Flossie 06 – Day 2

Jul 23, 2006

Miles Berry

Friday’s programme began with a little more insight into the work of Bolton’s TICfrom Dr Brian Iddon MP, who chairs their board and sits on the Common science and technology standing committee. The TIC’s innovation brief, or “making sparks fly” as Dr Iddon has it, fits well with open source, and their policy of open access has led them to look at a more diverse software provision than just going with Microsoft’s solutions. Dr Iddon’s keen that other areas learn from the TIC’s example, and was relieved that they’ve just secured 150K more in capital funding.

Chris Gerry, who heads up the New Line Learning federation of schools in Maidstone, spoke about some of the problems his schools have faced in seeking to provide a high quality, innovative education in what sounds like fairly challenging circumstances, such as empowering his learners, encouraging creativity and finding ways of teachers working together rather than as ‘lonely artisans’. Chris had clearly been inspired by thinking from the world outside of education, with a vision for replicating distinctive ‘brand’ policies across his schools, a call centre approach to parent contact, and using commercial datamining techniques, such as postcode profiling, to enable earlier intervention with those pupils for whom this would make most difference. Some of his other innovations include work on changing the staff culture, use of key performance indicators from pupil feedback, accelerating the curriculum with KS3 completed by the end of year 8 and the chance to study university level courses in Year 13, some work on emotional intelligence, a vision of what the school environment should be like, with careful attention to detail, a 50-day planning and assessment cycle with frequent, regular appraisals and inspections, and effective use of data to review and impact on the work of pupils, teachers and departments. It’s an impressively business-like way of running a federation of schools, although I can’t help feeling that there’s some dimension missing here – that it’s not possible to work from the data alone, as teachers and pupils are more than a collection of demographics, key performance indicators and test results, that education is a more organic, human process than selling insurance.

John Inglebly and Daniel Carrera spoke about Edubuntu, which they see as the definitive Linux distribution for education. Edubuntu is funded by Mark Shuttleworthand derived from Debian. The latest version comes with five years of tech support for server implementations and provides LTSP services out of the box, without making too many demands on server processing power, although lots of RAM seems fairly important, and it’s better across a hard wired network than wireless. It does provide an easy way of getting into Linux, and a relatively cheap way (both in terms of licence fees and support) to set up a second computer lab or internet cafe.

My own presentation on Moodle, Elgg and the e-strategy, weaving in personalisation and social software threads, seemed well received, and the Chris Stolberg quotes from the video of LGfL’s Learning Platform Roadshow certainly provoked a strong reaction with this audience. The consensus here seemed to be that we should be able to meet the challenge of demonstating the TCO savings from open source learning platforms to go alongside Becta’s documented TCO savings for open source on the desktops, and perhaps there’s a role for Becta to evaluate this before we hear any more arguments about “DIY” open source learning platforms costing tens of thousands. My notion of webserver boxes with things like MoodleElggMediawikiDrupalScuttle and Gallery went down fairly well, although some warned of the difficulties in opening up outside access where internet connections are provided by local authorities or RBCs.

Iain Roberts, CEO of the Open Source Consortium, spoke about some of the consortium’s work in providing all kinds of support for schools wanting to use open source themselves. The challenge he gave to the schools was to do more to provide a supply of the technically literate and competent folk on whom the high-tech industry, and in his view the UK economy, depends. He sees getting students involved in open source projects at school level as a very effective way of developing both the technical and the team-work skills that high tech employers are looking for, and of course being able to show off code, documentation or graphics is an easy way for prospective employees to prove the claims they make on their CVs.

Steve Lee and David Culven showed us some of the work they’re doing at OATS(Open source assistive technology software), to provide both assistive technology support for users who need it to interact with computers running open source code, and advice and development tools for those writing software so that it will work better with AT, as well as a place in which the users and developers can work together, in the best traditions of open source development. Their website looks set to be a great resource for those working in the field, and they demonstrated some of the tools that are already available, such as SAW and the very impressive Dasher.

We closed with a plenary trying to identify what action SF-UK could take to allow FLOSS more penetration of UK schools education, focussing on promoting easy demonstration and routes into schools, reaching LEAs, schools and organisations, and closer links between school and open source companies. There are more detailed notes on the SF-UK site.