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John Simkin

Virtual School to Close

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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.

Hubert Scoot points out several other things that was good with VS. It's so important to find different forums for international co-operation where we are able to learn about and from each other.

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.

One of the best meetings the History Department had was when we gathered in Toulouse 2002 and launched two new projects (Spanish Civil War and Europe + Pilgrimage project) and started the plans for a third one (oral history of "Children during WWII"). It was a department meeting with lots of content building at the same time as some of us got some education in basic ICT (necessary for the understanding on what to do with the material constructed). This meeting also revealed some of the weaknesses with VS - We at this time could not publish the result of our work directly but had to wait until the overworked programmers had time to adjust this material to the platforms of VS. Meanwhile we found temporary solutions by hosting the material made at other servers and websites. Another problem was the time factor. We started this project and some members created lots of content during the relatively short time we had together. To continue these projects more time was necessary but as Hubert Schoot points out

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.
It's hard to find time to build up content and develope/create attractive projects if you have more than a full-time job. Under these circumstances I think some members contributed more than could be expected. The advantage of other peoples websites where the ability to direct people to VS. Different members advertisement for the VS must have brought thousands of readers to VS which otherwise never would have noticed Virtual Schools existence. One obstacle which is always necessary to overcome is the language aspect
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.
How do you balance the ability to produce accurate material (content), good insight in your topic (experience and good comprehension), ICT understanding and good language skills for the non-English speakers? My experience as a non native speaker is that it's time consuming to work in English at the same time as it's absolutely necessary. Poor skills among members create many problems... Still as I wrote before - my VS experience has been a rewarding one and my hope for the future is that we will see other European projects that can avoid some of the weaknesses of the VS and benefit from several of the good experiences we made.

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I've had no involvement with the Virtual School at all, so it's been interesting to read this thread. It struck me, as I read it, that the VS ran into all the teething problems that lots and lots of similar projects have run into - I wonder if we can start to learn something from them, so we don't make the same mistakes again.

My basic academic training is in Philosophy … so I tend to look for the underlying concepts, rather than the outward form. I think this is why I don't get on too well with educational bureaucrats! My experience is that bureaucrats and salespeople are fatally attracted to the 'shrink-wrapped product', imagining that ICT in education is all about producing boxes on an assembly line which are then sold, like Windows XP is sold.

However, a shrink-wrapped product is extremely expensive to produce, needs a very experienced project-management team, and is necessarily limited. These limitations lie partly within the nature of the beast (it's in a box), and partly within the nature of economics (once you've invested all that money, you need to lock people into purchasing it, so that you can raise some more money to recoup your investment and pay for the next vastly-expensive version).

However, I don't think that education is like this. It's not a question of organising the 'inputs', pressing a button and setting a 'learning machine' into motion, however attractive the idea may be to bureaucrats. As I've said in other parts of this forum, the very attractiveness of the idea ought to be enough to send a warning signal to teachers. If ICT in education is all about producing the right content management system and software, then power will accrue round the people who control those processes. The fact that this approach has crashed and burned again and again and again indicates to me that this isn't what ICT in education is all about.

My starting point has been that education is an activity that takes place between people … and who are the experts in this field, if not teachers. Since people are different, and one combination of people is different from another combination of people, the chances for the 'shrink-wrapped product' are not very good. As a language teacher, I can say that, complex though Windows XP is, it's not even in the same galaxy of complexity as the interactions between learners, subject materials, teachers and learning environments.

So … what are we going to do?

1. I would start by getting some things right, rather than trying to get everything right. In other words, if your new VS project starts off as being an association of, say, good, individually-produced sites on Biology, then it's not to be sneezed at. What the people involved in that association will learn is how to construct the social networks which really make a VS work … and it's quite straightforward for professional teachers to transfer the practices which work over to their own disciplines, whilst adapting the practices which are too subject-specific. It's often relatively easy to find funding for this low-key approach … since it doesn't actually cost too much. It also means that the teaching materials and practices were constructed to solve problems that real people had, rather than being artificial constructs.

