Evaluating Coursera for Blended and Online Learning (Part 1)

Evaluating Coursera for Blended and Online Learning (Part 1)

Adjusting back to the heat of Milan in August is taking a little time for the family and this means broken sleep all round. Add a fantastic thundstorm right overhead at 3am and you have the perfect recipe for an early start to your day!

Inspired by some of my notes from reading Jay Ashcroft’s The Tablet Revolution (see review) I decided to investigate alternative MOOC platforms to iTunesU. I love iTunesU but the iOS app is a far superior experience than a student gets using iTunes on a MacBook. I flitted between Coursera and Udemy for a while not really finding a suitable course for comparison before stumbling upon an old article related to e-Learning: Most Popular Online Courses for eLearning Professionals. It seemed familiar and my Evernote concurred that I’d been here before.

While many of the courses listed are now long gone I found that Georgia Tech had just begun running a course titled K12 Blended and Online Learning. I decided enrolling would be useful on two fronts:

  1. Allow me to evaluate the Coursera platform
  2. Further my own professional development in the area of blended learning

Week one concentrates on the standards and documents from iNACOL. For anyone interested in deepening their understanding  of blended learning I highly recommend visiting their site. Of course Georgia Tech have linked all the required reading into their MOOC for you.


The instructional videos were clear, less than 8mins each in length and punctuated with short multiple choice quizzes. I do however wonder if Coursera allows different types of questioning similar to EdPuzzle (which I love). The iOS app reminded me of iTunesU a little, especially the ability to download videos for offline viewing.


I do wonder what the extra space is for in the video player… Might have been nice to have a transcript here.


I realise that students might be accessing Coursera on their MacBook so their experience will probably be different.

I completed the pre-assessment you can see linked in the screenshot earlier and found it very useful in helping to focus my targets. I’m comfortable with policy, online tools and classroom teaching, but want to delve deeper into intervention strategies that will enhance the learning of my online students. As the pre-assessment was a spreadsheet (also a PDF option) I would have liked the ability to upload an image or type some notes to myself and link it to my current stage in the course. I couldn’t find a way of doing this outside of the discussion forums so will have to rely on Evernote instead. On reflection it is probably good to have my notes outside of my MOOC, just in case.

Supplemental information appears to be text-only with hyperlinks and this is fine. One of the pages had embedded PDF and XLSX files that opened in Coursera’s own browser. Clicking on a world icon then opened it in Safari so documents could then be opened in other applications or saved. It would have been nice to select between Safari and Chrome as the default.

The discussion forums were basic but easy to navigate. Nothing I’d want to add there, there’s a reply and an upvote button for each post. Not sure how you are notified of new posts but will find out soon I hope!

In summary this is a good start. I’ve not tried creating a unit in Coursera yet but as a user I’m finding it easy to learn and navigate. I’m also enjoying the course and picking up new tips along the way which I intend to share with you, dear reader, in another instalment.

Book review: The Tablet Revolution by Jay Ashcroft @LearnMakeruk

The Tablet Revolution by Jay Ashcroft (amazon paperback & kindle)

The Tablet Revolution Cover

As someone involved in the planning, design and implementation of a large scale iPad rollout project a few years ago I found this book a fascinating read that echoed much of my own school’s experience. Each of the chapters cover a particular area that a school or education authority must consider before putting devices into the hands of teachers and students with nuggets of wisdom from the other side of the fence: that of the sales or support team wanting to part you from your funds!

The case studies peppered throughout the book highlight the pitfalls of poor planning or vague vision as well as the better-known success stories. I found this refreshing as many articles and books tend to make it seem like every project has been a success whereas anyone involved in an IT project in education or commerce will know this is just not the case!

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I highly recommend this book to those who are planning a roll out of devices to students, those who are in the midst of the roll out and definitely to those who have been through the highs and lows already. I took the opportunity to reflect on my own approach, assumptions and practice as I read this book and think that Jay has given me insights in how to improve the learning and teaching outcomes of those using devices in the future.

Thank you for sharing this Jay!

Rating: 5 stars

As posted on Amazon.co.uk

You can read an interview with Jay Ashcroft here: http://www.ipadeducators.com/single-post/2015/04/03/INTERVIEW-Jay-Ashcroft

iTunesU Course Creator #RGCdevicetrial

The end of term approaches and this means that the coursework and project submissions are pouring in and the focus of learning and teaching turns to final exam preparation. The iPad has been passed on to a colleague (hope you are enjoying it Wendy!) and I now have a brief opportunity to try out the Macbook Air.

