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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 03 February 2005 - 04:11 PM

I thought you might be interested in reading this email from Simon Jephcote:

I attended the EVS board meeting on Monday in Brussels at which the future of the Virtual School was discussed.

It was unanimously decided by all present that Virtual School will close on 1 July 2005.

I think that this section from the minutes perfectly sums up the discussions and the feeling of the board:

The possible scenarios for the future of the Virtual school were discussed. Problems that have all along been a part of the Virtual School experience (lack of funding, lack of focus, disparate agendas) have not been able to be solved in a satisfactory way and no such solution is foreseeable in the near future.

The project has, in sprite of different problems, been extremely successful and has been a core provider of content to the European schoolnet. The network of teachers that have worked under the Virtual school umbrella has also been instrumental in the carrying out of other projects that have been of strategic importance to the European schoolnet. However, the time has come to scrutinize the project and critically take into consideration the possibilities for a successful continuation of the project in its current form. From that evaluation the board has come to the conclusion that it’s time to close the Virtual school, end all ongoing projects and gradually take the website offline. In this process it’s important to secure gained experience, gather lessons learned and identify clues for future activities in the field of collaborative online learning.

Decision:

The Virtual school board decides to close the Virtual School 1 July 2005. The board will also organise a closing conference during the spring 2005.

#2 Andy Walker

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Posted 04 February 2005 - 10:19 AM

What do you think those "lessons learnt" might be?

#3 Graham Davies

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Posted 04 February 2005 - 12:30 PM

Andy asks:

What do you think those "lessons learnt" might be?


The UK E-University collapsed spectacularly last year, due to high costs and poor recruitment: it managed to attract just 900 students, at a cost of 44,000 pounds each. Perhaps virtual schools and virtual universities are not as attractive as they were anticipated to be. See David Noble's thought-provoking series of articles:

Noble D. (1997-2001) "Distance Education on the Web", a series of five articles: http://communication.ucsd.edu/dl
See especially No. 3, "The Bloom is off the Rose".

#4 John Simkin

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 11:37 AM

What do you think those "lessons learnt" might be?

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Very good question. I hope all members of the Virtual School give some thought to this.

First of all, I think we should consider the successes of the Virtual School. The idea originally came from the Minister of Education in Sweden. She actually arranged for money to be made available to encourage teachers in Europe to use the web to create collaborative teaching projects.

Although she was able to persuade some education ministers to supply some money for this project (Holland, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Finland, Austria, etc), the vast majority refused. This meant that Sweden had to pay for teachers in the UK, Spain, Germany, France, etc. to take part in this project. It was only a couple of years ago that the UK began to pay for its own teachers to participate in the project. By this time the Swedish government was having doubts about spending all this money on the Virtual School.

Therefore, one thing that went wrong was the failure to persuade more countries to get involved in the project at the beginning.

Another problem was the way the teachers were recruited. You often found members of the Virtual School who had no great interest in the use of ICT in the classroom. In fact, in a couple of cases, they were hostile to the idea. The reason for this is that these people were often recruited via the country’s subject associations. They people who agreed to go to these meetings did so because they enjoyed travelling rather than any desire to promote the use of ICT in the classroom.

In my view, all members who were recruited, should have had a track-record of producing online materials. Or if not, they should have least expressed a great desire to get involved in this process.

As a result of this policy, Virtual School meetings often involved large numbers of people with negative views on ICT in the classroom. Other members were more positive about the idea but did not have the technical expertise to produce materials. Understandably, the Virtual School produced very little content for its website.

The Virtual School was also lucky to have appointed some very good people at the beginning of its existence: Jan Hylen, Magnus Saemundsson, Angela Andersson, etc. It suffered greatly after these people left the organization. The loss of Jan was especially serious. He had the vision and was very good at mobilizing the productive members of the Virtual School.

The main reason why the Virtual School failed was because of its bureaucratic structure. All the major decisions were taken by a group of people on a Virtual School committee. This included people from the various education ministries who lacked experience of the classroom, ICT or the Virtual School. It was a recipe for poor decision-making. This included the buying of a terrible Content Management System.

