That Guardian interview in full

Mar 07, 2006

Miles Berry

Excellent coverage of Elgg in today’s Education Guardian. I was very pleased to be able to help out with the schools’ perspective on things. Here’s the full text of my email interview with Stephen O’Hear:

1. What is your job title / role?

I’m deputy head and information systems manager. You might also like to mention that I won the 2006 Becta ICT in Practice Award for primary teaching. [blush]

2. Can you tell me a little bit more about the school? It’s a primary right? Is it fee paying? What kind of intake?

St Ives is a 3-11 independent girls prep school, with about 150 on roll. We have a broad intake into nursery and reception. The pupils’ parents are very supportive of their daughters’ education, and almost all have internet access from home.

3. What was your thinking behind trying out Elgg? How did you see it fitting into the curriculum? (beyond ICT)>

I was looking for a way to validate and support their learning beyond the formal curriculum: providing a space for them to share their enthusiasms and experiences about all aspects of life, including but not limited to school. Elgg provides a way of gathering together, and showcasing, computer-based work, either in their blog, for written work, or via their filespace. The filespace also makes it easy to move files between school and home.

3b. Have you set any specific activities around using Elgg? I gather you introduced it as part of an ICT lesson… yet it’s not really about ICT or is it?

It’s not about ICT, but it is ICT, in the sense of information and communication technology – they’re learning a good number of computing concepts, including some grasp of the software development and testing process, but more importantly they’re using ICT tools to support social learning within and beyond the curriculum. I’ve set a number of specific tasks with Elgg, such as writing book reviews, or evaluations of specific bits of the curriculum, but I’ve stressed that it’s their space to use to talk about all the things that matter to them that don’t always get covered at school. There’s plenty more that a school could do with Elgg to support the more formal curriculum though, but we’ve tended to use Moodle for that side of things – the two work very well side by side, and there’s an ongoing project to provide integration between the two.

4. Elgg provides a nice blogging platform but what other benefits does it bring aside from straight blogging e.g. social networking?

Elgg’s great at bringing together a number of Web 2.0 technologies within an integrated platform that can be hosted in-house, inside a ‘walled garden’ extranet. As well as the blogging, Elgg provides:

  • a ‘folksonomy’ tagging engine that allows users to find people, posts and resources on similar topics to their own interests;
  • built-in social networking, to connect formal and informal groups of people;
  • an e-portfolio style filespace;

    and most recently

  • aggregation of RSS feeds, to pull together dynamic content from all over the ‘net [not far from you own notion of the Digital Learning Aggregator 1.0].

The tagging system and the aggregator could go a long way to meet Ruth Kelly’s aspirations for personal learning spaces: “in the future it will be more than simply a storage place – a digital space that is personalised, that remembers what the learner is interested in and suggests relevant web sites, or alerts them to courses and learning

opportunities that fit their needs.” (from her introduction to the E-Strategy), but in a way that acknowledges a key role for people in this process, rather than leaving it all to the machines.

5. Have the students made use of the file storage function? How do they use Elgg outside school?

All of them have used the filespace to store photos to be inculded in their blogs, and their first podcasts, a few have gone further and used it to move content to and fro, and as a showcase for finished pieces of work. I think this is a function we’ll make more use of in the future.

It’s been great to see many of my pupils continue their blogging into their free time, at the weekend or over the holiday, to record and reflect on their experiences outside school too.

6. What benefits has Elgg brought to the students? I’m thinking of examples of how the ‘learner centred’ approach differs from other types of e-learning platforms e.g. VLEs etc.

Whereas I as the teacher have remained in control of our Moodle VLE courses, with Elgg much of the control is handed to the pupils themselves, giving them a far stronger sense of ownership, voice and autonomy than a more conventional learning platform. Elgg also has lots of potential to support informal, home or community based learning. I think Elgg offers a very appealing vision of personalized learning with the person at the centre, rather than courses and curriculums.

7. How has Elgg supported students reflecting on their learning?

It provides a space, and more importantly an audience, for that reflection – I’ll admit that not all of my pupils have made full use of this space, but even those who’ve not posted much along these lines themselves will, I hope, have been encouraged to reflect on their own learning and experiences by reading the posts of their classmates.

8. Why should other schools / teachers give Elgg a go? Any advice for them?

Elgg is a great way to bring cutting edge web technology into the school, in a way that the school can monitor, protect, and focus on learning, understood in its broadest sense. I think it important that the learners do have a strong sense of ownership of their personal learning space, but things have worked best for us when pupils have been given a focus to their blogging, at least in the early days. I’m sure though that the key to making a school’s online community supportive and dynamic is to have an offline community that’s supportive and dynamic too.