

How right she is.

In many classrooms I’ve observed and worked in, it’s often the ‘squeaky’ students that demand more time and attention. This ‘squeakiness’ may come from behaviours, learning difficulties, extrovert personalities, an identification of need, etc. This attention imbalance hardly seems fair. And, if it’s not fair, then is it possible to enable those ‘unsqueaky’ students to get the same degree of consideration?

Technologies have the potential to help to make things a bit more equable, in particular the way they can make the experience of learning more individual and less generic. One way in which that can be achieved is through the use of tools that support formative assessment – that  enable every learner to come to the forefront of attention.

There’s now a rich range of free online assessment tools that make it possible for teachers to understand more fully where each and every learner is in their learning. From this array of tools, the ones I have in mind include Formative, Kahoot, Quizizz, Plickers and Socrative. Each has its own specific merit. Plickers, for example doesn’t rely on student response via a device. Instead, students hold up cards oriented to the answer they wish to give. It’s simple and effective. Tools such as EdPuzzle even allow the teacher to support students as they watch video, providing feedback on their attention and understanding.

These tools enable responses to be judged in terms of percentages (how many of the class have ‘got it’) and/or individually (which students need more support/challenge/time). They help to increase the ‘squeakiness’ level of the classroom.

That ‘squeakiness’ can even be increased by encouraging ‘back channel’ responses. Answer Garden couldn’t be simpler to use for real time anonymous feedback, while Google Forms provides one of the richest sets of back channel, survey and formative assessment tools. There’s a useful introduction to Google Forms here.

The great thing about these services is that they make formative assessment more insightful, achievable and real-time. Instead of trying to read body language, ask for a show of hands, ask meaningless questions (“Has everyone got that?”) or wait for students’ written work, that insight can take place instantly and, as a result, teaching can be adapted while the topic is hot.

Creating a ‘squeaky’ classroom has never been easier.

 

Image Credit: My copy of the Peanuts cartoon is old and tatty. 
The image on this page is sourced here

RM Seminars – a return visit

The RM Seminars are now in their 25th year. That’s quite an achievement. I can even remember some of the early ones…

Back then, I was an English teacher also running a Windows NT network, having just migrated the school from a BBC/Acorn Econet system (apologies to younger folk for the references to the Stone Age). In those days, the Internet was just a distant rumour and not the potent force it is today. And if, like me, you were untrained in the ways of Microsoft, the only way to learn and share new skills, information and resources was to physically meet up with others. That’s why attending an RM Technical Seminar was so important.

Today though, the Internet has become a dominant and central part of our personal, social and professional lives. We can email, Google, Tweet, Skype, Hangout, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram… and the list goes on. There are so many ways to find out information, to share skills, to learn from/with others, to share resources…

So given the ease, speed and knowledge-richness of the Information Age, why are RM’s seminars still going strong? Aren’t they a bit of an anachronism in today’s connected world?

Ironically, I think it’s this wealth of information that makes a conference setting even more relevant. The amount of information may have increased but the time available to us to access this has not. Many of us have become knowledge-rich but time-poor. Search engines themselves are amazingly powerful tools but we all know how difficult it can be to find relevant results.

I think that’s one possible reason why so many technicians, teachers and senior leaders had turned out to the Birmingham seminar I attended in November this year. It was a good opportunity to take time out of school to have up-to-date, concise, and relevant presentations of key ICT issues facing schools. What RM had put together was an exhibition area, networking opportunities, presentations and discussion groups to meet the needs of technical and educational staff. The seminars provide a very efficient use of time.

RM, of course, is a business organisation. However altruistic it might like to be, there is, no doubt, a solid business case for RM Education to run these. Venues such as the National Conference Centre in Birmingham don’t come cheap and the associated costs of staffing, marketing and preparation must be significant. So, for RM itself, this must be an equally good opportunity to meet existing and prospective customers.