Members of the Virtual School History Department have now established the E-HELP Project. I am confident that this project will establish structures to be created that will prevent the problems experienced by the Virtual School from being repeated.

#5 Guest_Andrew Moore_*

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 12:36 PM

Distributed learning with Internet technologies is a massive success story. Every day many millions of people do it.

Since they do most of this at no cost, other than telephony/connectivity, and find, for themselves, what they judge to be materials of high quality, it is not surprising that they resist and resent any attempts by governments or corporations to control and regulate this, or to build it by edict from the top down - which mostly means a lot of shiny cupboards or bookshelves, that have nothing in or on them.

Many of the people here, on the other hand, can write the books to stock the shelves.

So far, the UK government and its ministries and their agencies have proved to have little idea of how to spend money in ways that can support this process.

There are some exceptions. I have a lot of time for the way the National Learning Network (www.nln.ac.uk) has produced excellent materials in the public domain (but done a lousy job of letting people know they are there).

But I never despair. John suggests one good way forward. I'm hoping that my regional broadband grid, and the National Education Network of which it is a part, may be a means of supporting some of the good individuals out there. (It could, for instance, adopt this forum, and cover its costs and pay for some people-time to do things.)

That's specific to England or the UK. My experience of the VS was of some very committed teachers, some of them, but not all, also talented at producing learning materials - but working in an unstructured and casual way, with no real sense of a shared purpose or audience. Worse, there was no real understanding of open and common standards.

I don't regret the killing off of the VS as it had become. I very much regret, and even resent, the way that my country and its agencies find squillions of pounds to waste with large organizations, but cannot do anything to secure and sustain the most talented of its teacher-writers.

Several friends have Web sites that, until recently, were free to all users. Now, in order to sustain their work, they have found themselves succumbing to the temptation to sell subscriptions, and thereby exclude many of their former users. I don't blame them, but I wish our state could find a way to pay them to keep the stuff open. I won't be doing what my friends have had to do (happily, I have no need to do so) - I will keep my learning materials free to the world. But it's no thanks to the UK's ministry and its agencies.

#6 Caterina Gasparini

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 01:28 PM

That's specific to England or the UK. My experience of the VS was of some very committed teachers, some of them, but not all, also talented at producing learning materials - but working in an unstructured and casual way, with no real sense of a shared purpose or audience. Worse, there was no real understanding of open and common standards.

I don't regret the killing off of the VS as it had become. I very much regret, and even resent, the way that my country and its agencies find squillions of pounds to waste with large organizations, but cannot do anything to secure and sustain the most talented of its teacher-writers.

Several friends have Web sites that, until recently, were free to all users. Now, in order to sustain their work, they have found themselves succumbing to the temptation to sell subscriptions, and thereby exclude many of their former users. I don't blame them, but I wish our state could find a way to pay them to keep the stuff open. I won't be doing what my friends have had to do (happily, I have no need to do so) - I will keep my learning materials free to the world. But it's no thanks to the UK's ministry and its agencies.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Right, I agree. My experience with the Virtual School has been very short, officially starting in June 2004 to finish about a year later. The reason why there were only 2 Italian teachers in the VS before I joined it was that the Ministry or the Italian Agency in charge of selecting the teachers had never decided how to do it and so the few who joined had to leave because of lack of funding. I still have got no official appointment from the Italian Agency or the Ministry, although my participation in the only meeting I went to was financially covered (my work was not, nor did I expect to have it paid for, because I would have done it all the same and I hope I will go on doing it in the future).

I agree with Andrew when he writes that perhaps there was no clear agenda concerning all the teachers and departments involved, "no real sense of a shared purpose or audience", perhaps because the audience was too large and probably it was difficult to set common standards, but the purpose should have been clear to all of us and the use of ICT should have been mandatory.

This does not apply to my personal experience because the department I worked in set clear rules in its first and probably last meeting and I think they were respected.

I also resent the way national ministries spend our money and I am worried about the future because the VS was a structured active team, but European Projects like E-HELP have to be written and approved and do not last more than 2 or 3 years: what after? They may become isolated stars in a dark sky, while what we need is a systemic view and the opportunity of acting in a systematic way.