I have been so impressed by the iPad in recent weeks that I want to try and replicate the functionality on a laptop to see if I have just been dazzled by technology. It wasn’t just functionality I was impressed with, but I feel that if I can augment my learning and teaching to the same degree as easily on another device it will make the final discussion on device choice much more balanced.

One of the things I found out about at a Apple Store event in Aberdeen during February was iTunesU. To be honest I’ve not found iTunesU that easy to navigate and usually find a keyword search turns up a lot of university level courses and nothing suitable for secondary students. When I heard that you can create your own course I  assumed that it was possible with the iPad. Unfortunately not as it only appears to work with Safari browser for Windows or Mac at present.

After reading this blog post from TNW I recorded a quick screencast using Quicktime Player on the Macbook and edited it slightly using iMovie before uploading to YouTube. There were a few issues with getting the movie from Quicktime Player into iMovie which I’ll put down to user inexperience for the moment (update, it was!)

There are a few things I’d like to see in future (or discover if they already exist!):

1. Importing of multiple web links embedded in a YouTube playlist

2. Importing of a document that contains the outline of a course e.g. page structure and content and turns weblinks in the document into resources in the Materials section.

3. A preview course feature within the browser!

Programming on an iPad #compSci #RGCdevicetrial

At the start of the #RGCdevicetrial I was very cynical about the effectiveness of iPads in education. I did not think they were suitable for use in secondary school classrooms. I saw them as content consumption devices, tailored for personal use only, and an expensive gimmick destined to gather dust in a department store cupboard (much like the iPod touch devices bought en-masse a few years ago).

I’m happy to state that I was wrong. For me, the iPad is a very strong contender for not only becoming the device of choice at our school but for eventually replacing desktop PCs in the Computing classroom too.

Like many others I thought it wasn’t possible to program on the iPad. I’d heard about Scratch being removed from the App Store and, whilst working on a successful Internet Safety project at Inverurie Academy in 2011, had fought a battle of wits with XCode to create and install a series of simple apps on the aforementioned iPod touch devices. I didn’t want to rely on having a spare Macbook sitting around for pupils to code on, in a language that was fairly impenetrable, just to be able to use the iPad in a Computing Science classroom.

However, after speaking to Fraser Speirs at a SCIS event in Edinburgh a few weeks ago, I realised that it was possible. He told me about Pythonista, which allows you to create command-line or graphical programs straight on the iPad. Fraser also told me that he pays for processing time on Amazon servers and gets students to upload code from their iPads and execute it remotely. The extra benefit of this, he says, is that his pupils have access to the same programming environment regardless of their location. It allows them to continue coding at home on a task they may have started in school.

For early stage programmers one app that helps build coding foundations through sequential instructions is A.L.E.X. I downloaded it whilst setting up the iPad for the #RGCdevicetrial and accidentally syncronised it with the iPad Mini which was being used by the ICT specialist in our primary school. She loved the app so I gave it a go last week while learning more about how an iPad mirrors to a data projector using Apple TV. There were young pupils in the playground outside with their noses against the window as they watched the robot move through the levels.

This morning I spotted a retweet by Dawn Halybone and had to investigate further:

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Snap! is a web-based drag and drop programming language developed at Berkeley. Very similar to Scratch, you create programs by associating scripts with sprites on a stage. It runs through a browser so you have to be online to use it however it looks very stable on the iPad. Even though the most recent Scratch beta is also web-based, it does not work with the iPad due to the fact it needs Adobe Flash to play content. I wasn’t even able to access the code screen on the site so, for the moment anyway, Snap seems to be the only option.

Do you know of any other apps or websites that allow programming on the iPad? Please share!

Breaking out of the silo? The VLE formerly known as Glow

I’ve been out of the Glow-sphere for eighteen months now. In that time I have been waiting patiently for parental logins, sighing knowingly when my 8 year old daughter describes forced IT lessons using Glow as the medium (and if she realises they’re forced, something is seriously wrong with using Glow to enhance learning and teaching) and reading – with increasing interest – the often faltering attempts to rebuild Glow as a serious VLE built for learning and teaching but that also allows students and teachers to move beyond the silo and harness the myriad services that exist on the Internet for digital creation, curation and citizenship.

