London Grid for Learning – the dangers of DIY

Jul 11, 2006

Miles Berry

I’m grateful to ‘Grumbledook‘ for posting to the SF-UK list a link to LGfL’s “Briefing for Local Authorities and Schools” on ‘Learning Platforms’ (qvEdugeek). The apparent degree of bias and prejudice throughout this document is frankly astonishing: it seems to me that LGfL are seriously rattled by the number of London schools opting for open source or their own choice of commercial ‘learning platforms’ rather than sticking with the Digital Brain powered LGfL solution. Rather than getting to the root of the problem and improving the quality of their own software (eg by swapping from DB) to something that provides the functionality that teachers and learners want), they seem to be abusing their near monopoly position as broadband provider and their official backing to ‘advise’ schools against any solution other than the one they offer. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.

Interestingly, they start from the premise that ‘learning platforms’ are all about content, be it delivery, creation, storage or sharing, with relatively little attention paid to the communication and collaboration tools that we’ve come to regard as so important, mirroring as they do the key dynamics of education as a social process. In fact, their discussion of social learning seems, perhaps not surprisingly, to be limited to their discussion of Moodle’s commitment to social constuctivist pedagogy, which they see as one of the reasons for its ‘increased visibility’. Indeed they state:

“Essentially … a learning platform … should enable the creation, publication and administration of educational content and learner data”

This stands in stark contrast to the JISC’s long standing definition:

“A VLE is an electronic system that can provide online interactions of various kinds that can take place between learners and tutors, including online learning.”

They cite some OU documentation on managing knowledge, which talks about the importance for successful ‘learning platform’ introduction of, amongst other things,

  • An existing collaborative leaning platform;
  • A culture of openness and willingness to share;
  • A culture of continuous, reflective learning; and
  • Explicit management of the knowledge inside the [organization].

Which, on re-reading, could well be the characteristics of almost any open source project you’d care to mention. All the more strange then that they have such a down on open source later on in the document.

They claim that 70% of the introduction of a learning platform is about effective change management (although don’t cite the source for this statistic!). This surely cannot be one size fits all, and must be about meeting the school where it is and leading it to the place where it wants to be, and stress how crucial the technological provision is, with “the rest of the strategy balancing on that point”, and yet then go on to advocate using the centrally provided solution, ideally from the LA/RBC (surprise!), with no apparent regard for the implicit contradiction. This seems to be an example of lip service being paid to school choice and autonomy, by an organization that seems to hold the technical competence, and ability to think for themselves, of schools in rather low esteem.

There’s an interesting reference to Alan Day‘s work in Kent, which categorised ‘learning platforms’ as admin centric, content centric, teacher centric or learner centric, although their understanding of this latter category focuses on ‘individualised autonomous learning’. Indeed, much of the discussion in the document, perhaps not surprisingly given the target audience, focuses on institutional needs, rather than getting to grips with the needs of learners and teachers themselves. They ask “Are the school’s needs being put first?”, I would rather hope not, as surely it’s the learners’ needs that should be given priority.

The grasp of the power and potential of the technology, and particularly of personalised learning, seems relatively limited from the list of ‘questions to ask commercial suppliers’ and the feature list of their own platform. For example in the former section’s discussion of collaborative tools they list:

o Set up mail discussions
o Online live discussions
o On-line polls
o Is it easy to email teaching groups?
o Can students submit their work to a teacher electronically? Can access be set for this function?

Which is all rather Web 1.0 (if that), with little room for genuinely collaborative tools like folksonomy tagging, wikis and peer assessment, nor do such affordances, or indeed blogging, podcasting and RSS, appear to be on the list for their own ‘platform’. They acknowledge elsewhere that the FE/HE sectors in the US and UK have switched to open source products because commercial products were not meeting their needs, and yet seem blind to the idea that, for many schools, Digital Brain and other commercial code may well suffer from exactly this fault.