#7 Anders MacGregor-Thunell

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 01:31 PM

For me personally the Virtual School was a huge success. I was a total novice when I was invited to my first Virtual School Meeting (History Department) by a colleague of mine. He wanted me to come with ideas how and what I wanted on Virtual Schools webpages as an experienced History Teacher but with no experience of ICT. I'm sure most of the people at this meeting wondered why on earth this illiterate person had been invited... I learned a lot about not knowing anything at this meeting! I was not discouraged though - rather the opposite. When I came home I started to use websites and look for what I at the time saw as good material in history.

During the coming meetings I got to learn the basics about web construction from John Simkin and Richard Jones-Nerzic. I'm not exactly a "rocket scientist" so it took me a while before I had created my first webpage. It was not very "professional" - it probably had most of the beginners mistakes but I felt an enormous satisfaction over the ability to be creative with my own material. All this happened fairly recently so I still count myself as a happy beginner with some experience. Today I run my website mostly for the students at school. It's still not very well developed and I see several flaws but it fills a function and I get a lot out of the work.

I'm now also involved in the E-HELP project which comes from the contacts made within Virtual School. I see a lot of developing possibilities within this project...

I also want to point out the personal contacts with several very creative people that I have gained over these years. That has sure made the efforts worth while.

Probably one of the most disappointing and negative things I experienced was what John pointed out

You often found members of the Virtual School who had no great interest in the use of ICT in the classroom. In fact, in a couple of cases, they were hostile to the idea. The reason for this is that these people were often recruited via the country’s subject associations. They people who agreed to go to these meetings did so because they enjoyed travelling rather than any desire to promote the use of ICT in the classroom.


I really never understood why people with this attitude ever got involved in Virtual School. It seems like the Swedish Government should have asked for at least some proof of interest and willingness to promote the use of ICT in the classroom.

But as I wrote above - Without the invitation to Holland I probably still would be ICT illiterate and I would have missed out on the personal friendship of several people who has guided me into this exciting and creative world (although quite time consuming)... so I owe a lot to Virtual School!

#8 Juan Carlos

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 01:38 PM

There is an excellent book by Gabriel García Marquez titled "Historia de una muerte anunciada" (History of an announced death). VS has gone through a long agony. There was no point in prolonging it.

My Educational authorities (Madrid region) never cared about funding its activities. Actually, my expenses were always paid for by the Swedish government.

I think that John summarizes perfectly the lessons we can learn from VS experience.

one thing that went wrong was the failure to persuade more countries to get involved in the project at the beginning.

This is one of the reasons that makes me prefer EU funding for international projects.

Another problem was the way the teachers were recruited


I believe that this was "the" problem. There was a lot of wasting money: travelling around for doing nothing.

Virtual School meetings often involved large numbers of people with negative views on ICT in the classroom

:lol:

I agree with that. There is no need of further comments.

I also hope that HELP project will work better. Actually, I am sure.

#9 Graham Davies

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 02:04 PM

I think the basic mistake that people are making with regard to setting up virtual schools and virtual universities is that they start at the wrong end, e.g. UKEU started with a learning platform. Virtual schools and virtual universities are essentially distance-teaching organisations, and perhaps they should begin by looking at the most successful distance-teaching organisation in the world, namely the UK Open University.

My wife completed an Open University degree in the early 1980s, having failed her 11-plus examination at school and having failed to get a single O-level qualification. After nine years of study at the Open University she ended up with a Second Class Honours Degree that included a 4th-level module on Wittgenstein. Her success was, I believe, due to:

- High-quality learning materials. These were mainly in book format, supplemented by materials on audiocassette and by radio and TV broadcasts. The format of the media is less important than the quality. Nowadays it is possible to distribute reading materials and audio/video materials via the Web rather than by snail mail. I would not, however, neglect radio and TV broadcasts. I think it is a great pity that the BBC has decided to cut down, for example, on language learning TV broadcasts in favour of inferior-quality Web materials. The Web cannot replace TV broadcast series such as A Vous la France and Buongiorno Italia.
- An excellent tutor support system. My wife could contact two tutors by telephone for each year of her course: one tutor who remained her pastoral care tutor for the whole nine years, and a second tutor who was responsible for the module that she was studying in each year.
- Regular assessment: computer marked assignments (multiple-choice tests – but VERY well designed), and tutor marked assignments (essay-format).
- Regular face-to-face meetings with tutors and other students at the local technical college.
- One-week residential summer schools each year at various UK universities.
- A properly conducted examination at the end of each year.