2. See the first 5 years as a potting shed. You plant lots of little seeds and you see quite quickly which ones need nurturing and which ones are surviving on their own. Once you've got some sturdy plants, you can then make an informed decision about which ones you want to invest real money in. However, even the ones you don't invest the big bucks in are valuable for themselves and in their context.

I've just redone the site for the first module of our distance 'first-term' course in English and I'm really chuffed about it, actually (http://www.humsam.hik.se/distans/existstud/a1/a1homepage.htm, if you're interested). Now, the thing you won't be able to do by just visiting the site is find out what the course is all about, because the site is only one component of a much greater whole. In fact, the cheese rolls that were provided by the study centre in Kisa (go on, try and find it on the map of southern Sweden!) have so far played a much more important role (pardon the pun) in enhancing the students' learning environment than the web site or the audio CDs.

I keep having conversations with IT technicians which basically boil down to "your site is rubbish because we can't mass-produce it". The latest reaction was "ugh, it's all pink and rounded - only girls will be interested in that" (take a look at the Meeting 1 photo album via Course Meetings -> Meeting 1 to see who actually studies this course).

I'd call this an old-fashioned philosophical 'category mistake'. If you think that mass-production is an essential feature of ICT-based education, then you haven't understood what ICT-based education is all about.

As you can see, I could talk at length about this! My bottom line is that ICT-based education will succeed if and only if we start from basic educational principles. Amongst these are that it's the relationship between people which comes first - the technology comes last. If you want to enhance this relationship, you need to empower teachers. Small, affordable incremental steps are actually the only way to succeed - they're not a necessary evil to be superseded as soon as possible. Finally, what works for one class, but not for another is not to be sneezed at. In fact, most of my best lessons are a bit like that.

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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.

Who was it who did not produce these articles? I for one supplied several articles for publication. Unfortunately, many of these did not appear on the website. The reason for this is that until recently members did not have the power to upload material to the VS website. This was a common complaint from the early days of the VS. It took several years to rectify. When they did buy the necessary software to do this, it was of an appalling quality and was difficult to use. However, I did struggle on with this and I think you will find that the Olympic Games Project is the largest amount of original material put on the website. I have done this despite my ministry telling me that it was the responsibility of the head of department to do this.

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.

This is completely untrue. I have been to every Virtual School History meeting and have never heard those with websites (Richard, Nico, Anders, Juan Carlos or myself) refuse to provide content without payment. In fact, in all cases they provided content without payment. I think you owe us all an apology.

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?

This is again untrue. All members joined the Communities section and posted messages. The problem was that these attempted at creating a debate ended in failure. There were several reasons for this.

(1) The software was lousy and posting messages was difficult compared to other forums.

(2) It was not easy for non-members to post in the Communities section. In fact, I do not remember any non-member doing this.

(3) As it was only members communicating with each other we found it easier to do via the joint email facility (something that did work quite well).

(4) Several of us were members of Andrew Field’s History Forum. This was a forum where we were willing to be active. For example, I started several debates on both the VC Communities and the History Forum. Whereas the posting on the VC site was always ignored, I got large numbers of responses on the History Forum. It was suggested that the Virtual School start up its own Forum that covered all curriculum subjects. You did not like that idea. However, when my ministry decided they would fund such a forum, Andy, Richard and myself went ahead and did it. It has been a great success.

Members of the History Department never insisted on payment for posting messages in the Communities section. Do you think they got paid for posting on the History Forum and the International Education Forum? Once again you owe us an apology for this libellous comment.

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!

You appear to be implying that people with websites contributed less than those without them. As Kjell and yourself were the only ones without websites I assume you are saying that you produced more than the rest of us. That is not the way I remember it.

It is true that there is probably a link between the number of page impressions the VS website received and its eventually end. I know my ministry were unhappy with the low number of page impressions. However, that is not surprising as the VS website had little to offer visitors. That was because of the limited amount of content and the poor communication software that was being used.

