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The Ultranet: a PMI

ultranet_logoI’m currently studying a subject called Designing Spaces for Learning as part of my MEd. (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) and I’m doing a case report on the Ultranet as an example of a virtual space that was developed with the goal of improving student learning. This blog post is an attempt to sum up my personal experience and thoughts about the Ultranet as well as incorporate the thoughts of others who were closely involved and who have been good enough to share them with me. I’ve decided to structure this as a PMI and I can already see some people who were acquainted with the Ultranet rolling their eyes because they don’t think there were any positives…but there were.

During 2012 I was the only teacher in my school of 1800 students using the Ultranet – even though I’m a strong unionist I didn’t think the AEU’s ban on further implementation of the Ultranet applied to me because I’d already implemented it in my classes. In 2013 I was not in a school. If I had gone back to my old school and had to teach similar subjects I would have been very disappointed to find the Ultranet gone, which it was by the start of 2014 – my whole curriculum was there, in a form that was easy to update and customise to the needs of whatever students walked into my classroom. More than disappointed, it would have been a disaster in terms of my workload.

Pluses

  • I used Learning Tasks successfully with my year 10 classes in the second half of 2011 and 2012 but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Particularly at the start of 2012 when a number of my students were new to the school there were ongoing issues with having them linked to my class. The Ultranet got its student and teacher data from CASES21, the DEECD school administration, finance and reporting system. It took time for new students to be transferred over from their previous school and the slightest problem with their data meant this could be delayed even further. In the meantime they did not appear as part of my class and I couldn’t assign tasks to them. In one case a student never appeared as part of my class. For the students for whom it all worked it was terrific. I could plan my tasks linking in the relevant VELs progression points, easily see who had started a task and who hadn’t, check in on progress and record assessment including comments. Current and outstanding work, and assessment was available to the students’ parents via their Learner Profile. I can’t help now comparing Learning Tasks with the simplicity of the newly released Google classroom – if Learning Tasks had looked like this maybe there’d be a whole lot more Sister Rosemarie’s teaching today…But we still wouldn’t have those explicit curriculum links available…
  • The online community that developed around the Ultranet introduced me to people who are now important figures in my PLN and was for many the first concrete example of the value of a PLN. The Ultranet share n tell sessions, every month from August 2010 to 2013 opened up web conferencing to many teachers who hadn’t used it previously. The #ultranet hashtag was very active on Twitter; again, for many it was through the Ultranet that the value of this medium was discovered.
  • For those unfamiliar with Web 2.0 it was a safe environment for exploring and experimenting with online tools. Teachers like Mel Cashen found it “a great opportunity for my kids to ‘play’ and I, my students, their parents and the school felt safe that they could test the waters of an online world without the harsh consequences the world wide web.”
  • It had the potential to provide consistency, connection and continuity for children, schools and parents as the students moved through the system from prep to VCE; providing parents with one consistent access point regardless of the ages and stages of their children, and teachers with access to all relevant information even when students changed schools.
  • Success stories like Riss Leung’s Ultranet village and The Big Day Away demonstrated just what was possible
  • Steve Seddon’s post A positive look as we move to ‘Life after Ultranet’  sums up positives from his perspective.
  • A comment from Kynan Robinson on Andrew Williamson’s Ultranet Down is almost a negative: “The only positive I can think of is that it forces teachers who are lagging in ICT skills to get involved but it does so in such an unintuitive way (look at the complicated process involved in merely uploading a photo) that there is the fear that it will merely make them more opposed to the use of technology.”

Minuses

“Staff attitudes towards the Ultranet were negative from the start. This was caused by the initial delays in getting the real product designed and actually created. There had been lots of talk for so long before the product was actually created that educators had already lost faith in the project. It was extremely hard to work with people who had already formed these strong negative beliefs.” a former Ultranet Coach