It’s a good opportunity too for RM to launch new products such as RM Buzz, RM Inform and RM Connect. For schools, that’s another good reason to attend – to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in technology. In particular, how technology is designed and engineered specifically to meet the needs of education. Of course, there’s still that focus on helping schools to make the technology work as effectively and efficiently as possible. The two technical streams help meet that need for a schools’ technical team to learn from sessions such as “How to make the best use of PowerShell with Office 365 and Windows Server” or “Navigating the route to the cloud.” But this focus, over recent years, has widened to help schools ensure the technology creates educational impact. That’s why the ‘Educational Stream’ has become as important a part of the seminar programme as the “Technical Stream.” It’s something that wasn’t there all those years ago when I first attended.

The educational content this year concentrated on practical implementation in the classroom. In these sessions teachers were given the chance to program robotic devices using the BBC microbit, learn how to use Apple devices for greater productivity and efficiency, and really get inside G Suite for Education.

RM is a Google Premier Partner. The strength of that partnership could be seen in an engaging, practical and informative session run by RM’s Mark House and Google’s Jason Leonard. Here, in less than an hour, small groups of teachers used Chromebooks, G Suite and Google Cardboard to work collaboratively to produce a class website. All with lots of laughter, handy classroom tips, and much learning.

The seminars seem to be developing in other ways too. At Birmingham, and two other venues, an interesting addition was a whole-day online safety event: “Sexting in schools and colleges”. In attending the main seminar, I missed the morning presentations from the police and members of the child protection community but I was lucky enough to catch some of the concluding discussions led by online safety expert Charlotte Aynsley. Given the technology temptations and issues facing our young people – and the challenges this presents schools – this additional stream seems to me to a very welcome development from RM.

So, a thoroughly worthwhile and informative day. Coffee and lunch breaks provided further opportunity to network, visit exhibition stands or, in my case, bump into and chat with a former ‘A’ Level student of twenty years ago – now working for Apple Education! It was a nice reminder of the past and a reminder too of how far the RM Seminars have developed in those twenty years since I first visited.

The RM Seminars continue through November and return in spring, 2017. Find out at www.rm.com/seminars

The Future of Educational Technology?

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Nils Bohr

Among the many treasures of the excellent Public Domain Review is a collection of illustrations of possible future technologies, as seen from the 19th century.[1] The collection includes this vision of technology in education.

school-of-the-future

Here the role of the teacher seems to be to select texts and, via some mechanical text-to-speech device, have the content of these directly piped into students’ headphones. It’s mildly laughable but it’s also interesting in the way that the picture also illustrates some of the ways educational technology has often been used.

First, there’s a focus on the novelty of the technology, as a new shiny gewgaw. Technology here also serves to support existing models of teaching. In this case, where students are passive, seated in rows and have no contribution to make to the direction of their learning. Then there’s the inference that education is merely knowledge-delivery and that the role of technology is to make this more efficient. If technology is to have a key part in education in the future, it will have to avoid these assumptions.

But the 19th century illustrator has also captured something important. The picture shows a large single device in the classroom and a crude infrastructure of wires to enable the contents of the device to be distributed. The illustration thus shows how technology can provide access to learning. In painting this picture, the artist is both right and wrong: right in that infrastructure will be important; and wrong in the emphasis on the classroom device.

Schools, now and in the future, will require fast, reliable and secure Internet connectivity. With this, schools have access to the cloud – and via the cloud – access to resources, tools and anytime/anywhere learning.

These tools exist now. They have the potential to develop even further with an emphasis on ease and speed of use – for all users. Google Classroom, for example, already enables teachers to allocate, collect and respond to students’ work online. For students, this means instant access to teacher comments, learning materials, timely support and peer collaboration.

Where the 19th century illustrator got it wrong was in the emphasis on the teacher-controlled classroom device. Looking at the experience of today, there’s a reasonable chance that in the future we will see more use of mobile Internet-connected devices in a blend of school and student-owned appliances. These will remove the need for students to be tethered to their desks, unlike they’re shown in the picture! Mobile connectivity enables technology to be integrated into every part of the curriculum and for learning to take place outside of the classroom. This ready access to resources and learning provides an opportunity for schools to personalise learning to a greater degree than today, and to develop a more independent approach to learning.