I asked Magnus about this problem. He provided me with the statistics concerning the website. Magnus pointed out that History was not a problem. In fact, it was the most popular of all the departments. The reason being was that people were arriving via member websites. The problem was that visitors rarely stayed very long when they arrived because they could not find enough content to make it worth their while.

The Virtual School was highly successful in creating friendships. Without it I would not have met people like Anders, Juan Carlos and Nico (I knew Richard from elsewhere and was responsible for bringing him into the VS). However, as an attempt to get people to collaborate via the VS website it was a failure. That of course did not stop members collaborating on other projects, such as the Ask an Expert and the E-HELP activities. These are bottom up projects. This is the true lesson of the Virtual School.

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Anders MacGregor-Thunell writes:

This meeting also revealed some of the weaknesses with VS - We at this time could not publish the result of our work directly but had to wait until the overworked programmers had time to adjust this material to the platforms of VS.

This is fairly typical of most virtual learning environments: v. my earlier email in which I criticised the idea of starting with a learning platform. Most VLEs get in the way of the dissemination of good learning and training materials. My philosophy with regard to Web-based materials is KISS: Keep it Simple, Stupid! I maintain two websites, my business website (which also contains a large collection of free resources) and the ICT4LT site. The structure of both sites is simple – because that’s the only way that I know how to design a website. I have complete freedom to amend and add materials to both sites at any time of day or night. I can create an addition or make an amendment in Dreamweaver and in five minutes it will be uploaded.

As for discussion lists and bulletin boards, again, the KISS rule applies. One of the most active discussion lists for teachers of foreign languages is the Linguanet Forum, which is hosted by Mailbase and can be found at:

http://www.mailbase.org.uk/lists/linguanet-forum

It’s easy to join the list, post a message and search the archives.

I totally agree with the views expressed in David Richardson’s most recent posting, especially:

If ICT in education is all about producing the right content management system and software, then power will accrue round the people who control those processes. The fact that this approach has crashed and burned again and again and again indicates to me that this isn't what ICT in education is all about.

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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".

In December last year (2004!!) did I visit combine meeting of Virtual school and language departments in Salzburg, Austria. When Virtual school meeting ended I joined the meeting of the teachers from different language departments in order to get knowledge how they work compared with other departments. At coffee break I started to talk with Christian Olivier, head of French language department. I asked him about his member’s contributions and participations at his department between meetings. His answer was that people are complaining not being paid for the work they are asked to deliver. I answer to this that this was an agreement at the start of Virtual school ….. for the work done the remuneration will be invitation to conferences. He answer that even he would like to be paid for work done and if this question is nor solved he could not see how the flow of contribution could meet demand.

History department started with three members around the year 1997/1998. Later two more members joined. One of these two complained excessively and almost from the start about not being paid but at the same time asked for contributions. She told us, the rest of the group, openly about her unwillingness to contribute if not paid. After about a year and half she was removed from History department by Swedish management team on bases of her “detrimental behaviour” (words used by John in a mail to me shortly after this incident).

Between these two, in time vide apart, occasions there have been countless complains at the meetings of Swedish Virtual schools collaborators about not being paid for work they were asked for to do. And also told and untold consequence of “not being paid” which was “not being keen on contributing”.

Red herring? I wonder how you can be so condemning of this line of argument on the bases of two meetings with Virtual school?

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda

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I think you owe us all an apology.

I published words about the closure of Virtual school at the place for internal matters of History department mostly for the reason that internal matters of History department should be dealt with there.

In the thread “Virtual school to close” we both go back to grievances inside History department. Thus we mixed indiscriminately arguments concerning Virtual school with arguments concerning History department. That’s pity and also confusing. I will therefore answer your posting about History department at:

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showforum=132

Apology? Yes, if I make things wrong or dealt with facts incorrectly you will get it from me……..

But let me first give my view of things ………

Edited by Dalibor Svoboda

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I don’t think that there were so many trips so the teachers were there only for the trips. One or two day trips per year don’t weigh as much as the work they were doing.