  • The over-the-top security approach. The IDAM (Identity Access Management) process was fraught with difficulty for teachers and students alike. The computer generated usernames were as difficult for students to learn as complex 7 passwords were to create and remember, never mind the “secret” questions (“What item of food could you live without?, What is your Grandmother’s maiden name? What is the most boring sport? What name would you give to a pet anteater”) and pin code. Many primary schools resorted to using the same password/secret answers for all students which is not modelling good digital behaviour. Even in my year 10 class where we used the Ultranet every lesson students frequently forgot their username and/or password. Resetting the password was a hit and miss process; luckily for me and them I was an IDAM administrator so I could reset passwords and look up usernames but it’s easy to see this being a big frustration for your average classroom teacher.
  • Teachers too struggled with the complex password process and there were issues in the associated CASES21 system that lead to ongoing registration issues for some staff (including our own principal) and problems with students being allocated into the correct teacher’s classes so they could allocate learning tasks to them.
  • General clunkiness of the interface – many things took more steps than other similar tasks on more user friendly sites. “The product was not user friendly from the start. There were too many clicks required to do even the simplest of tasks. It was not intuitive and was not designed for users with low technology skills (which many of the teachers had).” (former Ultranet coach).
  • Collaborative and Design spaces could be private, restricted or open but open spaces weren’t really open, you had to join before you got to see what was there. This discouraged people from exploring and at the same time my students found it disconcerting that other teachers had joined our space (my collaborative space for my year 10 class was recommended as an example of good practice). To my mind an open space should be viewable by all but have to be joined in order to contribute. I had no problem with other teachers looking at how I had set up the space and how the students were using it but I didn’t particularly want them to do anything like edit a wiki or contribute to a forum.
  • Students couldn’t share with other students unless in same collaborative space which had to be set up by a teacher. There’s heaps of research out there about the value of social learning and the importance of making connections. Fears of unchecked bullying were ridiculous considering nobody got into the Ultranet or was able to do anything without leaving their unique digital fingerprint. Inappropriate comments or content could be flagged and from personal experience I know it was followed up. Instead of enabling the opportunity to connect and to deal with inappropriate behaviour when and if it occurred all students were treated as though they could not be trusted. In this article – Digital natives restless – you can read about some year 2 students who were already blogging when the Ultranet was launched  They couldn’t understand why they couldn’t connect with other students.
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  • As the College ICT Coach I was a natural choice as a School Lead User but I do not know what criteria was used in selecting the remaining lead users for my school. The principal had to be a lead user which I think was not necessarily the best idea – the principal needed to strongly support the implementation but does not have the day-to-day connection with students that makes the use of a tool like this worthwhile. Other lead users at my school mostly had other leadership roles which kept them busy. Also there was no real incentive to be a lead user. Other than two days away from school at training the lead user responsibilities were an add-on and for most just too hard to maintain enthusiasm about.
  • Because I took the time to play, experiment and learn the Ultranet eventually came easily to me and I would think it really was ok afterall…until I tried to show someone else how to do something. Then I realised that the steps required were often not logical, there were way too many of them and what you got in the end was underwhelming at best. I’m thinking about the process for display a slide show or uploading a document or scoping a wiki – nothing was easy.
  • It tried to emulate other web2.0 tools but did it badly. If I want to blog I’ll use Global2 (the Victorian education system’s Edublogs campus); if I need a wiki I’ll use Wikispaces or PBWorks. Why reinvent the wheel at enormous cost when there are better (and free) tools available? Teachers who had already embraced Web 2.0 tools found the Ultranet versions unintuitive, unattractive and difficult to use compared to the relative simplicity of tools like WordPress blogs, Wikispaces, Flickr and so on.
  • Teachers who hadn’t ventured into Web 2.0 tools found the Ultranet’s versions incomprehensible and there wasn’t clear guidelines from above about why and how these tools were important. They were unlikely to be attracted by the clunky Ultranet versions of tools like blogs, wikis and photo displays.
  • Getting logged out in the background after 15 minutes lead to loss of work. This was later changed but caused immense frustration and loss of confidence in users before it was.
  • Problems with one browser or another. It was supposed to be browser agnostic although IE was preferred but some things only worked in Firefox.
  • August 9 2010 (need I say any more?). Even afterwards there was too much down time, it wasn’t reliable. I could almost guarantee problems any time I’d arranged to work with a class and teacher to get them registered. After August 9 many teachers needed little further encouragement for their cynicism.
  • “Although the spaces within the Ultranet had the name ‘collaborative’ learning spaces’, the actual amount of collaboration that could occur within these spaces was minimal. (Basically reduces to post on a forum). There was such a focus on safety and control in these spaces that it hindered the amount of true collaboration available within the space. These spaces were also competing with sites such as Twitter and Google Docs where collaboration was free and easy and only hidden behind 1 simple password (not a complex7 password and then 10 other mouse clicks)”. Ultranet Coach

 “One of the biggest lessons learnt from the Ultranet is that if something does not make some sort of sense at first glance then it takes a lot of convincing, as well as tedious and repetitious explanation, to get staff and students on board.” Aaron Davis 

Interesting

  • Looking back in my Diigo library I found things like CSS colour charts and the Ultranet CSS generator created by an Ultranet coach. The Ultranet experience taught me some basic css and html which has been useful in other circumstances.
  • I wrote a series of blog posts on embedding in the ultranet because it wasn’t straightforward. I know my problem-solving skills were enhanced by my Ultranet experience.
  • I never got to see the parent view because my child’s school never got to the point of adding parents. As a lead user it was difficult to plan for parent adoption without knowing exactly what they would experience.
  • I remember the first time I saw Edmodo and all I could say was “why isn’t the Ultranet this simple?” More recently I’ve had similar thoughts about Google Classroom.