A Digital Learning Environment for Scottish Schools clearly states that teachers “should be trusted to use their professional judgment in how ICT should be used.”, enabling staff to decide how best to use Internet-based or locally installed services to augment their learning and teaching. Some staff will be more comfortable in finding and utilising these services than others, so ICTEx proposed that ‘best of breed’ services should be made available through a national schools Intranet (they have called it Glow+ in their document). The accelerating pace of change in both hardware platforms and software resources means that any solution has to be future-proof and this means that (1) the system must be easily adaptable with regard to access, platform and cost (2) the interface must be device agnostic (3) it should be a springboard for innovation in the classroom, not a constraint.

This goes against the grain of the original Glow design – already out of date when I first saw it in 2006. At that point the security was so tight that access to resources from another school was near impossible, there was no search functionality to make links with other teachers and your individual upload limit was 5MB. There was no option to access via a mobile device (I’m still amazed at how quickly the smartphone explosion has changed the way we demand to access services, but even so I wasn’t designing a future-proof national intranet for Scottish Schools) and no way for students to get feedback or inspiration from those outside of their school but completing the same certificate course.

Admittedly there was an attempt to improve things but, by then, it was too little and far too late. Glow as it exists today is suffering from dwindling numbers of users due to the development of freely available VLE competitors, tech-savvy teachers setting up their own Moodle / Google Sites / hand-built solution or formerly positive teachers becoming disenfranchised with utilising technology in their classes and being forced to use Glow over any other solution by their local authorities.

I’ve sat in on enough seminars, workshops and online discussions to know that the current demand is to utilise existing services in a way that makes the learning outcome greater than the sum of its (online) parts. Rather than having data hidden in silos, unable to control who has access to the information you created, actively sharing content across a number of web services to develop digital citizenship skills and engage students creatively and collaboratively is rightly placed high on the educational agenda. The last two years of presentations at the Scottish Learning Festival have taught me that there is no single solution to the problem of enhancing learning and teaching through the use of technology.

The way the solutions were shared was consistent but the solutions themselves were disconnected. Research and development was inefficient. Schools still remain silos of ideas unless you happen to have connected to an individual teacher in another establishment via social media, email or good old face-to-face meetings. The only difference in these methods of communication is speed of access.

One development that may encompass the aims of the ICTEx group as well as provide a means of sharing good practice between educational establishments is Glew, a single sign-on service that allows access to a variety of Web 2.0 or social sites. Since initial creation in late 2011 Cults Academy Teacher of Computing Charlie Love has utilised the Agile model of development to quickly extend the functionality of his Glew service based on user feedback. The current iteration utilises GlewTiles – a user interface based on Windows Metro – to allow users to customise their Glew desktop.

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Glew is accessible from desktops, tablets and smartphones. Visit http://www.glew.org.uk to sign up to the service and try it for yourself. Then tell Charlie what you’d like him to add!

Do not disrupt: thoughts on invisible technology

I’ve just come back from a two-week holiday in Slovenia. It was my first time there and I highly recommend a visit – we were based at Lake Bled but had the benefit of a hire car for four days midway through the fortnight which allowed us to tackle the Vršič Pass (and get lost on a one mile “easy” walk as advertised by our error-strewn Sunflower walking guide), take in the sights of Ljubljana’s Old Town (although I’m sad I didn’t have enough time to get to Metelkovo mestro as taunting snippets of its graffiti were in every guide book, calendar and even merchandise. Take a look at the video embedded in Piran Cafe’s Ljubljana Graffiti Tour if you are wondering what I’m on about) and have our plans to drive to Lipica and Trieste thwarted by thunderstorms. We struck lucky by staying at one of the most kid friendly hotels I’ve ever experienced, the Hotel Savica, and as a result every single member of the family returned home in great spirits (despite 7 different modes of transport between our hotel and house!).

Here’s a great on-board video of the Vršič Pass to give you an idea of how twisty-turny the route is. I loved it (and drove most of it in 1st  and 2nd gear).