It seems clear that robust, speedy and safe Internet access and the adoption of cloud-based technologies will be the means by which educational technology will develop. Already, it means that, schools are not far from successfully adopting the following approaches:

  • Social Networking: Schools use social media tools for group teaching, and teach students how to use these effectively to develop learning networks; to connect with experts across the world; to build safe online profiles of achievement; and to support others. Teachers regularly use these tools and principles for their own professional and career development.
  • A Wider Campus: Schools become a combination of physical and virtual spaces. Students beyond the catchment area join specific classes their physical school is unable to provide; schools employ teachers from distant parts of the country and overseas to fill gaps in expertise, and provide classes that would otherwise be economically unviable.

But technology is disruptive. Across all industries, technology has displaced long-established, even cultural, practices and completely changed the way the industry works. In some cases technology has created completely new industries. Disintermediation (the name given to a process that provides a consumer with direct access to a product or service) has already transformed the way we buy insurance, holidays, retail products – even grocery.

It’s much less clear how this phenomenon of disintermediation will apply to education. Professor Sugata Mitra famously observed children using technology to teach themselves in his Hole in the Wall[2] project but an education system that minimises the role of the teacher seems unlikely (certainly at primary and secondary ages) – in any future. As one famous technologist is quoted as saying, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”[3] Perhaps the biggest conundrum when looking forward is how much the role of the teacher will continue as it currently is and how much it will adapt.

Painting a picture of the future brings the danger that it is as inaccurate as that of the 19th century illustrator but, in closing, here are a few technologies that perhaps we will we see schools adopting in the coming years:

  • Virtual Reality (VR): VR headsets will become a staple technology across the curriculum in providing rich, sensory experiences of real, historical and imagined places.
  • 3D Printing: Students will regularly design, prototype and make models, products and artwork using 3D additive manufacturing tools.
  • Internet of Things: Technology will be embedded to create ‘intelligent objects’. Buildings and devices will become ‘smarter’ in automatically recognising students, teachers and visitors for access authentication. Eye-tracking technologies will provide insight into student’s learning strategies, information gathering and the effectiveness of commercial and school-created resources.
  • Disintermediation: Since parents have online access to their children’s progress data, Parents’ Evenings have become much more consultative. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud-based systems, enable students to access learning materials and resources independently of a teacher.

[1] http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/

[2] http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/

[3] http://sourcesofinsight.com/lessons-learned-from-bill-gates/

Cost saving as a Multi-Academy Trust

Let’s take that question of capital costs. Typically, schools and academies provide services to students and staff via hardware-based server systems. Adding, upgrading or replacing servers often requires considerable capital expenditure. By moving to Cloud-based systems, academies can shift that burden to free or low-cost software, and much more friendly revenue models. Added to that, there are sizable savings to be made in electricity costs. It might even be possible to free up the server room as an extra teaching and learning space!

This move to the Cloud is one that’s driven by commercial vendors themselves. Recently, Microsoft and the DfE announced a new ‘Education Cloud Transition Agreement’ to extend the current Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that gives schools and academies substantial discounts on Microsoft licences. Microsoft say this will enable its “UK education customers to transition to the cloud and take advantage of Microsoft free Online Services e.g. Office 365 Education.” There’s a bit of a stick behind this carrot as the current Volume Licensing discounts for existing customers expire after July 20182 . In other words, if you’re a Microsoft customer, move to Office 365 soon or be prepared to pay more.

Pleasingly, this is one of the rare occasions where saving money can also bring benefits; cloud-based systems enable students and staff to access learning materials, documents and means of communication on a wide range of devices – no longer tied to specific devices on internal networks.

Google for Education or Office 365 both provide free suites of tools that, regardless of the device being used, enables all users to get the same experience. Students and staff can work on documents both individually and collaboratively as everything is easily accessible, regardless of the location or device they are using. Using cloud-based services in this way can help to improve the speed and ease of access to materials in the classroom, extend learning beyond the classroom, improve student-engagement, and even support new models of pedagogy – such as ‘flipped learning’. Furthermore, moving to the cloud frees up budget to buy more low-cost mobile devices such as Chromebooks or to develop Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes.

So, from a gloomy start, have we found a pleasing symmetry of reduced costs and improved learning and teaching tools? Possibly. But not without a clear ICT vision and strategy. Your Strategic ICT Plan will provide a clear route to achieving your vision; for example in planning not only for the removal of server technology but also associated costs such as technical support. This latter aspect of ICT spend can be considerable. RM Education’s 2015 research3 suggested that an ‘average’ school, with 693 pupils on roll, spends at least £93,555 per annum on ICT support – that’s £135 per student! Because cloud-based solutions have no local servers to support and repair – there’s an opportunity to save ongoing costs here too.

