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Schools IT Excellence Group Set Up

July 5, 2012


I have been sitting on this wee bit of news and am delighted that I can now go public. I am honoured to have been appointed to the new ICT Excellence Group set up by Michael Russell MSP, Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, to consider the successor to Glow. As someone who has been a long time champion of the possibilities that are opening up, and of the need for education to understand and adapt to change rather than shy away from it, I will be approaching this opportunity with an open mind and a desire to see Scotland’s education system show the way with what is possible.

Below is the press release. I look forward to helping shaping the educational ICT future that my children will negotiate.

Schools IT excellence group set up
Experts consider digital communications for pupils

Scottish Government logo

Education Secretary Michael Russell has appointed the Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Muffy Calder to convene an ICT Excellence Group to consider the future development of the schools’ intranet ‘Glow’.

The new ICT excellence group will draw on the experience and expertise of end-users, and educational technology experts to scope the long-term user-centred future of Glow.

Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell said:

“It is crucial that the next generation of Glow allows schools to harness the power of technology for learning, to keep pace with rapidly evolving developments and speak the language that young people speak online.
“Professor Calder’s group will have the challenge of imagining a future for the service that can be customised to the individual requirements of our young people, is dynamic and can remain relevant for years to come. I look forward to receiving their advice later this year.”

Glow is currently used by teachers, pupils and parents to support learning and share resources.
Developed in 2005 as an education intranet with a potential user base of 1.5 million users, comprising learners, parents and carers, teachers and other staff supporting education across Scotland. It provides:

• A trusted and safe environment for online activity by pupils, practitioners and parents
• A variety of online tools to enable national communication and enhance learning
• Access to a range of educational resources
• Communities of practice that offer teachers opportunities to share and collaborate

The group members are now announced as follows: Prof Muffy Calder, Prof Ian Sommerville, Prof Mike Sharples, Mr Ewan McIntosh, Mr Charlie Love, Prof Bill Buchanan, Mr Hamish Budge, Prof Jeff Haywood, Mr Neil Winton, Mr Tony Rafferty, Mr Fraser Speirs, Mrs Jaye Richards Hill and Mr Martin Dewar who will facilitate the involvement of two school pupils in the group.

The Cabinet Secretary’s recent statement on the immediate future of Glow can be found here:’s-next-phase/


Who You Callin’ A Tube? (Part 1)

June 17, 2012

I was delighted to have been asked to speak at the recent Google Apps for Education Event in Glasgow (check the Twitter hashtag #gooscot for more). I’m biased because I was speaking, but I found the whole day to be a superb opportunity to look forward with a lot of like-minded people. It was a really inspiring event, and I dearly hope that David Cameron‘s closing address was recorded because everyone involved in Scottish Education should hear it…

However, I was speaking about YouTube and in time honoured fashion, ran out of time before I could say everything I wanted to. Here, then, is the first part of an expanded outline of what I was saying, complete with links and other goodies! This first part is the background and a few points on searching with YouTube. Part Two tomorrow will cover the specific examples I used, and also some of the really clever tools and YouTube extras that you may not know about. Enjoy! 😉

The Entrée

My slides were designed to give a quick overview of the history of YouTube… but I should really have checked with YouTube first as they have a nifty video (d’oh!) that covers the same ground… here it is:

Anyway… the main thing I was talking about was why YouTube is such an important and worthwhile tool in the classroom. The following page references come from the slides!

Slides 8-23

YouTube’s rise has been nothing less than phenomenal. Consider the numbers… it has gone from one video uploaded in 2005, to over 1 trillion views in 2011. YouTube is where the world goes to see, and laugh, and share, and learn… and that needs to be put into context to understand just how remarkable it is. Consider this slide:

It took 1700 generations to get to this stage, and only within the last 300 have we had writing to record our learning and knowledge. The permanence and ubiquity afforded our knowledge by printing is only 35 generations old. Yet, in less than a third of a generation, YouTube has shared more knowledge and understanding than the sum total of human endeavour. It has become the true record of humankind, not because it is always accurate, or unbiased, or ‘academic’ but because it is real and it is valued and it will afford future anthropologists more insights into our development than has ever been possible. And YouTube is a great leveller. Language has the potential to become irrelevant when you can SEE something happening… though YouTube can always add captions or subtitles!

