While much of the conference was ‘generic’, concentrating on the inspirational and strategic – with presentations by Sir Dexter Hutt, Klaus Nigel Pertl (Mindstore), the SSAT's Paul Hynes and Becta's Simon Shaw – it was the grass-roots material that gave a clear sense of the culture change that learning platforms can, and should, support. They also indicated why Frog, while not included in Becta’s original “approved" list of VLEs, is emerging as one of the most talked about learning platforms, along with the likes of Studywiz, Moodle and UniServity.

So what is it about Frog? It appears to be a combination of ease of use and the company’s intense focus on learning, change and support that provokes the term “enabler” from school users. The school presenters were, of course, the best advocates.

Dominic TesterDominic TesterDominic Tester, assistant head at Costello Technology College, demonstrated how parental engagement has to go further than mere provision of pupil data online. It was an extremely thoughtful presentation from someone who regularly shares his insights online through services like Twitter (@dtester), and his full presentation is available on his blog, video here. A key revelation, the product of preparatory consultations, was that Costello's parents are far less interested in their children’s attendance figures than learning how to support them in their learning, and where to find useful resources.

A good starting point for for school discussions was Tanya Byron's "Oh Nothing Much" report and the parental engagement material from Becta, he said. The starting point for parents should be understanding that more than 80 per cent of parents feel they are kept in the dark about their children's education and have felt "ostracised" by education. Schools should be concerned with the holistic aspects of engaging parents rather than merely providing basic attendance and performance data. It had to be a long-standing, continuous engagement rather than something that might attract initial interest but then fall away, unsustained - "a one-hit wonder".

Parents say they want to be "proactive in their children's learning". They wanted, more on a monthly basis than weekly, information about homework, school policies, student progress, extra-curricular activities, behaviour, attendance, timetables, teacher feedback on assignments (a strong feature of Frog as it allows appropriate sharing with parents), access to learning resources.

And what about data that might reveal a dramatic change in a pupil's performance? He suggested that there were circumstances that required face-to-face conversations, and this required further thought. Parents needed a sustained engagement, he said, and the key to transformational change is incremental steps - the whole school community had to be involved. For example, Costello made its governors' portal live before the students' so that all levels of the school could become involved.

Data for parents should be turned into information in a context, he stressed. For him, online reporting should become full engagement of parents as part of a wider transformation change. It should be carefully developed and monitored "to shape future development".

There had to plenty of hooks into the parents' portal (Costello uses the Frog portal) so that other interests were catered for in addition to pupil data - for example learning resources, dates of school and extra-curricular events - along with engagement activites. They also wanted more general, practical communications which could be accommmodated by the social networking elements of Frog, he added, like online registration for school events, online payments and discussion forums. They were also interested in developing their own learning and offering their own skills to help the school. This research took at least three months.

The "je ne sais quoi" of Frog

Dominic Tester went on to demonstrate exactly how Costello moved on to meet these needs and it's worth taking time out (about 40 minutes) to view his presentation online. What is significant is the way the system allows Costello to present information to parents in ways that reflect the priorities which came from its own research. This gives the clue to what Dominic Tester described as the "je ne sais quoi" of Frog ("right-brained, creative").

The unscripted nature of the conference presentations was demonstrated by the divergence of views. For example, Jonathan Lees, IT manager Crossley Heath School, revealed that his school had its own reasons for not using Frog's parent portal (cost), but his demonstration of Frog's support for pupil voice and the engagement of pupils in running the platform was something echoed in all the school presentations. He brought his students along to present and they gave a truly dynamic demonstration - wowing attendees -  of how they help run the system (his time managing Frog is now down to 1-2 hours a day) and use it for their own communications with each other and with teachers and the management.

It was an impressive demonstration of how learners respond to the challenge when they are given autonomy and they were happy to run the question-and-answer session too. What emerged over the sessions was the considerable engagement of students. In some cases students were paid to develop the system. In one case their work hours - up to 12 a month - were logged and they invoiced at the end of every month.

Steve AylinSteve Aylin

Ninestiles School's assistant vice-principal Steve Aylin (left) and VLE co-ordinator Chris Silverton didn’t waste any of their allotted hour for ‘Pushing the Boundaries of Engagement in Education” by telling the audience about how they use their learning platform to store the ordinary - timetables, school trips and details of parents’ evening - because “that goes without saying and is boring”. Instead they demonstrated the extraordinary, and the fact that you "don’t need loads of fancy kit". There was the demise of the “crappily” photocopied pieces of worksheets, such a turn-off for students, that were now transformed into interactive multiple-choice quizzes and loaded on to the learning platform for pupils to access. And the Moontry poject, which briefed students to design a toy that could be played on the moon. Designed as a science challenge for 700 students, it attracted 230 hits on its first outing on the Frog platform – all from students logging on at home.

Steve Aylin told his audience: “It’s the culture of the school. We live and breathe this kind of stuff. If something new comes along we embrace it and see it as an opportunity to involve our students in things that are more interesting and engaging.” While working on a project about Jekyll and Hyde with Year 9 pupils, rather than simply asking them to read the book and write an essay about their observations, the English department suggested they produce a movie or game trailer based on a certain passage. The pupils enthusiastically embraced the idea and the resulting trailers were put on the learning platform for everyone to share.

