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Whilst dressing for work in the morning I often have BBC news on the TV in the background. The bland chatter usually doesn’t penetrate my half slumbering state but this morning I was roused by two talking heads reacting in opposite directions to the TUC’s call for better understanding of the use of social media sites in the workplace.

“The TUC advice suggests that whilst employers are completely within their rights to forbid staff from using sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Bebo in work time, a total ban may be something of an over-reaction.”

Good for them! A sensible, modern approach from the Establishment.

But what astonished and angered me wasn’t the fact that the debate was happening, but that it’s a debate at all. For me it’s not how can a business restrict use but how can it embrace and encourage sensible use.

Finally technology becomes truly interesting and inspiring! And what do we do? Ban it! Block it! Cut the phone lines! Stop emails! Encourage total silence! Empty the water coolers! Wall up the kitchens! Discard your mobile phones!

Aside from the inherent flaw in the ban argument (people will always behave like people, like the social animals that we are) the business implications of this management through fear could be insurmountable.

We’ve got a generation of young employees entering the workforce now who have absorbed these technologies. Aside from the valuable networking benefits of facilities like Facebook Polls and Linkedin to any business, there is a wider issue. Who will they want to work for? The company that has such short sighted policies it sees social media as a threat to productivity? Or the company that has clear and firm guidelines in place for web use and trusts it’s staff to use these freedoms wisely, to their own and the company’s benefit?

Isn’t a content and trusted employee a better, more productive employee?

A quick straw poll of the ode team suggest that those who use social sites have them open in the back ground and pop in now and again or wait to be notified of any activity. Once the initial “Wow this is awesome” feeling has worn off and most of your social circle have signed up it becomes a simple communication tool. It blends, not jars, with working life.

Surely if a member of your team is abusing a social media site on company time then this is symptomatic of a bigger problem? Lack of motivation perhaps? Poor time management? Under utilised? Low moral in general?

If you manage a team you cannot say you’re “too busy” to know how your staff are behaving (as one of the two pundits said in the TV debate this morning, yes the one who wanted to ban Facebook).

That IS your job.

Wesley Fryer from the Infinite Thinking Machine edublog in the US has followed that critical motto of any successful blogger: don’t be afraid to be controversial. In fact, embrace it.

He is calling for the immediate halt to all textbook purchasing in the US.

“The day of the paper-based textbook is over. The era of digital curriculum has dawned, and it is fiscally irresponsible for school district leaders to continue to purchase paper-based curriculum materials in light of the digital curriculum resources now available and continuing to become available via electronic means. Digital, web-based curriculum materials are vastly superior to static, analog/paper based curriculum materials”

Wesley Fryer, Infinite Thinking Machine, Call for textbook purchasing moratorium

An over reliance on, frankly, out dated content delivery methods does the next generation of learners no good. Everything a 21st student does outside the classroom (and more pertinently, later on in the workplace) works in direct contrast to what happens in most classrooms who rely on textbook and pencil/paper learning.

In these revolutionary times can you truly consider yourself a good educator if these are the main tools in your arsenal? Essentially Wesley is saying tough luck if you don’t agree, times have moved on, either make the shift or get out of the way.

What qualities define a good teacher? Empathy? Patience? Expertise? Confidence? Can I suggest that to be considered a good modern teacher you should add “passion for technology“? A good teacher will always be a good teacher if they have the former qualities but what defines a successful teacher now will have to include the latter.

“Free digital curriculum materials are now available which would boggle the mind of anyone living in the 19th or 18th centuries. Those free curriculum sources are not sufficient for learning, however. In my view, there are still valid needs for commercial curriculum tools, but the proliferation of free curriculum materials will continue to challenge commercial providers to further differentiate their “value add” in the marketplace of content and digital assessment tools available online.”

Wesley Fryer, Infinite Thinking Machine, Call for textbook purchasing moratorium

One of the comments said: “I am a Spanish teacher in England, who is genuinely committed to not using textbooks. The look on a pupil’s face when you say to them to open to a certain page destroys any hope of either longterm learning or, that mecca of our current educational systems (especially for languages!) MOTIVATION!!

It’s been a while since I’ve been at school but I well remember that particular heart sinking feeling and that was before widespread technology in classrooms…

“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”

Gollum’s final riddle to Bilbo Baggins, The Hobbit

When we put the ode proposition in front of our (potential) users can you guess what their No. 1 reaction was?

  • Quality content at microprices?
  • Ability to sell their own learning resources?
  • Accurate keyword searches?
  • Social networking?
  • Easy to use design?

Nope. It was: “That will save me time”.

More than perhaps ever before educators have found themselves with less and less time available. There are many reasons for this but any educator will likely say that it’s due in part to a determination to source complimentary teaching materials, a process that often happens outside the day job.

With most of those materials being digital it becomes an issue mainly because of the sheer number of elearning websites (and the quality of those websites) that are out there, let alone finding them in the first place via Google.

So a one stop shop for digital content made their eyes light up. It will take away much of the current need to visit that multitude of home made websites, search engines and resource repositories which can take hours of detailed searching with wildly varying degrees of success.

Does that put ode in the same position of Tesco vs the local corner shops (why visit 10 shops when you can visit one big one)? I don’t believe so as Tesco doesn’t compete against free which is our main competitor. Tesco’s “everything under one roof” ethos wouldn’t last long if everyone else gave their product away.

Most resources Teachers source and use are cheap, cheerful and free. We have to make ode have noticeable value to our users to make it worth their while.