Of course language was a problem but that problem exists in all kind of European projects which have to use mostly English and sometimes French, so the teachers whose native language is different have to translate everything.

Funding was a major problem and Brussels didn’t help at all on this area as it is helping the other projects some of them with immense amount of money (e-twinning).

Last year I read an email stating that the Portuguese people from the Geography Department had to travel on their own expenses!

And yes, for me too virtual school was considered a long time project and not something for quick gains as Hubert Schoot mentions

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My bottom line is that ICT-based education will succeed if and only if we start from basic educational principles. Amongst these are that it's the relationship between people which comes first - the technology comes last. If you want to enhance this relationship, you need to empower teachers. Small, affordable incremental steps are actually the only way to succeed - they're not a necessary evil to be superseded as soon as possible. Finally, what works for one class, but not for another is not to be sneezed at. In fact, most of my best lessons are a bit like that.

I agree. But teachers can achieve so much more by working together. When I started teaching I soon became highly critical of what was going on in the classroom. Of course, I did what I could to change this situation. I think I had some success. However, the influence I was having was restricted to the students that I taught. That was never enough for me. That is why I joined up with other radical teachers to form Tressell Publications. This not only solved my feeling of being isolated, it enabled me to influence what went on in other classrooms.

The same is true of why I formed my website in September 1997. Initially it was for my students at Sackville Community School. However, my main intention was to provide free materials to teachers and students all over the world.

This is why I liked the idea of the Virtual School as it gave an opportunity to collaborate with teachers in other countries. Great as these meetings were, the primary objective, as far I was concerned, was to influence what went on in the classroom. This aspect of the Virtual School was a failure. In fact, the only influence we had was in the classrooms of VS members (in some cases, we did not even achieve that).

What the VS did that was important was to put teachers together. This enabled us to share ideas, which in turn influenced our teaching. As a result of this, members were able to establish the E-HELP project. However, the team has been made stronger by inviting other talented individuals to join the project. We also have a E-HELP associates feature that allows us to bring in other people, including those who do not teach history, to take part in the project. This is all being funded by Comenius.

I see no reason why all the old subject departments of the VS do not follow our example and get funding from Comenius. We could all then link up together and establish a real Virtual School (in reality the VS was only a Virtual Staffroom).

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This is why I liked the idea of the Virtual School as it gave an opportunity to collaborate with teachers in other countries. Great as these meetings were, the primary objective, as far I was concerned, was to influence what went on in the classroom. (...)

What the VS did that was important was to put teachers together. This enabled us to share ideas, which in turn influenced our teaching.

John, I think you have come to the point here.

I still find it amazingly wonderful how teachers from different countries with different education systems can have the same ideas about teaching and learning. I think that the great meaning of the VS was to make teachers of the same subject meet and give them to opportunity of comparing curricula and all the other aspects of teaching in their countries.

(Anyway, actual meetings are always important, I discovered a few weeks ago that a Finnish teacher I had cooperated with on a "virtual" project is a man and not a woman as I had always thought. This doesn't seem to have influenced the quality of our work: could it be a topic for a thread?)

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(Anyway, actual meetings are always important, I discovered a few weeks ago that a Finnish teacher I had cooperated with on a "virtual" project is a man and not a woman as I had always thought. This doesn't seem to have influenced the quality of our work: could it be a topic for a thread?)

I can assure you that the meeting in Toulouse is not about checking the gender of participants. Although I did attend one meeting in Sweden where the organizers tried to insist we all had a mixed sauna. Nick Falk and myself, being typical Englishmen, declined the offer. ;)

I recently found out that a member called Chris was a woman (for some reason I assume she was a man). One of the reasons why we like members of the forum to use a photograph as a avatar.

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John writes:

"Although I did attend one meeting in Sweden where the organizers tried to insist we all had a mixed sauna. Nick Falk and myself, being typical Englishmen, declined the offer."

Coward! Show us your credentials, John!