Of course I took the old iPod Touch 2G with me. I still love its portability and even though it is showing its age now (stuck on/off button, can’t upgrade past 4.2.1 iOS) it was a godsend during the holiday for route planning, weather forecasts, translation, news and social media. My PLN were fantastic in suggesting things to see and do while in Slovenia (thanks Freda O’Byrne and @shirlpj) and I was able to keep up with some great education conversations and thoughts. I’d signed up to Doug Belshaw‘s Things I’ve Learned This Week newsletter just before the end of the Scottish school term (I used to love reading his short blog posts on this topic and thought he had simply stopped doing them) and some of the links and ideas he mentioned are now in a nice little “to investigate” list in my iOS Notes app. The iPod also allowed me to keep up to date with the Computing At School group posts which continues to inform my planning for the 2012-13 session and simultaneously marvel at the great work that has been done to reintroduce or refresh Computing Science concepts in the UK and Ireland. I lurk there a lot but intend to get more involved as I get further along the road with a few developments (my Raspberry Pi being one of them!).

Slovenia had a fantastic free wifi network: from hotels, bars, airports and museums let me connect quickly without registration and the bandwidth seemed very generous. The most striking moments of high tech connectivity for me were: being able to access fast broadband at a rustic restaurant in Trenta (a tiny village beyond the aforementioned Vršič Pass) and the FREE public wifi available at Ljubljana airport as we checked in for our return flight. Those responsible for digital infrastructure in the UK could do well to take inspiration from their Slovenian counterparts. It was hassle-free, reliable and meant I could get on with my holiday rather than battling with settings, email confirmations, logins, etc.

Although I used Twitter on a daily basis while on holiday, Facebook was a different matter. Their mobile app, almost universally accepted as being pants, has been long erased from the iPod Touch. I did update my status whilst on holiday to let family and friends know how the holiday was going, but made use of Selective Tweets to cross-post from Twitter to Facebook through use of a ‘#fb’ hashtag. This workflow is simple and reliable and saves me a whole heap of app crashes and mood swings.

Although the percentage of Slovenia’s population who have internet access is much lower than that of the UK, they seem to have the right idea about how it should, or rather should not, disrupt normal everyday life. Because access was simplified, I felt that I used my device more effectively to enhance my holiday experience. I didn’t have to spend an hour after breakfast surfing for information and alienating my family, instead looking for information, news or communications on the go when it was needed. I do realise this is what most people with 3G connections can do already, but they pay through the nose for it.

At my previous school I battled to make use of the wifi network to utilise a class set of iPod Touches. The connection authorisation process was so unwieldy that in the end I was forced to take some staff members out of school to the local library to train them. I understand the desire to lock down access to files and personal information on the school network but when the primary use would be to access the internet I feel it should be as open as possible. The traffic would still be going through the school’s filtering system and logs would still be held on the server so the activity of each device can still be monitored. From a learner’s point of view access is most important and, like the staff who were new to mobile devices and wifi at my previous school, difficulties in this area will reduce their confidence in the technology. However if they can focus on extracting or curating information without disruption…

On the journey home I thought a lot about my own workflows and how they can be refined as I begin my new role as PT of ICT for Learning at my current school. I’ll go into this in the detail it deserves in a future blog post.

Keeping it simple to keep your sanity

I’m writing this blog post using the Notes app in my iPod. Last week I spent a few hours with WordPress’ Quick Post and lost the entire blog entry when I attempted to add an image. Usually I use the full Post function which allows saving of drafts as you go but I wanted to create a quick blog post (always good intentions but it rarely happens) and get back to other matters. Live and learn I suppose but at the time I was not best pleased! So until I find a better and more reliable way of composing blog posts (again!) it’s back to using a word processor and copy & paste.

There are a couple of things on my mind today. How best to compose blogs safely is one and the other is how to protect your data when technology fails completely.

For example, my iPod battery is beginning to fail after two years of heavy use and as a result I’ve lost a lot of data due to unexpected shutdowns and the factory restore. Its always the same, you think you’ve covered all the apps and transferred the important files and then you start the restore process and realise you missed an app like iFile (which stores all of my PDFs and office documents). Some are saved because they have to be uploaded from a desktop / laptop but most were downloaded using the inbuilt browser. Ach. Sometimes working offline in the ‘dead time’ between home and work isn’t a great idea.