#10 Dalibor Svoboda

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 03:03 PM

The idea of Virtual school was to fill its educational space with people willing to produce educational material and be part of educational debates. I personally always thought that the members of Virtual school should work inside it in the same way as journalists writing articles for their newspapers work. This seldom happened.

This goal (producing written material) was also promoted by the Swedish authorities financing the Virtual school at the start.

Yes, Virtual school did have later a lot of members with their own web pages but as far as I remember many of these members kept on to develop their ownership and at the same time often decline when asked, to share at least a part of their content with Virtual school, with the apology that they were not been paid to do so.

Also participation at the debate forums created by Virtual school was rejected with the same apology ….. “not being paid for” …….. !

Furthermore the Communities (working places created by Virtual school) were neglected too. For what reasons do you think?

Until this day I cannot understand why the people with own web pages (which many of you argue was essential things in order to make Virtual school working) did contributed basically as little (or as much) and as unwillingly (or as willingly) as the teachers which didn’t have web pages.

And it was only amount of contributions (not ownership of one owns web page …….), that made Virtual school and which also in the end ended its activities!

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda, 05 February 2005 - 04:44 PM.


#11 Graham Davies

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 06:44 PM

John writes:

They people who agreed to go to these meetings did so because they enjoyed travelling rather than any desire to promote the use of ICT in the classroom.


I think that this is true of most of the EC-funded projects in which I have been involved. I can, however, cite one success story, which has resulted in a large body of ICT training materials for language teachers being developed and made available free of charge on the Web: namely, the ICT for Language Teachers project, which was funded by the EC for a period of two years, ending in December 2000: http://www.ict4lt.org

We did travel a lot while the project was running - to Venice to Jyväskylä (Finland) and to London - but all our meetings were productive and the team was very hard-working. We were able to pay consultants a decent fee to write materials that fell outside the team's area of expertise, and we were very careful about copyright and acknowledging authorship of the materials. All the authors are acknowledged - which is their right now under EU copyright legislation: so-called "paternity law" - see the ICT4LT page on copyright at:

http://www.ict4lt.or...n_copyright.htm

I now keep the English-language section of the site updated as a labour of love - which is not dificult to do as we opted for a very simple structure for the site, with no fancy pop-ups or animations. Every page of the site can be printed for ease of reading. Research shows that it's much easier and quicker to read from the printed page than from the screen. See Jakob Nielsen:

"Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper.
Even users who don't know this human factors research usually say that they feel unpleasant when reading online text."

Be Succinct! Writing for the Web, Alertbox for March 15, 1997:
http://www.useit.com...tbox/9703b.html

#12 Mary Frentzou

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 07:15 PM

Although virtual school was pretty successful it was not a real virtual school but a data bank of material because as Graham Davies pointed out it was lacking a good tutor support system and high quality learning materials (at some departments).

I agree with John Simkin that the failure to persuade more countries to get involved in the project at the beginning was a major handicap. Countries got involved at different times some of them not having clear ideas about it, and the way they should recruit and support teachers. I have heard complaints by teachers that they were not supported at all by their ministries, they didn’t have any release time from teaching duties and it was extra work for them, they had difficulties acquiring money to attend / organize meetings, some of them had even difficulties to get leave from school to attend the meetings!

And of course a major drawback was that the people who represented the ministries who were bureaucrats were lacking classroom and ICT experience and whose decisions many times didn’t have an educational but a political orientation.

Edited by Mary Frentzou, 05 February 2005 - 07:16 PM.


#13 Nico Zijlstra

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Posted 05 February 2005 - 11:10 PM

The news of the end of VS didn't come unexpected. It has been in the air so to speak. The good thing, however, is that ideas have been generated in the form of the E-help project. Personally I've learned a lot of the VS approach to teaching History. In a meeting with Dutch members of the Biology Department we concluded that our personal experiences in VS was spreading to schools and teaching.