These opportunities to reduce costs extend beyond the single academy. There are potential benefits from the economies of scale that an academy chain can bring, for example in sharing ICT support across the Trust, volume purchasing and negotiating preferred ICT agreements. RM Education is the preferred ICT provider to The Academies Enterprise Trust (AET). For the past few years, RM has worked closely with the Trust to move some its academies to server-less and cloud-based solutions. The expectation is that, over five years, the Trust will save £900,077 in costs as well as a staggering £7,701,044 in additional benefit savings4.

First published May 2016 at RM Education

Multi-Academy Trusts – Building a Foundation for Sustainable Growth

Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) share many of the same characteristics as other organisations in industry and commerce – sectors that benefit from a wealth of experience, research and management expertise to help understand factors essential for sustainable growth. For industry, there’s certainly no shortage of financial models (e.g. the ‘Higgins Sustainable Growth Model’) to calculate a company’s sustainable or optimal growth rate. However, although there are many points of comparison, there are differences in some of the drivers of organisational development. Commercial businesses, for example, can be driven by short-term profits, dividend-rewarded rapid growth and the need to pursue immediate market opportunities. And, although business partnerships can thrive, commercial organisations are, generally, driven by competition – not collaboration. As not-for-profit educational organisations, MATs find themselves in a distinctive position where models of sustainable growth are formed, not only by financial factors, as with business organisations, but also by wider social, moral and organisational considerations. These can be summarised as follows:

Leadership. In business models, leadership is, perhaps, the most commonly identified characteristic of successful growth. Leadership contributes to, shapes and directs the strategic vision and growth plans of the organisation.  A well-communicated and well-implemented strategic vision enables each academy to contribute to the Trust’s vision and ensures that each supporting strategy is mapped against successful outcomes for young people. Effective leadership also extends the social and moral responsibilities of the Trust through a commitment to and partnership with others in education. For example, in providing support for new or developing MATs.

Governance. At the organisational level, another key foundation stone for sustainable growth is a model of governance with clear and agreed distinctions at Trust and local governing body level. Clear delegation and direction of responsibilities provide the necessary framework for ownership, transparency and accountabilities. Louise Thomson, Head of Policy at ‘ICSA: The Governance Institute’, has blogged in detail on this topic, “Sound subsidiary governance is essential to ensure that … arrangements are appropriate for the size and complexity of the organisation. For a multi-academy trust, the board needs to be sure that each of its academies is operating in a manner consistent with the direction and leadership set by the board, while being suitably flexible to deal with local cultures and situations.”1

Effective organisational governance helps to entrench the social and moral responsibilities of the Trust as it grows by translating mission and vision statements into best practice.

Best Practice. Organisationally, existing good practice provides one of the foundation stones for future growth; for example in taking best practice from one academy and replicating this across all academies in the Trust. To give a specific example, Quality Assurance (QA) systems embedded successfully in one academy provide an opportunity for these to be extended across the Trust.

Extending best practice helps provide consistency and well-understood processes to enable the MAT as a whole to grow.

If social, moral and organisational factors determine the success of a MATs growth, it is the financial element that enables or constrains the Trust’s ability to achieve and sustain this. At its simplest, economies of scale only begin to operate above a certain threshold. Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, recently provided some insight into this.2   By calculating, at the Trust level, total student population, pupil income, and a 5% contribution to running the central team and support structure, he models the impact on MATs of different scale. The conclusion seems to be that 1200 students in a MAT is the smallest viable number. This has inevitable implications, particularly for primary-focused and smaller MATs.

MATs have social and moral commitments different to those of commercial organisations. Finance, as David Carter has shown, is indeed a critical factor, but the growth of a Trust should not be measured solely by its economic size. The real measure is in the scope and ability of the Trust to enable all its academies to contribute richly to its communities; enhance the experiential quality of life in its academies; develop the talents and capabilities of staff; and, crucially, extend the life opportunities of its young people.