One way we’re doing that is to allow complete personalisation of the platform. Every second we shave off a typical content search without compromising the experience is worth it’s weight in gold to our users. So once you have the hang of the platform you will be able to tweak it in many ways. Actually what you will be able to do is take stuff away, to cleanse it of elements and functionality you don’t need and don’t want.

Through your profile you will make ode follow your orders: “I am a Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 History teacher, specialising in Tudor England and modern World History and I only want to buy video.”

We will allow you to limit ode to those criteria so when you search you will only see returned results that fit those stipulations. You will only see reviews from others who have also nominated themselves as Key Stage 3 and/or 4 History teachers. You will only see sponsored keyword advertising that’s relevant to your profile. You could set your ode home page to just show History. And so on. You will be able turn off this platform wide filtering but it’s there if you desire it.

The rest of ode will be happening around you in a global sense but you won’t see any of it and hopefully it will speed up your content gathering process. Every educator that creates a profile will have their own view of ode, likely completely different from any other.

Because time, my preciousssss, is a commodity worth spending wisely.

Eylan Ezekiel in his post ” Wither Content? eLearning industry assumptions Blown Apart” asks:

“Why we are so obsessed with conventions such as SCORM and the whole VLE infrastructure debate?”

Apart from a great use of the word “wither” 😉 the basis of his argument is that huge curriculum spanning VLEs with huge curriculum spanning content packs are really no good for the type of learning he argues educators should (want to?) embrace – where the learner is at the centre of everything.

To achieve this state it’s essential to have the ability to tailor your resources to a high degree and that publishers spending time and money worrying too much about VLEs is simply a macguffin.

If I’m understanding him right he’s suggesting everything else in life seems to be moving into a pick and mix model so why does education seem to be dragging it’s tail? Are VLEs holding back education? That’s a big question and not a debate for this post but as to why there’s so much time and effort spent on VLEs:

  1. Becta has committed to delivering all students with “a personalised learning space with the potential to support e-portfolios available to every school by 2007-08” (“Planning for personalised online learning” – Barry Kruger, Head of Content, Becta). Of course, the immediate market solution to this is a VLE. And there’s loads to choose from.
  2. SCORM is an attempt at a universal standard for placing content into context and VLE’s can read SCORM. THIS bit of content is aimed at THIS key stage in THIS subject for THIS type of learning.

I’m not convinced there’s anything wrong with the idea of a VLE per se but that the content plugged into them, pushed by persuasive sales teams often to top level purchasing groups (LA, SMTs, Consortia etc) is simply fashioned from old style thinking: here’s a big ol’ collection of words, pictures and such like that follows a pattern we have laid down for you. To gain from this content you have to go section to section in order.

For us it’s not necessarily how you view and manipulate the content, that’s up to you – ode is not a VLE . We don’t want to challenge that thinking but bypass it all together by placing content selection and re-aggregation back into the hands of the educator.

It’s what content you choose and how you find it that counts. And even better, how you share that thinking with others.

There are countless millions of potential content objects out there (SCORM compliant or not), of vastly differing degrees of quality and validity. Both user generated and commercially made for the classroom.

Decisions are made at all levels in the school as to what content is appropriate for what need. Big committee led decisions will lead to big committee designed solutions, such as whole classroom programmes that proscribe to the Nth degree how to teach your students.

Whereas at the chalkface individual educators will cherry pick low priced or free objects to supplement those big solutions, that are often foisted upon them, to give them some degree of personalisation, of invested ownership. Not personalised learning, but personalised teaching.

So how do you personalise teaching?

In the same article Eylan pointed me to Mark Berthelemy’s post “The King is Dead, long Live the King“. In this extremely well constructed post Mark suggests that for digital content to rightfully fulfil it’s potential we need to “(keep) the learner at the centre of our thinking when designing content and configuring delivery systems” and to do that content makers essentially need to move to a brave new world where they “accept the limitation’s of the rapid/disposable approach“.

This is exactly right. By “learner” we might perhaps substitute “content user”. The content user “…needs to be able to take the bits that are relevant to them and remix it into their own content collections“. But this is only possible when you have liberated the content in the first place from it’s original fixed setting.

But that only applies to backlist – stuff that exists already.

The real key is frontlist – stuff that is not yet published, that still may only be at conception stage, a niggling idea at the back of a publishers mind. Designing content from the ground up for disaggregated delivery. Imagine digital content that…

  • …is only designed to exist for a few minutes for a specific purpose.
  • …is flexible enough to be moved from a mobile phone to an interactive whiteboard. And then into a Second Life classroom.
  • …is malleable enough to not exist in the same state twice, depending on the use the educator is putting it to.
  • …pays no attention to curriculum mapping at all.
  • …remembers who used it last and what they did with it.
  • …allows every user to improve it slightly and pass it on. Cumulative improvement. Forever.
  • …openly licensed for anything the user wants to do with it.

Will this ever happen? Absolutely. I’m 100% convinced that once the right delivery platform arrives that provides incentives for the content creators to think laterally, and I believe ode is that platform, then they will embrace a totally new type of learning object, finally serving the needs of the digital native.

Just to let you know we’re hiring a few people to join the ode team over the next few weeks/months. At the moment the jobs are for coders but a further variety of job types will go up soon – keep checking back!

What is ODE?

ODE will be a webstore where educators can buy little bits of digital educational content and put them back together any way they like. Simple.