I think we ignore or block YouTube in schools at our peril. It is here, it is valued, it is valuable, and it is free… but it is also in need of careful teaching. Learners today need to know how to judge the authenticity of a clip, or be able to identify the moral centre of a clip, or even just know how to comment responsibly on a clip. That isn’t easy when the only contact they have (before they switch on their phone), is a screen saying “No entry: This site is blocked because it contains cat videos/social media/learning potential”.

GoogleTube (Slides 26-29)

Here’s a quick task you can try for yourself if you have teenage kids at home. Ask them where they go to find out something they don’t know. If your experience is anything like mine, they go to two places: Google and YouTube. In fact, YouTube is rapidly heading towards becoming the search engine of choice for young people…

The reasons for their love of YouTube is, according to them, that they like to see the answer to a question. That they can also access YouTube very easily on a mobile device is the second big attraction for them. Knowledge and entertainment are available on tap anytime, any place… but I think there’s another more important reason we need to consider (slides 27 & 29).

Finding things on YouTube is more fun for young people because:

  • YouTube lets you find your own answers;
  • YouTube doesn’t ask you the question, you do;
  • YouTube doesn’t ‘judge’ your answer.

As a profession, teachers are very prone to asking questions to which we have answers that are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ using a very narrow frame of reference (Check out the Barometer story if you want ‘proof’ of that!). Yet the truth is, we learn more through serendipity and coincidence… In my own case, that meant a well worn copy of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.I would look up one thing for an essay, and a few minutes — or hours — later, would struggle to remember what I’d originally been looking for because I’d been taken on a voyage of discovery. YouTube is like that. Younger people are much more likely to click the “If you liked this, you may like these” links at the end of a YouTube video. We see them looking at CatVideos… but then we don’t see them actually using YouTube to its potential. We don’t see them using it to help with their research. A quick example…

The grab on the right is what is returned by searching YouTube for Wilfred Owen. No shortage of resources… each with a thumbnail, and more importantly, the length of the clip. You can tell in advance how much time you’re going to invest… not all may be relevant to the topic being researched, but — like Brewer’s before it — the serendipitous nature of the results are an enticement to find out more.

This is all the more likely when, on finishing a particular video, one is presented with related examples…

This is the links presented after viewing my Keynote animation for Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est“:

Plenty for the learner to follow up… especially as they develop the 4 Capacities of Scotland’s Curriculum.* Of course, this is my real focus for using YouTube. The working definition of Literacy within the Curriculum documents (slide 35) is this:

Literacy is the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language which society values and finds useful.

Look at the YouTube numbers. And then think about how useful YouTube has been over the past year or so in reporting live news from Libya, Egypt, Syria… the list goes on. YouTube is a source of information that we ignore at our peril… but we do have to take a responsible attitude and approach to it. We need to be teaching effective and safe use — merely blocking will not do that.

One final point for now. The most common reason for blocking YouTube is the quite reasonable one to do with bandwidth. YouTube is video, video consumes considerable amounts of it, and the thought of even greater use by schools will probably fill most network managers with dread… but… there is an apparent anomaly here. I have been told by several different people, and on several different occasions, that the ‘Pathfinder Project’ – rolled out since the mid to late 00s – meant that:

For education, the barrier of bandwidth capacity previously has now been removed…

Shame then that so many Local Authorities are not delivering the blistering speeds promised (up to 300MB/s) to the schools.