The main reason why the Virtual School failed was because of its bureaucratic structure. All the major decisions were taken by a group of people on a Virtual School committee. This included people from the various education ministries who lacked experience of the classroom, ICT or the Virtual School. It was a recipe for poor decision-making.

I've been a member for less than 2 years, so I can't really comment on this, but on a Dutch national level VS-members have been left alone by the ministry of education. They were willing to support VS activities, but by creating a taskforce with national members in different Departments, the idea of VS would have had a bigger impact.

I am worried about the future because the VS was a structured active team, but European Projects like E-HELP have to be written and approved and do not last more than 2 or 3 years: what after?

Caterina Gasparini raises a sensible question all E-help participants should think of. But perhaps the future is brighter than Caterina expects it to be. If the E-help project is carried out in a creative and sensible way, the outcome in the E-help course will spread the ideas among teachers, teacher trainers and students. The effect might be more direct than VS could ever achieve!

#14 Andy Walker

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Posted 06 February 2005 - 12:31 AM

I attended two Virtual School meetings. One was led by a young, efficient and technologically able HOD, the other was not.
My overall observations however were of an organisation lacking direction and purpose.

There was huge frustration at one of departmental meetings I attended expressed by the technically competent members of the department at the hopelessly inefficient way the VS "website" was managed. In response (to their credit) attempts were made this year at introducing a "content management" platform for VS members but it was not without problems. Unfortunately the accompanying discussion groups were unusable.

This resulted in at least 3 members hosting VS materials on their own sites thereby incurring costs to themselves which they all waived in the hope that something constructive would come from it. It also contributed to the decision of John and I to develop this forum.
I witnessed none of the “not being paid for” attitude referred to elsewhere in this thread and would with respect suggest that this is a "red herring".

I also found it quite staggeringly short-sighted of the VS when they decided last year not to back this excellent forum. This highlighted to me the very real weakness of a multiple bureaucracy dominated organisation unwilling to devolve power and ownership to people who could have made a difference.

#15 Hubert Schoot

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Posted 06 February 2005 - 01:19 AM

I have been head of the Biology Department from the start of it. I think the main reason ,to keep it simple, why it stopped is lack of funding for the members of the department. Funding means time. Making something for the vs has been proven to be complicated. What was to be made should have an European dimension. There were also some does' and does nots.

We had to discover and discuss what to put on it. There was a central discussion too and these discussions were not always in pace.

Language was the second one. There have been made lots of materials (at least 700MB for us alone) which could be translated into English. But it couldn't happen unless we did it ourselves.

Besides that the central decisions on changing the technology for making and delivering the content were sometimes discouraging, here I speak for myself. I looked always at it as being part of a learning 'organisation' and took it for granted.

I think the biology department found a way by working together during their holidays for some days at a row. You need direct contacts to put a complex site on the net.

Suggesting that there was travelling for the sake of travelling alone is not straight and make solutions in this direction suspect. You can't run a virtual school department on a virtual basis alone. Not anyhow in this phase of orientation.

The problem is that English people can't imagine that English is not the first or only language for everybody. Making a short note in English on your own as a Biology teacher is not as easy as it reads sometime. And I know that I am not speaking for myself alone.

I think the Virtual School was a very good idea for having discussions between European teachers, on meeting each other, becoming aware that there are so many differences in what we thought joined us; teaching biology. But on the long way to more unity or well chosen differences in European Biology curricula this was a first step and a good thing.

There were chances to make it a platform on discussing the use of ICT in biology education in secondary schools in Europe. But focussing on that alone would leave us at the moment with a very small group of teachers.

The virtual school was for me a long time project and not something for quick gains. I think it is very very sorry it stopped relatively so soon.

The enthousiasm of the Swedish team especially Angela Andersson will be remembered by the teams. Also the 'new directions' by Ann Gilleran were hope giving.

Again, it is a sad thing the European virtual school will close down. I hope there will be new inniatives to consolidate the experiences and practical knowledge gathered in and by the VS departments.

Sincerely
Hubert W Schoot




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