Chris Drage sits in on the RM Learning Platform User Forum
With the end of funding and the change in government the issue of schools adopting a learning platform has gone quiet. Are any schools still engaged with, or even using their learning platforms now the heat is off? Has the learning platform just become an expensive VLE ? Three years on, what constitutes good practice in the use of a learning platform?

To find out, I attended to RM’s recent Learning Platform User Forum Day to see how far some schools have gone down this road and I came away very impressed.

Three years ago I made my acquaintance with Kaleidos, RM’s rather top heavy, one-size-fits-all learning platform. It was very thorough but it was expensive compared with the likes of StudyWhiz or Frog. At this time companies were striving to get as much functionality into their learning platforms as they could and RM was no exception. Over the years however, the emphasis has evolved from the Kaleidos Learning Platform being an all-encompassing product to one where it is an integrated framework of tools that work together to offer a student-centric learning experience.

As Naell Crosby-Roe, RM’s Marketing Manager for the Learning Platform Group, emphasised: “The RM Learning Platform is offered in a modular way as primary schools tend to pick and choose the bits they want to use. For example, rather than go for the content management tools they tend to set up learning spaces for particular classes or interest groups.

"It’s very much like an inventive ‘pick-n-mix’. Online discussions are very popular, using simple video tools, sound recordings and drawings. The tools could help a child contribute to book review discussion with a short video clip to see how others respond to it... Schools are not using ‘discussion’ in a way that you might traditionally expect but are finding new and inventive ways. It makes a discussion far more open and accessible for early years and SEN pupils. Although government pressure for schools to adopt a learning platform has subsided, there are compelling reasons for using one: one of the reasons for this forum is to share some of those compelling reasons.”

Seconding a teacher to support learning platform implementation proved successful

In some respects Laura Setterfield, of Fulfen Primary School, was in a position many teachers find themselves in currently: her question was, "Why do we need a learning platform?" Eventually bowing to government pressure, her headteacher eventually accepted the fact and, in an inspirational move, took Laura out of her classroom to spend a year getting the learning platform up and running and the staff on board. She puts down the success of their implementation to this single initiative.

Spearheading their venture were the dual need to improve parent-school communication and to improve children’s basic skills and to embed these into the platform. The head’s blog, news and reports of school events and surveys involving parents prior to an Ofsted visit have all contributed to its success. Comments from the parents are very positive and encouraging.

As far as the teachers are concerned it was rolled out to Years 2 and 4 as a trial. Were the children engaged? “They love it,” said Laura. “The route to success here was to train certain children in each class as ‘Platform Champions’ who help, assist and train other children (and teachers) in managing learning spaces. We are now working jointly with our neighbouring secondary school, looking at ways to assist transition.”

Schools use their learning platforms for all sorts of tasks, sa Naell Crosby-Roe. “In one school the caretaker/janitor has an area where calls can be logged to report broken or missing items. The caretaker can respond with an acknowledgement, reporting when an item is due for repair/replacement etc.  Resource and room booking management is another way in which the LP is used as a school communication vehicle. In secondary schools it is often a vehicle for reporting and logging requests to the ICT support team.”

Julie Cross and Heather Gibbs from Stoke City Council help embed the learning platform into the authority’s schools by adopting a pragmatic and needs-based approach. As Julie pointed out, even with a day’s training the whole vision of embedding technology and engaging pupils was not disseminating through to the ones who mattered: the teachers in class. The way forward here, she said, was to ask all schools about their key challenges. What is it that they have to do, based on their OFSTED report and development plan? How can the tools on the learning platform help them to achieve those goals?

From an individual school’s open-accessible diary synchronised through to iPods and handheld devices to different teams within the authority sharing calendars, and managing/booking resources for participating schools, Stoke City is building on what the schools have done but using it as a major communications and information management system across the whole authority.

“We can share calendars across the authority, for schools and even synchronised for individual parents to receive securely," added Julie. "A huge advantage is that it can be quickly updated. Collecting information, quick survey tools, communication with the children and giving them a voice are all important aspects of our learning platform implementation. The secret to getting a learning platform successfully established in school is to start off with something small, but expect all staff to maintain it weekly – only when that is it established move on to something else.”

Children as young as four are using the learning platform in the Ashford Rural Cluster

When asked by her head to get a learning platform in place to facilitate parentt-eacher dialogue, the response of Donna Rogers, of the Ashford Rural Cluster in Kent, was “Let’s not!” Her reasoning was simple: the reality is if you can’t engage the learners then there’s nothing to make the parents log on other than data which they get in so many different ways anyway.

She summed it up with, “You need to keep the parents happy otherwise they end up nagging the teacher with the result that the teacher doesn’t want to go on to the portal. A learning platform has to be about what’s important for them.”  She should know as her school’s learning platform is used by four-year-olds at foundation stage! It has become a practical means of teachers gaining eProfile evidence of what foundation children can really do at home and that can can include the ability to complete a jigsaw independently or being able to dress themselves: “It’s all about capturing interactions and parent voice.”

There is still an important place for attendance, assessment, targets for English and maths but the platform offers parents a window of opportunity to support their child(ren). The school is hoping that they can support parents and their children by developing their skills in a safe environment. The learning platform is a very good means of developing e-safety skills and attitudes as it provides a single login to a ‘walled garden’ from which a plethora of external websites can be accessed safely.

Donna continued: “Through the learning platform we can deliver tools which are educationally age-appropriate – media tools which are quick, ‘have-it-now’ and ‘show me’. The learning platform permits young children to easily share with others their experiences and learning, providing what is in effect a digital diary... By providing a 'parent voice' area, we have concrete evidence of parental involvement. Once a term the teacher will start a discussion with the parent regarding the term’s focus. To which parents respond via their own accounts.” The learning platform provides a medium for the learners (even the very young), the parents and the teachers to talk about their interactions.

What did the teachers who were forum delegates think of the day?

“Great to see positive teaching and learning use of a VLE”

“I left with a host of ideas to share back at school. I have also formulated the process by which we can launch to a group of parents.”

“Lots of very interesting speakers who gave lots of inspiration to take away”

“A user forum day is an excellent way of developing ideas for the future.”

RM's schools customers can look forward to having the option of Google Apps as part of their network and learning platform services now that RM has become a "Google Strategic Partner".  This revelation came during the day when Ross Mahon from Google made his keynote presentation. And news has since emerged of RM also partnering with Microsoft to provide its live@edu free email and cloud service. Watch this space...

Finally, as Naell Crosby-Roe was keen to emphasise, a learning platform has to be simple, easy and engaging. It’s never a digital replacement for the teacher but a tool which can be used effectively to raise learners' motivation, involvement and achievements.

As funding gets ever tighter, a prudent school would be wise to look more closely at how to effectively implement its learning platform before spending more of the budget on extra resources. The government pressure might be off but economic pressures don't look like going away any time soon..

More information

RM Learning Platform Success Award Winners 2010
RM Learning Platform Users Day presentations


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