As part of an ICT project, students learned how to make podcasts using Audacity. Although normally that might be nothing spectacular, at the end of this project 240 students taught 100-120 members of staff how to use this program. “Some teachers went away, forgot about it and never touched it again,” said Steve Aylin. “But others have since used Audacity to do work with their groups - and those students who taught those teachers how to do that felt incredibly chuffed and privileged and everyone is a winner”.

'Their new threshold for boredom is way lower than it was before'

“Once you’ve started, you can’t go back," warned Chris Silverton. "Once the students start to expect this stuff from you they will push you to do it more. If you move away from what they would see as standard and boring - and we do this every year - on to things that are more interesting, more creative and involve them more, you can’t go back. They won’t let you go back because their new threshold for boredom is way lower than it was before. They force you to set up a new default setting.”

"Default settings" and "live and breathe" were also key phrases in Sir Dexter Hutt's presentation. Introducing the Sigmoid Curve, he said. "This is something I live and breathe. It guides everything that we do at Ninestiles. It started with the Greeks and got lost in the mist of time. It says everything rises and falls, which appears a very simple thing to say. If you looked in Fortune Magazine 10 years ago and you look now you’ll find probably half those companies have gone bust – we won’t talk about banks.

"Everything rises and falls and why is that?  Its because when you’re in the upward curve you’ve got a good strategy that is actually working out and, human nature been what it is, people can be very happy when they re making progress, when they find the strategy that is working. But since the world changes, the strategy is going to run out of steam... People tend to work with strategies until they are in the downward curve, until they’re failing. And when you are failing anybody can say this isn’t working."

'Then everybody understands there is culture of change, that the change will never stop'

The challenge for schools, said Sir Dexter Hutt, is to develop a culture of leadership that recognises when the curve is changing and instigate the move to the next curve: "If you wait too late you’re actually failing, and to start from failure is always difficult... The trick is if you can get an organisation to understand that, then everybody understands there is a culture of change, that the change will never stop. Therefore what you argue about is not if there should be change but what the nature of the change will actually be. If you can get that sort of culture going you’ve got a classy organisation, one that’s world class."

This was the hook for a profound presentation that explored the bedrock of a forward-looking school culture, that dealt with the esteem of learners and put the relevance of A-C GCSE grades and the primacy of literacy and numeracy into a wider critical context. ("If you measure success purely by five A-Cs including maths and English then every child does not matter.") His conclusion came with a warning for schools and organisations about their "default settings".

A school's default settings could hinder or facilitate achievements. He gave the example of a traditional classroom with all desks in serried ranks pointing to the front of the class and the teacher - a set-up that defines the possibilities. The key message was that a school's default settings have to match its aims: "If you want to move to a 21st century school you can’t do it with 20th century default settings... The first step is to recognise there is a need to tease out the default settings. The second step is to work out what they should move to. So really what we need, and this is a huge challenge, is to create an organisational culture that understands that there will always be a need for change that is highly adaptable and therefore is able to find it's own Sigmoid Curve, time after time.

Klaus Nigel PertlKlaus Nigel Pertl

Where Sir Dexter Hutt was strategic, Klaus Nigel Pertl (left) addressed the personal 'hows' of change, the human attitudes. His three favourite sayings are: "Life is too valuable that we can allow ourselves to be negative not even for one second"; "Action cures Fear"; "The quality of our thinking determines the quality of our life". With an analysis of human attitudes and positivity/negativity that was undeniably accurate, an analysis of the roles of the left and right parts of the brain and an entertaining presentational style that verged on an intellectual Hokey Cokey. With apologies to the song,  "You put your left lobe in, your right lobe out; In out, in out, you shake it all about; do the Mindstore brainstorm and that's what it's all about". His was a fitting performance to rally the troops to action.

So what else was there about Frog? The most telling comments came from Sir Dexter Hutt in his analysis of the skills needed for the 21st century. Drawing on the work of Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, he said that two themes were creativity and empathy. And business should look at three broad indicators for fitness for the 21st century - "abundance, Asia and automation". "Is what we are offering in demand? If it isn't, it's not going to work. Can someone overseas, probably in Asia, do it cheaper? Because if they can, they will. And can it be done faster? If it can, it will be. I like Frog. I admire what Frog has done and is doing. And what Frog is thinking.

Gareth DaviesGareth Davies"Gareth [Davies, left, one of the founders of Frog] is extremely creative. If you take his talent - 'being creative' - and look at those aims, is what Gareth is offering over-supplied?. No it isn't. Can someone overseas do it cheaper? No they can't. Can it be automated? No it can't. And that is the strength of being creative. That's why football stars get huge sums and move between countries."

As part of a framework of questions for transformation it was certainly captivating, and rich food for thought, and there are learning platform providers out there who would do well to field an advocate like Sir Dexter Hutt.

More information

Photo credit: Thanks to Matt Charlton, of Frog (Twitter @mattcharlton), for photographs
Frog conference presentations
Frog conference Twitter tag #frogtrade09
Klaus Nigel Pertl's Mindstore
Dominic Tester's blog (hosts his Frog presentation slides)

More on learning platforms

"What is a learning platform?" An introduction on YouTube by Chris Thomson of Sheffield East City Learning Centre.


Blog post “Does Ofsted Really Understand VLEs?” by Ian Usher

'VLEs make assessment for learning safely social' by Fiona Aubrey-Smith

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