So as I wait to see if I can get the battery replaced on my itouch 2g I’m keeping the digital content stored on it to a minimum. Even after it is fixed I want to ensure I don’t lose work in progress as easily again, so what are my options? I’m going to try using the Notes app to store blog posts in progress then email them out to my GMail account before logging into wordpress. If this works I might try the post-by-email option. Either way, I intend to keep a back up stage in my workflow and make it as simple as possible.

And what about files I’ve downloaded onto the iPod? Cloud services like GoogleDocs, Dropbox, Box.net are fine as they are quickly uploaded to a data farm somewhere else but they need wifi connectivity to operate. This will be an option with work in the future but at the moment cannot be considered especially because of these sites being blocked at work. There is free public access a few hundred metres away at the local library which while slow might provide a chance to backup or transfer.

Another alternative is to use Tumblr to record web links. The great thing is I can email links to my Tumblr blog at work. The only downside (except work access to view these links) is that post by email adds in the school disclaimer and I can’t see a way of preventing this from appearing in the post at the moment. Also, files have to be hosted elsewhere so this is not practical as an all-in-one solution. However I am a fan of Tumblr and feel it is slightly easier to post content quickly than, say, Posterous.

So in summary keeping it simple but safe is the best way to protect your data and sanity when using devices which require Wifi to transfer files. I need to keep that at the forefront of my mind when working and learning using my mobile device in 2012.

Improving learner-teacher dialogue using Edmodo

On Friday afternoon I heard some great news. My school is to extend the trial of Edmodo until Christmas, allowing other teachers in my department to experiment with using Edmodo to positively impact their learning and teaching. This may prove to be the beginning of a big change in whole school policy as, up until now, use of external websites was limited to passive teaching resources such as YouTube and Prezi – only teachers were allowed access.

As part of the approval process I wrote a report on how my Higher Computing class made use of Edmodo in their classwork, homework and preparation for assessment. I was able to answer the concerns of the school’s IT manager with regard to data protection and responsible use. I’ve embedded the document below for anyone else who is interested in investigating Edmodo further.


If the extended trial proves successful Edmodo could become the main resource for allowing external access to pupil resources and, most importantly, providing learners with a permanent record of their knowledge development in a place where it is much less likely to be lost or damaged. Learner-teacher dialogue can be referenced and revisited; gaps in knowledge due to absence could be filled; knowledge could be pulled from the class group rather than pushed. I intend to share my experiences in using Edmodo with my colleagues and blog readers in the coming months.

I’m excited about the possibilities but know Edmodo is not a magic bullet. As part of my research into how Edmodo is used worldwide I set up a Twitter search via TweetyMail and received hourly summaries peppered with disillusioned, confused and angry students who were being forced to use the service simply because it was there, not because it enhanced the classroom experience. I can see the benefits of opening classroom discussion with carefully crafted questions on Edmodo, where every learner has the opportunity to contribute not just the one who thinks fastest. However I can also see the potential for misuse by the minority who want to use Edmodo to keep their classes quiet or too busy to realise that their needs are not being met. It needs to be used in a carefully considered way where it should enhance the learning and teaching of all students in the classroom, but teachers also need to bear in mind that it offers the advantage of being able to hold a 1:1 discussion over a long period of time. The teacher has to make time to read the comments and adapt their usual classroom practice to best serve their learners.

So, in short, it offers the opportunity to deliver a flipped classroom model of education. I’ll investigate this further in future blog posts.

Getting ready for a safari

Tomorrow I take my laptop, preloaded with Safari Photo Africa – Wild Earth, to the Junior school to immerse the class in a scenario closely linked to the work they are doing with their primary teacher. I only have an hour with them, so want to make sure everything is set up to work as quickly as possible.

Originally I had wanted to make use of a Nintendo Wii with Wild Earth African Safari but this was not possible (or affordable) as a proof of concept in the timeframe available, so I found an old copy of Safari Photo Africa – Wild Earth for PC and installed it on my laptop.
It looks brilliant when displayed on the data projector and allows the players to take part in a virtual animal photograph safari – taking shots for magazine articles. The photos taken in the games are automatically saved to the user’s My Pictures directory on the PC, meaning that they can be used in other applications at a later date. I think this is also possible in the Nintendo Wii version of the game but imagine it’s a little trickier to get the images onto a PC.

 

When you complete an assignment your photos are inserted into a magazine article = instant reward!