That’s it for part one… Part two (coming tomorrow) will cover the actual examples I discussed in my workshop, as well as going through a handful of immensely useful YouTube tools that will help you find even more value for it in the classroom. If you want a taster, try out It’s YouTube without the comments, and a plain dark background. Perfect for schools! 😉

* We have been talking about the Curriculum for Excellence for years now — just a thought: Isn’t excellence the goal of every curriculum? Also, in the absence of any other curriculum in Scottish mainstream schools I’m just going to talk about Scotland’s Curriculum if that’s alright with everyone else! 😉

Responsible Citizens: A Flight of Fancy

June 11, 2012

Especially for those engaged in Scotland’s Curriculum, I thought I’d have a look at what it means to be a Responsible Citizen. (Warning: some of what follows may not be entirely serious)

According to the CfE Four Capacities, a Responsible Citizen has the following attributes:

  • Respect for others
  • Commitment to participate responsibly in political, economic, social and cultural life

In addition, they have the following capacities. They can:

  • Develop knowledge and understanding of the world and Scotland’s place in it
  • Understand different beliefs and cultures
  • Make informed choices and decisions
  • Evaluate environmental, scientific and technological issues
  • Develop informed, ethical views of complex issues

I will be honest, I think these are outstanding statements for a curriculum. They are worthy of aspiring to, but I wonder how well we as teachers are in demonstrating these to the learners we hope to impart them to… and how would a teacher discuss all of these with a class of senior pupils…

Now class, we show we have respect for others by telling them their opinions are not to be trusted… and before you ask, no, you can’t access YouTube in school… It’s bad… you need to just sit down, shut up, and respect my authority…

We demonstrate our commitment to participating responsibly in political, economic, social and cultural life by making sure that social media tools are blocked (because they are social). No Johnny, we stop access to social media tools because they are not an important part of our political, economic and cultural life. For goodness sake, next you’ll be asking if Barak Obama would have won without social media? Or that the SNP’s groundbreaking use of social media tools in the 2011 election was important? Yes Mary, I have heard of the Occupy Movement, and the Arab Spring, but I don’t see what they have to do with Twitter. It’s just reports of what people had for breakfast. It’s not like the National Theatre’s on twitter, is it? Anyway, you’re kids so you aren’t interested in politics or culture, or things like that… That’s why we block all these sites. I’m surprised you even notice.

Still… it’s not all bad. We help you develop knowledge and understanding of the world and Scotland’s place in it by avoiding online stuff. Who needs to know how to use social media tools to have a discussion with people from other cultures across the world in an effort to share what it means to be Scottish, or Australian, or Canadian, or French, or Dundonian… Use Skype in the classroom? That’s just silly. No, what we like doing to help you to understand other cultures is to sit in rows in a classroom while wearing the same clothes and facing the front to listen to the teacher… We call the lesson North Korea 101, and think you will get a lot out of the lesson. You mum and dad did when they were here 30 years ago.

Different beliefs and cultures… mmm… tricky one that. We don’t really want you to actually find out about other beliefs or ideas because … well, I know… we’ll block them to be on the safe side. I mean, look at that lot… they sound like a cult… I mean, nobody uses the internet, do they?

Yes class, well, you know how we are meant to be teaching you to make informed choices and decisions? Well, it turns out we may be being a little economical with the truth on that one. That’s why we do so much blocking and filtering of the internet. Now you don’t have to worry your little heads about the big bad world… Yes, class. I know we could teach you about these things so you could make your own decisions, but… well, you know… you’re just kiddies.

Yes, I had heard that you are old enough to get married, join the Army, have a family, have a mobile phone with better connection speed that the school’s network, but — despite all these things — we’re just going to make the decisions about what you can and can’t do for you. Now, why are you not wearing your uniform? What do you mean you checked the weather forecast and decided warm clothes were more sensible than a blazer and tie in a blizzard… it’s not your decision to make. This is a school you know… not real life.

