Monday, March 05, 2007

Tool verses Content

This is not my daily photo
This is not my daily photo,
originally uploaded by DavidDMuir
On Friday I attended a meeting of the Scottish ICT Development Group (SICTDG - pronounced sick dog!). Gordon has already given a brief summary of the range of items discussed.

I wanted to focus on one thing related to Glow (the Scottish schools digital network project).

One of the Glow team said:
"Glow is not about content it is about tools."
This provoked some consternation. A number of people argued that there had to be content. Content that would bring people to Glow and that it would have to be good to ensure that they keep coming back. Content was described as, "The glue that makes teachers stick to a system." To give teachers Glow without content would be like giving them blank sheets of paper but no text books and telling them to teach.

Now I can see some logic in this position but I remain unconvinced. It reminds me of the old reasons people gave back in the 1980s to explain why computers were in the school but not used extensively: "There's not enough subject specific software." My feeling is that computers are used much more extensively now but the software that is used most often is the general purpose, content free stuff like word processors, graphic packages and (especially now) web browsers, rather than subject specific software.

It also seems to me that there is already a load of good "content" already available but that it is not used as widely as it might be (e.g. Scran and GridClub).

Finally, there are models out there of tools that when made available to teachers, are embraced and used effectively (e.g. the Exc-el network of blogs in East Lothian).

So what do you think? Does a desire for content come from being stuck in the Read Only Web of the past? Am I expecting too much from most teachers in believing they will embrace the read/write web and be happy to go content free? Do we need the glue of content to make teachers stick to Glow?

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Ewan said...

You do need content as stimulus for whatever you are going to fill up your sheet of virtual paper with. But who says that content has to come in the first round from a central provider? Why not just play the patience game and let the content build up from users? The answer is that the tools in Glow may not, at the moment, lend themselves to this. They are collaborative tools but, I would argue, not creative ones (i.e. it's hard to actually create something with them).

There is some good content in there already to give people some stimulus but I think people still reckon content is the equivalent of the online textbook - yuck.

Robert Jones said...

The Scottish Virtual Teachers Centre was not exactly a resounding success, and it focussed on content.

Glow should provide community. If we develop a community, then the rest will follow. If we don't, the project will fail.

David said...

Hello Ewan

Hmm! That introduces a new variable I hadn't thought of - are the tools up to the job? At the moment it it difficult to say since I haven't seen the Glow tools in action.

However, I'm not sure about your distinction between "collaborative" and "creative". For example, where does a blogging tool sit? Is it the tool that is creative or the use to which it is put?

David said...

Hello Robert

It is fair to say that the SVTC didn't work... but explaining why it didn't work is not that easy. I agree however that its focus was on content and so it illustrates that the presence of content alone does not guarantee success.

You say, "Glow should provide community." The trouble is, community is not something you can "provide" - it grows... develops... builds. I suspect the people arguing for content in Glow saw it as one way of helping create the community - giving the community something to grow around - like a city growing around the bridge over a river. (I'm not saying they are right, but as I said, I can see a logic in that position.)

Krysia said...

I’m a student at Glasgow doing a BTechEd. I’ve been looking a lot at ‘sharing practice’ and the questions you ask are ones that I’ve come across as well, (though I don’t have any answers).
It seems to me that content is unfortunately essential. I recently did some research with my fellow students and without a doubt using a network as a practical source for subject specific resources was no. 1. Though a fairly close second was communication.
I don’t think it is the job of a facilitator to provide much content but there needs to be a well structured starting block, something which people feel comfortable with. This leads to what I think the biggest challenge of Glow or any network which asks its members to be the ones who are in control – creating the right climate. If there is the right climate for working collaboratively, then all else will follow. This whole web2.0 thing needs everyone to feel happy ‘failing forward’.Like Thomas Edison said:
“You must learn to fail intelligently. Failing is one of the greatest arts in the world. One fails towards success.”
If we are happy to ‘stick our necks out’ then there should be no need for ‘content’ to bring people in and make sure they keep coming back.
A real stickler for me, though, is that I’m not convinced that an online community can fully do this no matter how good. There needs to be face to face contact which is instigated by the facilitators of the network. And it should be done ideally near the start of a venture and fairly regularly throughout - control needs to be handed directly to the people who traditionally sit at the bottom of a hierarchy. Ideally, an organic framework evolved by members would emerge after time which would self sustainable but I think that reaching that point would be fairly slow – mainly due to the nature of change and how we all feel a bit wary of it at times.
I don’t think you’re ‘expecting too much’ for teachers to go content free and embrace the read/write web – I seem to be finding more and more people feeling the same. Though I think if it is really going to move forward then no matter how much ‘content’ is provided, or how good a ‘tool’ is created or even if a ‘community’ seems formed, the crucial factor is creating the right climate for change. Then all else follows.
Funnily enough as I write this, I think: 'I'm only a student, who am I to start saying this. What if I'm wrong' Oh well, what the heck... :)

John Connell said...

Glow was always going to have to be a fine balancing act between meeting users' expectations and pushing them towards tools and ways of working that are perhaps outside the 'comfort zones' of many teachers. In Glow's case, the range of collaborative tools that will become available over the next 6 to 12 months will, for many teachers in Scotland, offer possibilities that, frankly, many have not even considered yet. But if we had determined to provide a collaborative environment (of any kind) without at least some nod towards teachers' own expectations, that a national learning platform should also offer content, we would be cutting our nose off to spite our face.

Remember, we spent almost two years talking to anyone who would listen, and many of whom joined us in our 'conversation' - every time we spoke to a teacher, they said they wanted 'stuff'! Resources, lesson plans, ideas, materials, etc etc. Few that we spoke to made any mention whatsoever of collaborative learning as an aspiration. But we felt that collaboration will prove, in the long run (maybe even in the short term) to be much much more significant for learning that 'stuff' ever will be.

So, we listened, and so Glow needs to be a conduit for some content, but it is a conduit that must be used to channel both quality assured content (for instance, provided by LTS, or the BBC, or a whole range of other private and public content suppliers) and user-generated content (whether produced by individuals or by, for instance, local authorities) to the whole educational community across the country. (And 'channel' needn't be a word that here describes a one-way, top-down process only!)

My estimation from the beginning - and many colleagues who have been involved since 2001 will attest to this - has been that good quality content will bring teachers into Glow and may even make it attractive to them as a teaching and learning tool. But over time, they will become more and more attuned to the collaborative possibilities offered by the range of tools on offer.

The latter will, in time, become more important than the former. How long will that take? I don't know, but happen it will, I believe.

Also, to make the casual remark that the collaborative tools to be offered within Glow are 'not creative ones' is simply nonsense. Many involved in the 'immediately creative' aspects of Web 2.0 haven't yet grasped the power that the truly national ID Management core within Glow will bring to teaching and learning. If the local authorities are courageous enough to push permissions in Glow down to the lowest level (in networking terms, I mean) the explosive potential of the effectively infinite variety of interest groups and online communities within a relatively secure environment will open up a whole new vista to Scottish education.

Sometimes we can't see the wood for the trees (to coin a phrase).