 

The main advantage of a Nintendo Wii over a laptop is that the wireless wii controller supports exploration of the game by groups of learners sat in front of the SmartBoard. I’ve read posts by Dawn Hallybone and Nicky Newbury who maximise the interactivity of the class by pairing up learners and having one pupil move and the other take the photographs. The laptop could allow this but would mean a lot of moving around and swapping places, so I wanted to try and find the best way to interact with the game wirelessly. There is a GyroMouse in my classroom but no sign of drivers or installation CDs and I wanted to be able to use the keyboard wirelessly as well. Then I remembered reading about using an iPod Touch as a wireless mouse and found Logitech TouchMouse, an app which not only allows users to control the mouse pointer on the PC using the portable device but also access its keyboard. I installed it and after a little bit of fiddling with Windows 7’s firewall settings (you need to allow it to access the Private networks, not Public – go through Control Panel for this) I got it to work!

The only issue with using the iPod Touch as a wireless controller is that it needs a wifi connection that is shared with the laptop to communicate. This is a real issue in school where there are no wireless routers and a very tight rein on network security. When I was Mobile Learning Leader for Inverurie Academy I investigated using the school’s MacBook White to set up ad-hoc wifi networks to allow iPods to access the Internet. There was little success with the Internet-access part, but the iPods were all able to communicate with each other. If only there was a way to do this in Windows 7 I thought – and luckily enough, there is!

After a little Google searching I found Virtual Router – a freeware program which allows your laptop to be set up as a wifi hotspot with the intention of sharing its Internet connection with other devices. Set up is incredibly simple – you give your ad-hoc network a name and a password and it uses WPA2 encryption to ensure no rogue devices interfere with the laptop!

“at this moment i am typing part of my blog using the ipod touch wireless keyboard – i have turned off all connection to the INTERNET and only had to restart the logitech touchuse wireless server!”

It seems to work best if you access the iPod app before starting the Logitech TouchMouse wireless server. If you don’t you may find that the devices don’t connect.

Unfortunately although the keyboard presses do get sent to the laptop, using the keyboard for games control seems impossible. Neither Logitech nor HippoRemote Lite allowed me to control the game character so I may need to allow one child to use the laptop. This may mean one learner is looking at the laptop screen instead of the SmartBoard but if I can position the laptop in a suitable place it may be a minor issue.

I ran through the first assignment on my own and it took about 40 minutes – too long for the lesson tomorrow but if I can set up saved games to allow the class to jump in at appropriate points (meeting the elephant herd for the first time, giraffes grazing, the swimming crocodiles around the elderly elephants) I feel that the class will be able to generate excellent material for their podcasts.

If you have been using computer games to augment your teaching and learning I highly recommend you visit the Consolarium site. This service, offered by Education Scotland (new name for LT Scotland) aims to explore and share how the appropriate use of computer games can have a positive impact on teaching and learning. It has received international praise and attention, and for good reason.

The coffee shop as a classroom: mobile learning environments

Image shared under Creative Commons licence - Kate Williams

I like coffee. No – let me rephrase that – I LOVE coffee. It plays a big part in my teaching – at times providing a versatile prop for explaining the difference between an object and operation, at others simply providing the nervous energy to keep the learners learning. (I’ve been re-reading #MoveMeOn, curated by Doug Belshaw @dajbelshaw. thanks to @frankcrawford for that particular gem!)

I managed to clear my desk on Thursday earlier than planned so took the opportunity to walk around the three shopping malls near my new workplace. Not just to kill time (heaven forbid Mr McCormac!), I wanted to expand an ongoing series of lessons on data protection and loyalty schemes I had delivered to my S4 ICT class earlier in the term and me having an up-to-date knowledge of the businesses in the local area was a pre-requisite. It didn’t take long to complete what I needed to do (UK shopping malls or shopping centres are much smaller than in the US with perhaps 20-40 stores, some smaller) so I had a quick stop at the Apple store in Aberdeen to eavesdrop of a group of six pensioners who were being shown how to use their brand new iPads then started my lunch break at the nearby Starbucks with a crème brulee macchiatto and a quick refresh of my social media sites on their free wi-fi.