One last thing class… we do need to talk about technological issues. Hands up all the people in the class who have a mobile phone? Good… now put them away. They are a distraction. Also some people use them to find out the answers before I’ve told you what the answer is… and their answer might be more modern than mine and you might think I was wrong because I went to University in the 1990s… yes, that was before the Internet and Wikipedia and YouTube and Twitter and all those distractions…

Anyway class, I’m glad we had this little chat because as long as you remember what I’ve said, you’ll have developed informed, ethical views on these complex issues. No, Peter, I think you’ll find me telling you what to do and say and think and learn is exactly what developing views on complex issues means. Now, take out your slates and chalk, we’re going to have a test on why the internet is powered by fairies and pixie dust…

With very real apologies to anyone who actually can write well… ;o) I was going to try doing something similar for ‘effective contributors‘ but instead I’ll leave you with this screen grab from my phone.

The WIFi link at the bottom of the list is coming from one of the learners in the class who has jailbroken his iPhone to use it as an ad hoc WiFi network (unfiltered) for his friends.

Even if you were cynical (which I am not), you would have to acknowledge that he has actually demonstrated all of the Attributes and Capacities of an Effective Contributor…



Game On!

June 7, 2012

There’s a rather special TeachMeet taking place in Dundee next week, and I’m really excited to be taking part. The reason? This is a TeachMeet with a strong focus on game based learning. Organised by myself and the irrepressible Derek Robertson, we are delighted and honoured to have an extra special guest in the shape of Dean Groom

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year or so, you cannot have helped but notice that Minecraft is a bit of a phenomenon. Dean Groom is leading the way with regards to using Minecraft in schools, and I can’t wait to hear his thoughts on Minecraft and especially the ever so clever Massively Minecraft site… and no, I’m really not that sure about why Minecraft is so good and worth investigating, and that’s what makes a TeachMeet so brilliant! I get a quick burst of CPD from someone who knows what he or she is talking about, and I can go away and try it myself.

If you are available on the 13th, you really do owe it to yourself to get to Dundee Uni. It’ll be fun, and also a great bit of CPD… check out the wiki for more details and to sign up. 😉

What Did You Learn That Was Worthwhile?

March 22, 2012

I’ve got a confession to make. I failed my Higher English at school. Twice. I’m glad I did, because it meant that I couldn’t go straight to University, which I almost certainly would have been kicked out of after a year.

Instead, I had to find a job. It was a meaningless and dead-end job, but it did give me enough money to buy the odd pint (fun) and new sets of guitar stings (essential). To cut a long story short, after a few years drifting, I ended up back at college sitting my Higher English where, because I was motivated and driven, I passed with an A (Band 1, since you ask).

So… did school fail me? Were teachers held accountable because I failed? I certainly hope not, because I know that there would have been nothing they could have done to make me pass at that point in my life. In fact, in retrospect, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. If I’d scraped a pass, I’d have probably never have tried to improve myself… would never have set off on this path to becoming a better learner…

So… what did I learn at school that was worthwhile? (And by worthwhile, I am restricting myself to specific knowledge that I was taught at school and that I can clearly identify as having been used after school — my blog, my rules! 😉 )
Simple. Scottish country dancing. My school taught me how to do the Gay Gordons, the Dashing White Sergeant, and the creme de la creme for exercise and grabbing members of the opposite sex, the Strip The Willow (see video below for the Orcadian version). I can honestly say that I have never had to use my Higher Physics or Higher Maths (I did get some Highers at school!), but I have had occasion to use my Scottish dancing almost every year since. Most notably at midnight on a beach in the South of France while a student.

Ask me what I learned of value and I’ll have to admit it was something that wasn’t assessed, wasn’t evaluated by the ‘system’, and did not have a deadline. I loved it!

So, what was your most useful/practical learning experience from school?

Who’s Really Not Ready?

March 21, 2012

If I was cynical, I’d think that Mike Russell’s announcement that option of delaying the implementation of National 4 and 5 exams for a year was deliberately timed to coincide with the Budget. There can be no doubt that with regards Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), this is a bit of a climbdown no matter how it has been spun… but, I do think it is grossly unfair to point the finger at the Minister alone. After all, he will not be the one standing in a classroom delivering the new courses, that’ll be us, the teachers. Is it possible, that ultimately the fault lies with the schools themselves? Or, is this all just symptomatic of a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of assessment in learning?