Most worrying is their dismissal of open source software as being like going to a DIY store to buy all the the things needed to build a new kitchen. Well, perhaps if you’re writing the code yourself, but they have totally missed the point that open source software is socially constructed and supported, and rather than working in splendid isolation, a school using open source software participates in a world wide community, in Moodle’s case across all phases of education, with folks who are amongst the leading authorities in the field, rather than passively adopting products that have been built to generate income for those selling them.

They’re dismissive of the savings in TCO that most of us have found to flow from using open source code, as Becta acknowledge, and somehow manage to spin the OU’s decision to go with Moodle into a hint of a warning that Moodle’s TCO is like £5 Million! They also make reference to the cost of schools ‘developing’ the software; whilst it’s good that they acknowledge that schools have the freedom to do this with open source code, I wonder how many readers will be misled into thinking that this is expected of schools going with this sort of code. Whilst on the subject of TCO, Marcus Green comments over on on the nonsense of saying there are all these hidden costs with open source that don’t apply with commecical or LEA/RBC funded products. Elsewhere on LGfL’s site, sits the following juicy snippet comparing Moodle and DB:

“Unfortunately the TCG digitalbrain makes extremely poor/silly use of the database and hence has reached scaling problems earlier than it really should have. The performance costs of digitalbrain being a single, combined, connected, integrated system for all users are significant though and should definitely not be overlooked when comparing the relative performance of the two applications.”

Digital Brain’s founder David Clancy is rather more encouraging about open source, being a relatively recent convert to the cause himself:

“By choosing an Open Source solution, schools hold the FOUR aces:Better Choice
Better Support
Better Security
Better Value”

Whilst acknowledging, along with FERL, the importance of a champion or enthusiast in the successful introduction of a ‘learning platform’, they go on to dismiss those amongst such ‘gifted enthusiasts’ who advocate open source solutions by stating that they ‘do not always have the pedagogical needs of teachers and learners at heart’, whereas these are, no doubt, uppermost in the motivation of the LGfL team and the commercial software industry. They also suggest the enthusiastic pragmatists are to be supported and encouraged, but only to the extent that they get involved with learning and teaching aspects, and leave the big boys’ stuff like ‘technological development and hosting requirements’ to the companies. Is it any wonder then that in LGfL’s experience ‘gifted enthusiasts [who can make open source easily managed and sustainable] are rare at the school level’; perhaps LGfL might better devote its not inconsiderable resources to increasing the supply of expertise and enthusiasm, rather than undermining it where it does exist.

There is much in their concluding remarks that rings true:

“Schools should ensure that the solution meets as far as possible the needs of the school”

Well, yes. A particular VLE, be it Moodle or Digital Brain, won’t suit every school, but schools need to think through the technology as well as the pedagogy, and choose a VLE that embodies their vision for learning and teaching, rather than that of the region or the local authority.

“Partaking in a wider procurement will enable schools to collaborate and be a more effective use of often limited resources”

Yes; what LGfL seem to be missing is that the open source development process is driven by collaboration and efficient use of resources, and the code that’s produced similarly enables very efficient and effective use of resources and, at least in Moodle’s case, just this sort of inter-school collaboration.

“If a school joins a wider procurement, the schools can share resources, training and lower development costs, and, as part of a larger customer, holds considerable control over the service provider with regards to development and service”

Again, yes. Participating in the worldwide Moodle community is about as wide a procurement group as it gets, and sharing resources and training, as well as the option to participate in the development itself, with a worldwide, cross phase community can achieve things far beyond the reach of a local consortium of schools or authorities. Moreover the control over development and service that follows from access to the source code seems an awful lot greater than the Northern Ireland schools have experiences by being part of C2K’s large customer.

Anyone know how LGfL is funded? Is their revenue top-sliced from LA funds, or do schools get a choice in paying for the services which they’re eager to promote? Either way, after reading something like this, I can’t help feeling that there may be better ways to use this money.