1 https://www.academyambassadors.org/news/question-balance-subsidiary-governance-multi-academy-trusts

2 Sir David Carter “United We Stand. An Insight into Multi-Academy Trusts”, March 2016. Available from http://www.ascl.org.uk/utilities/document-summary.html?id=9E3709F8-4535-4972-84C920275C52EBBA

First published April 2016 at RM Education

Implementing school improvement through innovation in multi-academy trusts

Put simply, the argument for autonomy is that previous and well-established models for running schools have led to underachievement, underperformance and coasting. As Minister of State for Education, Nick Gibb, described it recently, “The only way to challenge such schools is innovation through autonomy.”

That linking of autonomy and innovation, that freedom to do things differently, is both liberating and potentially dangerous. The risk is that innovation becomes confused with novelty; that the potential for greater educational achievement gets lost in the quest for originality. To avoid such risks, innovation needs to be (i) visionary and (ii) informed.

1. Visionary

The importance of vision is recognised in many studies of successful innovation in business; for example, in one study reported in the Harvard Business Review1 the ability of business leaders to “Display excellent strategic vision” rated as the top of ten key characteristics: “The most effective innovation leaders could vividly describe their vision of the future.”

To return to Nick Gibb, he has also characterised the best MATs as having “…a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision.”

Although it is likely that they will share similarities, the distinctive nature of that philosophical and pedagogical vision will differ from MAT to MAT. Perhaps in one it is driven by a focus on inquiry-based learning; perhaps in another the focus is on empowering middle leaders. These differences emerge because the implementation of that vision is itself part of the vision – knowing how to get there is as important as knowing where to go.

To get there, successful and truly innovative MATs will adapt the pace and direction of change to the context of the academy and/or MAT. This isn’t just about the management of deficiencies but also about the ability of the Trust to adapt to change and to maintain and share momentum across the MAT as a whole. It’s something Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, identifies as a characteristic of successful and leading MATs; that they can improve the majority of their “schools to the point at which those that were once weak now have capacity and strength to support new schools joining the MAT or schools beyond the Trust. They can also peer review with confidence other schools in the trust.”

2. Informed

Successful innovation responds to feedback from a variety of sources. This starts with the use of a range of quantitative data for different purposes: self-evaluation, accountability, target-setting, performance management, SEN, admissions, financial management, and so on… Key to this too, is the distribution and intelligent use of data across the organisation – for all members of the MAT. This includes governors and advisory boards using top-level dashboards to gain an aggregated view of MAT or academy performance. It includes subject teachers using it for formative assessment and target setting discussions with students. It should also include individual academy departments using data for cross-MAT comparison of subject performance and the analysis of specific pupil groups.

Running parallel to this use of quantitative data are other well-established feedback mechanisms such as internal inspections, peer reviews, lesson observations, learning walks and so on. These gain more traction and significance when deployed and shared across the MAT; for example when teachers from different academies work together to raise attainment for specific groups of pupils, agreeing what progress looks like, and sharing best practice to achieve this.

With an informed vision, the risk of aimless innovation is significantly mitigated. However, nowhere is that risk greater than in the deployment of educational ICT where too often schools (and governments) have pursued inventive (and expensive) technological solutions almost in an act of faith, believing that the investment alone will yield rewards. That’s an entirely avoidable and unforgivable position today. Indeed, ICT is now the basis of the essential tool set to achieve that informed vision for effective innovation. I would go as far as to say that Trust-wide innovation is simply not possible without the efficient use of ICT. As an example, technology can facilitate highly effective and clear quality assurance systems (both quantitative and qualitative) to improve consistency and performance across the Trust. And, as a final example, technology can enable and strengthen meaningful collaboration across the Trust for leaders, teachers and students through highly cost-effective and easily accessible cloud-hosted online platforms.

Autonomy brings both freedoms and increased responsibilities. The prevailing view is that school autonomy creates the most fertile conditions for innovative practices to drive improvement.  Perhaps it is not such a new view. After all, as Darwin himself said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

First published April 2016 at RM Education

Small Flowers Crack Concrete

This is an adapted version of a presentation given at the Digital Education Show, London, June 2015. The full presentation is here.

First published March 2016 at RM Education

Making the Most of Cloud Technologies… a non-techie view

Trust-Centred Student Collaboration