I’m going to lay my cards on the table straight away — I like the Curriculum for Excellence. I do believe that it does offer the opportunity to more accurately and relevantly prepare our learners for the real world after school. This is the world I live in: where I work collaboratively with others, where I am encouraged to make connections that didn’t exist before, where I have ready access to the resources I need to make sense of problems that present themselves to me, and where every day, I try to be a confident individual, an effective contributor, a responsible citizen and a successful learner… now remind me, where have I heard those words before?

4179063482_2f07bdb00a_b-529x529.jpegSo with that out of the way, let’s consider the elephant in the room. Curriculum for Excellence is not new. Honest. In fact, it will celebrate its 10th birthday this year, as Fearghal points out in his great little potted history of CfE. So, forget that I am a teacher for a second, and let’s concentrate on my more important job: as the father of a son who will only ever know CfE. Here’s my first question to Scotland’s teachers (and obviously, to myself): what have you been doing for the last 10 years? Why is CfE a surprise? Why do we need more time to implement this?

BTW: This room is getting a bit crowded because there’s a second elephant in it. The optional delay is in the introduction of the National 4 and National 5 assessments… not the curriculum itself. I think this is important because it speaks volumes of the reasons why we as a profession find ourselves having to consider the role of assessment and its place in the curriculum. How many of these statements have you heard over the past 10 years?

  • What will the assessment be like?
  • How can we prepare the pupils if we don’t know what the exams are like?
  • How much will be the same, how much will be different?
  • Should we look at what we already do and see how that fits in with the new assessments?
  • Will I still be able to use the same units I’ve always used?
  • Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum…

I’m sorry, but this is the tail wagging the dog. We are on the verge of trying to make fundamental changes to our learning and teaching… changes that we have historically acknowledged need to be made as Fearghal noted:

The teaching profession had been growing increasingly restless with the pace of change in education in the late 1990s. Large numbers of teachers were increasingly engaging with educational literature and trying out new practices in their classrooms.

And yet, 10 years on, I would venture that the pace hasn’t changed, and that we are looking too closely at the wrong things… but as I shall say later, this is as a result of too much top down pressure from Management teams and parents who cannot see beyond the next set of results. [An aside: how do we measure the value that a school contributes to society? Is it the number of learners who go on to University, or the number of learners who are able to thrive in whatever walk of society they choose for themselves?]

untitled.jpegWe have allowed ourselves to become infatuated with results over learning. Consider this. Have the laws of physics changes as a result of the new curriculum? Does Death of a Salesman suddenly mean something new as a result of the new curriculum? Do the birds and the bees do it differently as a result of CfE? Of course not. And here’s the inevitable truth about CfE: the content has not changed one iota. It is the same as it always was. Unchanged. Nada. Niente. La même chose.

Let’s, for arguments sake, suggest something heretical. What if the exams weren’t going to change? What if, for example, Higher English was to go from being a folio and 2 written exams to a folio and two written exams? How foolish would teachers look if this need to postpone was to accommodate an exam that is, in every practical sense, exactly the same as the one it’s replacing? I think we’d have a pretty hard time persuading the parents that this delay was worthwhile if that was the case for Higher.

Of course, the real change in assessment comes with the ending of Standard Grade (SG) exams which will be replaced by National 4 and National 5 exams. Being honest, you’d think the Standard Grade was the best thing since sliced bread to hear some people talk, but that would be wrong. I have heard just as many, if not more, teachers bemoan the inadequacies of the ‘SG’ over the years. It is an exam that has long since past its sell-by-date, and yet many schools and teachers have suddenly decided to try and stave off the inevitable by clinging on to it for a little longer – either by ‘fast-tracking’ S3 pupils through it, or now, applying for a year’s postponement (I wonder how many have spotted that this won’t mean an extra year of Standard Grade presentations? It will however, mean presenting an extra year of Intermediate 1 and 2 exams).

