Xeno – Phobic response from Big Society

Filed under: Education,Outcomes,Technology — lenand @ 12:02 am
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Digital Inclusion is high on the political agenda – and Martha Lane Fox is continuing to keep it in the news.  Whether it gets any local authority staff input is separate issue.  It is not high in the priorities for spending next year.  At least that emerged in this week’s SOCITM Futures meeting.

Here is a personal example of the misfit between Vision and Delivery in trying to solve the problems of inclusion.  A big social problem is children excluded from school. Many children are disconnected from normal schooling. Although there is uncertainty in the statistics, the following, excluding truancy, give the scale of the problem:

  • Permanent exclusion (over 9000 per year)
  • Temporary exclusion (over 350,000 incidents per year)
  • Parental choice, (possibly 50,000)
  • Gypsy and Traveller children (12,000 of secondary age are not registered at school)
  • Children looked after by their local authorities (60,300)

Schools and local authorities struggle to maintain levels of achievement with these groups.  Research recommends catch-up support and individual learning opportunities out of school.  Independence of schools from Local Authorities will not make the job any easier.

The South East Grid for Learning invested in a virtual learning environment (Xeno) for such children – providing them with electronic resources that are available to others. An attractive user interface was designed, suitable resources were added, such as Angel Boy.  Take up has been disappointing.

The root cause is the lack of capacity of teachers with the skills to show excluded children how to gain benefit from current Internet technology.  An attempt was made to attract students to mentor teachers in the uses of Xeno, but there were no volunteers.

This could be an early warning to the advocates of Big Society:  Big vision, Little delivery.


SIF Strikes back

Filed under: Education,Process,Standards — lenand @ 12:17 am
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Schools in the UK process the information about 9 million children on a daily basis. The total volume is hardly noticed as it is performed in about 27,000 independent, self-contained locations. This is not just by the 400,000 teachers, but also by up to 90,000 administration staff and assistants. A school is typically involved in the operation of 10 different systems with records of attendance, achievements, school meals, libraries, parental addresses etc. Grossing up, there are about operational 250,000 systems. Much of the data is shared, within a school, across schools, up to local authorities and to the Department for Education (DfE). They share childrens’ names, addresses, dates of birth, nationality, parents’ names, qualifications etc.

Some data is a statutory requirement, such as registration of attendance, twice per school day. Some is necessary for the operation of timetables and recording of progress. Some is valuable for the transfer of children between schools, peaking at the beginning of a school year. Why is SIF potentially so important?:

  • There is a hidden administrative burden entering, correcting and transmitting school records. Often there is no automatic transfer of records, requiring manual re-entry of data – complete with transcription errors. Incoming electronic records may be invalid. It is said that 90% of the administration work is caused by 10% of the records ie those which are incorrect.  All this is a high cost to the UK economy.  SIF can reduce it.
  • Access to computer facilities by children and staff is now ubiquitous. Security is required to protect computer accounts from inappropriate access, malicious behaviour and bullying. Identity Management in schools and from home locations is essential. Usernames and passwords should be common across all systems used by teachers or students. Technology that is commonly used in Universities is slowly spreading to schools. Allowing one sign on for accounts in many systems needs secure and reliable data sources. SIF can synchronise them.
  • Data collected for operational use within schools can be shared horizontally in local consortia.  Data can be aggregated and analysed both for school use and for vertical reporting to local authorities, the DfE or other agencies.  SIF is built to speed up such processes at certified levels of accuracy.

The power of the DfE is immense, but the independence of schools is sacrosanct. Legislation is needed to enforce any Departmental edict. Schools need to operate their data processing independently, without undue hindrance from external authorities. The solution lies in Standards. The need for interoperability enforces standards; look at electric power, mobile phones, computer networks and rail tracks. Educational software is no exception. Standards have been developed for educational resources and administration for all levels of education.

Becta commissioned a study into the standards for administration systems and recommended the adoption of the US originated Systems Interoperability Framework (SIF). It has been modified for use in the UK. The SIF Association (UK) is the meeting place for educational software suppliers, schools and representative bodies (such as Regional Broadband Consortia). Standards have been agreed and software developed that securely and accurately transfers data between any compliant systems. A certification process is in place.  Local computer hubs orchestrate the data from all communicating systems; validating it against the Standard and ensuring that it is correct for receiving systems.

One good example is the South West Grid for Learning, which has started integrating multiple applications for over 2,500 establishments. They can provide a simplified sign-on service, personal online learning space, collaboration tools and interoperability of many services. Quality is assured for all records that comply with the Standard. Inevitably, such levels of integration highlight the poor quality of previous data. Slowly, but surely, the data can be cleansed and improve the efficiency and interoperability of school services.

SIF is a superb example of bottom-up collaboration, not enforced top-down.  SIF has more work to do than refute ill-informed opinions. SIF delivers benefits at a massive local level; it could be applied in 27,000 data centres.  SIF is Big Society.

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