I've just got back from a skiing holiday in Austria, where mixed (nude) saunas are the norm. Finland, in my experience, tends to have single-sex saunas, and I recall attending a business meeting in Tampere that culminated in the men going off to a lakeside sauna and finalising the details of a business contract - if you're naked you have nothing to hide! Afterwards we enjoyed a barbecue accompanied by lots of beer.

Names can be a problem in Finland, but I'm getting better at identifying male and female names there. The same problem arises in Hungary. I recall a Hungarian colleague called Károly (Charles not Carol) being allocated to a female section of the accommodation where we were staying on a course in Denmark. Hungarians tend to put their first names last, e.g. Horváth Csilla (female unmarried). If she were married to a Mr Horváth she would call herself Horváthne Csilla.

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I am still interested in what members of the Virtual School plan to do in the future. What do people make of my suggestion about starting our own Virtual School. To quote myself:

What the VS did that was important was to put teachers together. This enabled us to share ideas, which in turn influenced our teaching. As a result of this, members were able to establish the E-HELP project. However, the team has been made stronger by inviting other talented individuals to join the project. We also have a E-HELP associates feature that allows us to bring in other people, including those who do not teach history, to take part in the project. This is all being funded by Comenius.

I see no reason why all the old subject departments of the VS do not follow our example and get funding from Comenius. We could all then link up together and establish a real Virtual School (in reality the VS was only a Virtual Staffroom).

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Great idea, John.

I might not be able to contribute that much myself, since I don't work in the school sector, but I'll be happy to contribute to any VS English as a Foreign Language site.

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John writes:

"Although I did attend one meeting in Sweden where the organizers tried to insist we all had a mixed sauna. Nick Falk and myself, being typical Englishmen, declined the offer."

I had heard that Vikings had big 'choppers'

I am a bit late to this discussion having just rebuilt my PC. Although the Virtual School had as many weaknesses as strengths, I feel that those involved can reflect on the experience as one that has enhanced their own peronal and professional development.

It probably is time to move on and explore and create new opportunities for collaborative learning.

As a member of the VS chemistry department I have spent much of the past few months looking at ways that the individual science departments of the VS can work together. Comenius?

Edited by Nick Falk

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A number of people have mentioned Comenius as a source of funding. The ICT4LT project, which I have mentioned several times in this Forum, succeeded in obtaining funding (Phase 1) under Lingua A (European Cooperation Programmes for Language Teacher Training (1999-2000). Following restructuring of the EC funding programmes, we were advised to apply for an extension of the funding (Phase 2) under Comenius 2.1, Training of School Education Staff (2001). The main outcome of the project, a (free) collection of Web resources, can be viewed at http://www.ict4lt.org

ICT4LT is a set of ICT training materials for language teachers in English, Finnish, Swedish and Italian. We failed to get the extension for Phase 2, which would have involved reversioning the training materials we had created into French, German and Spanish. One of the reasons why Phase 1 succeeded was that the materials were to be made available in LWULT languages as well as in English - an important point to bear in mind when applying for EC funding. LWULT = Least Widely Used and Least Taught. The Phase 2 application failed mainly because we were focusing on the "big" languages rather than LWULT languages.

The budget for the project (Phase 1) was 465,900 euros, of which 50% was provided by the EC. 75% of this budget was used to pay staff to work on the project:

70% releasing staff from their normal duties at their institutions in order to work on the project,

5% to pay consultants to write materials for the project.

The remainder of the budget was divided as follows:

10% production of printed materials: books, publicity flyers, etc.

7% travel

5% administration and overheads

3% acquisition of software, e.g. Dreamweaver and other tools for creating Web pages

We only employed one ICT specialist, who designed the structure of the website for us and wrote CGI scripts, etc. There was one person from an administrative background who managed the budget and paperwork for us. One person had a backround in publishing and handled the production of printed materials. All of the others who contributed to the project had a background in language teaching or language teacher training in secondary education and higher education.

The division of the budget and the work in this way was obviously acceptable to the EC.

Essentially, I think the message that I am conveying is that this successful project was subject-driven and content-driven, not technology-driven. It has received glowing reviews.

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