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Reflections on BectaX Pt 1: From a connecting school (‘It looks like CTU in here!’)

Working hard during BectaXA few weeks ago a few people suggested me in response to a tweet by Ewan McIntosh looking for schools in Wales to be involved in the BectaX project, and having that little bit of the brain that says ‘actually, you’re pretty busy at the moment, maybe you’d better say no’ missing, I happily agreed.

For anyone who has been living in a cave recently (or more likely, just not on Twitter),  the BectaX launch day on 31st March kick started a process which, according to their website “will help identify how education might evolve in a connected world.” The day brought together 150 people from across various affected fields, 14 schools from around the country, plus many others watching the video stream and interacting via Twitter. There will be a couple of posts following on various aspects of the day, but I thought I’d start by reflecting on our experience as a school involved in an innovative day like this.

I tweeted a request on the school twitter account for student who wanted to be involved and three of our sixth formers responded. The remainder of the group came from year 10 students suggested by ICT dept staff. Kirsty at Just-b who were running the event was very helpful at getting accounts set up and tested ahead of the event, although needless to say when the day came we had problems both accessing the live video stream and connecting to the Adobe Connect room that was being broadcast to the conference room. (Annoyingly we had had it up and running, only for it to crash a couple of minutes before the big wave). Hugh thanks to Paul and Greg our long suffering technicians, Matthew at Swansea LEA for getting everything up and running against the clock, and thanks and apologies to Nick, who was very calm in the face of yet another Dave induced panic!

Our job was to watch and comment via Twitter on a dedicated Twitter account. The other schools would be doing the same. If we saw a comment we liked, we could retweet it. This re tweeting triggered that message to be send to the ‘learners map‘ being displayed on a big screen inside the conference room. While I was initially skeptical about this, it did seem to work very well – allowing some good conversations between the schools, with key ideas being forwarded to the conference room. It became clear that the idea of one computer sending the twitter account wasn’t working in the way we liked, so I grabbed some net-books, and each student ended up tweeting directly, as well as interacting with each other both on and offline. Far from distracting, this seemed to really help focus all of us on the job in hand and have the room a real buzz – so much so that one of the Learning Directors popping in to see what was going on compared it to CTU in a crisis!

One of the real successes for us was some of the school specific conversations that spun out from the event. In particular we got some great ideas from the students about how we should be teaching e-safety (it should be much more embedded in our PSE programme) and some interesting feedback on some ideas for future developments. So much so, we’re planning on keeping this group of students together as an advisory board to the ICT strategy group. It was also great to see so many members of the school management team pop in throughout the day. It showed off our students in the very best light, and showed how important to the school the whole issues of technology in schools is.

The biggest downside of the arrangement was that we didn’t always engage very well with the conference itself – we were reacting more to the back channel that we were to the speakers. This was partly because some of the talks simply didn’t seem relevant and other simply weren’t very engaging from the other end of a video link. Interestingly some of those that we pretty much ignored got some of the best reaction from the live audience. The size of the room meant that at times I was able to go and watch the conference more closely and then relay the key questions back to the students. I would suggest that this kind of curator role is vital for this kind of activity to work.

As the day progressed there was a growing feeling from the schools that we weren’t really able to engage in the process to the degree that we had hoped. Sure, our messages were being relayed, but it felt like the conversation and the conference were two separate things. To the organisers’ credit they recognised this, and added a ten minute session for comments from the room, but however well intentioned it didn’t really get to grips with our concerns. To try and address this, we threw together a quick Google Form to try and get some feedback from schools on the big issues that we felt had emerged from the day. (More details on this to follow in a separate post). I don’t know if this was referred to in the room itself, but for us the biggest improvement for any future event based on this model (and I really hope there are) would be other ways of integrating the conference and the schools – perhaps by the kind of voting that we tried to throw together, or perhaps by developing some kind of Etherpad style page on particular issues that would allow the schools to pull together their viewpoint.

We finished at three, although I know some of our students continued to follow (and tweet) from home. I only caught the very end of the conference, but it was great to see that they managed to connect one of the schools to the conference room itself (via Skype?). Another suggestion for improvement would be to investigate other ways to bring the students directly into the conference in this way. There was some talk about getting the students there, but I’m not sure we would have been able to be involved if that had been the case. By remaining in school Nick, the students and I could pop back to exam classes for an hour as necessary and still be involved.

To sum up, a great day, very inspirational, and while there is some work to be done on getting the most of involving learners in this way, this was a big step forward. Huge credit to all those that ran the event, and particularly to Ewan for doing a great job of holding the whole thing together on the day and a massive thanks to all our students who did such a great job on the day.

Photo credit: Nick Francis

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Dave Stacey

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