Real time reporting

Nov 08, 2008

Miles Berry

It was a great privilege to be invited to join the head teachers of Islington’s Education Action Zone for their sixth-monthly gathering. Despite the differences between their contexts and my own, my presentation on ‘personal learning journeys’ was very well received, even if I didn’t get through half my slides because of the interesting conversations the first half had provoked. Sandra Crapper, who’s The Zone’s ICT Consultant, followed on, giving a brilliant, concise briefing on the national picture.

One area that came up in both her and my sessions was the promise held by real-time, online reporting, as maintained secondaries are expected to have in place by 2010, with primaries a couple of years later. The opportunities which virtual learning environments present for giving parents access to their children’s learning in real time are hugely exciting ones, but I’m not absolutely certain that this has all been thought through with enough care.

It’s fair, I think, to say that what the government have in mind is actually not that exciting. I was re-reading Leadbeater’s splendid Personalisation through Participation (2004) in advance of my presentation, and it struck me that of his five stage plan:

  • A more customer-friendly interface with existing services
  • More say in navigating through services
  • More direct say in how money is spent
  • Users as co-designers and co-producers of a service
  • Self-organization: the public good emerging from within society

Most of the the stuff we see now under the heading of personalisation is rarely any further along than stages 1 or 2, and this is certainly the case for the government’s present vision for real-time reporting: think Internet Banking with a school report replacing the statement, although actually I suspect internet banking still has more interactivity than what’s in mind here.

There is something of a non-sequiteur in Becta’s thinking here. I wouldn’t dispute that

recent research has shown that parental engagement is a decisive factor in determining learner achievement.

However it does not follow that

parents have secure online access to information on their child’s progress, achievement, attendance, behaviour and special educational needs, when and where they please.

is actually the way to go about making this happen. Whilst one can’t argue with Becta that

This means an improvement to the way you communicate with parents.

It seems a jolly one-sided form of communication, doesn’t it, something Tony Parkin has queried in Becta’s forum, with disappointingly cynical responses. Tom Barrett’s proposal to start reports at the beginning of the year as a Google Docs page, open to parents and teachers alike is interesting, although given the distributed nature of Google’s file system, it’s possible that parents and, I think, children will have to explicitly consent – that’s OK though.

I have suspicions that there are privacy issues here:

Using ICT to report to parents will have a powerful and constructive influence on the three-way relationship between parents, learners and the school.

Well, perhaps, but on the other hand, school’s been a place where children have been able to establish an identity of their own, apart from their parents: I’m not convinced that giving all parents live updates on every aspect of a child’s

progress and behaviour is going to do much to enhance the teacher-pupil relationship in some cases. Indeed our lesson recording experiences back at St Ives suggested that some children at least became quite reticent at joining in with class work when they thought that their parents might be listening in. OK, live streaming from the classroom isn’t on Becta’s agenda (yet) and would raise some child protection issues if it were, but close parental monitoring is going to have an effect on how children behave in class – I don’t think one can assume this will invariably be positive.

From a children’s rights perspective, it’s interesting that, whilst the data protection act doesn’t give any lower age limit at which the child can exercise their rights as data subject, including withholding third party’s rights to access their data, the education act includes an exemption allowing parents automatic access to data schools hold about their children. More curious though, especially with the data protection act in view, is that there’s no talk of pupils having access to their own real-time reporting, nor of their rights under the data protection act to correct the data held about them – can you imagine how those conversations are going to go?

My other concern is that this potentially reduces the dialogue with parents to the things its easy to store in a MIS – data rather than information or knowledge, and what you measure becomes what you value. There’s so much more that the technology could be doing here- think perhaps of the shared, class blog, eg Hope Primary’s wonderful write-up of their Amsterdam trip, think perhaps on the rich range of media that a VLE’s forum contributions, assignments and collaborative wikis could hold, think also of the reflection on learning which a pupil’s blog could allow for, think even of a collaborative blog by and about a learner, started by parents before the child comes to school, continued by EYFS key workers, and then by the learner and their teachers as they progress through education. Perhaps more time consuming than adding a web interface to SIMS, but perhaps something that acknowledges that the person who knows the learner best is not the information systems manager but the learner his or herself.