Now, could you all move over a bit, because there’s another elephant coming through the door*: East Renfrewshire. As many are all too quick to point out, East Renfrew are deferring implementation en masse… but what everyone appears to conveniently forget is that East Ren got rid of Standard Grade years ago. 2005 I believe. There is a logic for them to defer for a year as there is a clearer articulation between Intermediate courses and the new National 4/5s than there is between Standard Grade and the new National 4/5s. Why is this important? Well, because the Standard Grade really does have to go. It is, in the words of a friend of mine who works for the SQA, “no longer fit for purpose”. The National 4/5s are needed, we’ve known about this for a while, and yet we still think we aren’t ready. Why? As I mentioned before, I think it’s because we’ve allowed ourselves to become too focussed on the test rather than the learning, and here’s why I think this is.

6a00d8341e992c53ef00e54f9c10638834-800wi.gifI doubt there is any teacher working in Scotland who doesn’t have regular meetings where their school’s performance is mentioned. Management and Local Authorities appear to measure this using only one metric: exam ‘success’. There is constant pressure on us to improve results, and this has lead to a culture where the end result has become more important than the process of getting there. What happened to ‘the thrill is in the chase’? Of course, when all you are doing is focussing on the end result, you can become too focussed on preparing for the exam. Lessons are devoted to exam technique. There are exemplars aplenty on the SQA Understanding Standards website. There are after-school study clubs looking to help learners get better at passing the exam… and there’s the rub. the focus is on passing the exam. Not on understanding Shakespeare better, not on finding the real maths in throwing a basketball through a hoop, not in building and marketing a brand, not in actually making something of value, not in forming a team of workers with different strengths that compliment each other, not in doing anything other than knowing how to recognise what a specific question requires you to do in order to pass. Exams have become a bit like the driving test. if you do x, y, and z correctly, you’ll pass… but just like the driving test, how much relationship is there between driving to pass the test and driving every day? (Yes, I know that this analogy probably says more about my driving, but bear with me!)

Preparing learners to be assessed is an essential part of being a teacher, is an essential part of any course, but it is not the only reason for studying the course. Let’s be honest here, the course content will stay the same, but what has changed is the pedagogy that underlies our teaching and learning approaches. That is the whole point behind the new Scottish Curriculum. We are trying to prepare our learners for an uncertain and unknowable future, and we cannot and absolutely should not be doing so by clinging so desperately to the past. It’s time to stop fixating about the the exams and assessments. The curriculum allows us to be creative, to look outwith the limited confines of our own subjects, to make connections, and to see the bigger picture. In short, it allows our learners to take a broader outlook on their own education and the very best will give them a range of experiences that are relevant, challenging and memorable. Three words that you wouldn’t really apply to the existing assessments.

So, who is responsible for the delays? Truthfully, who cares. The Scottish Curriculum is changing. Fact. What follows should be better by a considerable margin. Stop worrying about the ‘assessments’ and start working out how you are going to challenge and stretch my son because, when all is said and done, he is the one we are making the changes for. He is the future, not those who cling to the past.


*(Honestly, if there were any more elephants in here, I might have to change the name of the blog to Billy Smart’s Elephant Show)

PS: I should also point out that Fearghal’s original piece is satiric!

Consider The Awesome!

March 16, 2012

“You’ve got to come and see this, it’s awesome!”

With these words, my six year old son summoned me to the living room where he has been building levels for Little Big Planet 2. (Which, believe it or not, was partly bought with a view to using the cut-screen animations/movies to illustrate things for the classroom… honest!)

“What is it, Paul?” I asked.

“Look… Look…”

I looked, and in a rush of excitement, he told me…

“Someone liked my level! Look… 4 people have played it… One person didn’t like it. One person did. One person really liked it!”

And like that, I was reminded yet again of how much the world my son is growing into is different from the one I remember. He is six, and has an awareness of audience… indeed, he seeks out an audience for his ‘work’. He’s also planning a follow up level that will be better because he wants more ‘likes’.

Without being taught, he has learned that he needs to quality assure his levels, that it needs to have something to appeal to an audience, and that if he does a good job of it he will receive more positive feedback. Now, how do we translate those learning experiences into the classroom? Mmmmm….