It was a lot busier than usual – I had, in the past, only used this particular Starbucks as a go-to when late afternoon trains were cancelled and I had an hour or so to kill before the next one – but I found a small table with plenty of scope for people-watching. The coffee-house furniture is a mixture of hard back chairs and small “regular” tables, sofa chairs and low tables, benches and long tables, stools and narrow bars. Students, parents, office workers and transients like myself sat and chatted, read quietly, enjoyed their purchases and from time-to-time accessed their devices if they had them and if they needed to. A few of my Advanced Higher Computing students had had a similar idea to my own, joined me at my table (they asked first!) and then… we had a fantastic unplanned seminar on what had been taught over the past few weeks, about mobile apps, about Steve Jobs, about programming, about social media,  and then finally about learning spaces! During this enthralling conversation (I think we all learned a lot in this half-hour) one asked why schools didn’t create spaces like this and I saw immediately what he meant because it had been percolating in my head at that moment too. Why can’t we all have learning rooms where the furniture offers visitors choice of working areas, where the wireless Internet access is a background consideration that “just works with a quick log-in”, where there isn’t a designated space for the teacher to lecture from, where learning becomes personalised? All three of us had mobile devices on the table between the cups and plates and augmented our conversation with these when we needed to: I showed them Twitter for example and explained why it was such a great resource for me to make contact with others who share similar interests. I posted this tweet:

Coffee chains have undoubtedly studied the effect of their environment on their customers from a financial point of view and have generally come to the conclusion that a varied, customisable, slightly eclectic environment is the worm that keeps us on the hook. So who is doing this for education? There are educators in each authority, in roles from classroom to management, who are striving to find the best furniture or layout for existing classrooms. Most of us tend to tinker with our rooms if we can. But if you’ll indulge the point of view of a Computing teacher for a moment (well you’ve got this far!) this may be the problem – moving the furniture in any space which has been built to deliver the Victorian model of education has inherent restrictions but when you also have electrical equipment, cables and power sockets to worry about you really can’t change very much without the firm belief and financial support of your school management team. And then you move on and the next teacher has a different idea… it’s really not that feasible an option for any subject with fixed resources.

But why do they have to be fixed? Hasn’t the last decade of technical innovation shown that mobile devices are here to stay? That an increasing number of learners arrive in classrooms with devices that can easily be personalised to suit their learning, rather than forcing the learner to make use of a machine set up to a generic specification? Are educators really, as a group, nervous about losing control?

And who is studying the effect of the coffee shop environment on learners? Well, a few have come to my attention. I stumbled on a paper whilst writing this blog post called “The Classroom Coffeehouse” which focusses on reworking the layout of an English classroom to promote sharing of written work between New Jersey 8th graders – well worth a read! Also highly recommended is the well-considered post “The Coffee Shop: A Classroom for Creativity, Reflections from a Coffee Shop in Harbin, China“. The Edinburgh Coffee Morning model is something which I envied a few years ago while at Inverurie and provides a nice text break below!

Edinburgh Coffee Morn Stop Frame from brandfeed on Vimeo.

Edinburgh Coffee Morning: from Mike Coulter, DigitalAgency.com on Vimeo.

Last night I read Angela Maiers’ post “What If You Knew You Mattered?” where she describes an increasingly common experience of customer non-service where recognition of failure and empathy with the customer would do much more than a discount voucher. It’s at the core of GIRFEC policy for teachers to make their learners feel included and respected while at the same time encouraging their development as respectful and inclusive citizens. The two words “you matter” apply to each young person who steps into your classroom, but if you are delivering your education as if you were working a conveyor belt at a factory when do you have the time to make sure your well planned generic summaries (and even the differentiated materials) are actually arriving at their destination? Through spending some time listening to the learners and learning something new yourself. Where better than the relaxed environment of a coffee shop?

I’m not advocating that we all abandon our classrooms for the nearest coffee chain but that school leaders and decision makers take a look around the wider world and really see what engages people. I highly recommend you view the articles, blog posts and videos I’ve linked to if you are in any way interested in developing mobile learning, and please suggest more using the comments option below! I am already planning to make this chance meeting a more formal part of my teaching at upper secondary level in the next term and although, yes, it will be more work initially filling in risk assessments and carefully planning my mobile lessons and – depending on the numbers – speaking nicely to the manager of the coffee shop! Escaping the classroom might be just what our learners need, and all it took was a coffee.