Any new technology needs to have a clearly visible purpose and the promise of improving something for the user. Learning tasks were the part of the Ultranet that had the potential to improve the way teachers planned, distributed, collected and assessed student work. In my opinion if the Ultranet had consisted only of Learning Tasks and Learner Profile (Release 2), leaving the other functions to the (mostly) free web 2.0 tools it would have been much more successful. Learning Tasks fulfilled a need that wasn’t (and still isn’t) being filled anywhere else, particularly with the direct explicit curriculum standards links. Most teachers would have seen the potential for Learning Tasks to improve their teaching practices but unfortunately by the time Learning Tasks was released and working for most teachers the Ultranet was already a distant (bad) memory.

Further reading:

Lessons to be learned from the Ultranet – the background | Learning : Teaching

Lessons to be learned from the Ultranet – Did it work? | Learning : Teaching

Compass and the Spectre of the Ultranet | Reading Writing Responding

Measuring Success | Reading Writing Responding

The scourge of low expectations (the Ultranet post) | Richard Olsen’s blog

 

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Embedding in the Ultranet – Notices

The notices app in the Ultranet is a very handy way of targetting information to specific groups be they a year level or homegroup of students, the members of a collaborative space, just the teachers in your school or even just the parents; but the text editing is very basic and you can’t even provide hyperlinks…or can you?

Few people realise that you can actually format the text any way you want; add hyperlinks and even embed HTML code to display features such as videos, presentations, documents and animated objects.  Here’s how:

First you need a wiki page or publication where you create your notice, editing it in exactly the same way you would any other wiki or publication – add or link to images, paste in code, format the text etc.  When you are finished go to the source view of the document and copy all the code.

Here is the publication I’ve created and edited for a notice about my school’s upcoming Workshop Week:

Editing a publication

Editing a publication

Here is the code for the publication, select and copy all the code:

Publication Source Code

Publication Source Code

Now go to your new notice.  Give it a title, image, select the recipients and display dates as normal.  Then, in the body of the message simply paste the code you copied from your publication or wiki and save.  It’s that simple!

Editing the notice

Editing the notice

And this is what the notice looks like in the Notice app.

Notice with Issuu document display

Notice with Issuu document display

I keep a publication display permanently on my Home page which displays my “Coding for notices” publication, and I change it for each new notice I create.  Very easy and very effective!

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Embedding in the Ultranet – ProProfs Quiz

ProProfs Quiz maker is an easy way of making quizzes and tests for students.  I have used it for library orientation, for Book Week quizzes and for tests.  Here is one I did for Book Week this year that was designed to get students to look at our library Ultranet space:

Unfortunately I couldn’t actually embed the quiz in the library collaborative space because the code is of the “iframe” type.  I did put it into the space in its own iframe application but that’s not my preferred option as the students then see advertisements as they are not premium members like me.

Cheered by recent successes using “iframe” embed code in Learning Tasks, this week I put my year 10’s IT test into a Learning Task.  I checked out the task as a preview and from my perspective it was working perfectly.

I really shouldn’t be surprised when things go wrong but I was caught out again!

When the students opened the Learning Task there was just a great big white space where the test should have been.  Luckily I had also placed a link on our class collaborative space which was the way most of the students ended up accessing the test.

I also got some of them to try using Firefox and guess what? – worked perfectly.

So, in short, ProProfs quizzes will embed in a Learning Task but not a Collaborative Space; they will display in Firefox but not in IE9.

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Embedding in the Ultranet – Google docs

Google Docs are terrific for sharing and collaborating; the functionality of documents, presentations and spreadsheets is nearly as good as their Office equivalents and of course you can upload your existing Word, PowerPoint and Excel files and have them converted to Google docs.  I’ve not encountered any difficulty in uploading documents or images to Google docs from within the school network.

My favourite Google doc is the Google form, something that Excel has no equivalent for.  Google Forms allow you to gather informationww from people and have it automatically collated and collected in a spreadsheet.  They have all kinds of uses including surveys for research, collection of information and registration forms for event organisation.  I regularly use a Google form for our staff to register for workshops to attend during our Workshop Week each term.  As the registrations come in I can quickly get a visual idea of which workshops are filling up, then when registrations close I export the results to Excel for manipulation into confirmation emails and presenter rolls.

Google presentations are a useful way of putting a Powerpoint on a website (like authorSTREAM) but unlike authorSTREAM they can continue to be edited once embedded.  This opens up enormous possibilities for collaboration, probably no better demonstrated than by Tom Barrett’s Interesting ways series.  Here’s the one on (appropriately!) Google Forms:

With lots of fabulous ways to use Google forms with students I was very disappointed earlier this year when I found that a form would not embed in an Ultranet collaborative space.  Google presentations will not embed in a collaborative space either but you can configure an iFrame application and that works very well.  Of course, now I know not to expect “iframe”-type embed code to work, but I had completely forgotten that during my release 2 training last year I had embedded a Google Form into a Learning Task.  I’ve tested it again and it definitely works which is great to know because Google forms have lots of applications within Learning Tasks.

Inexplicably a Google Presentation will not embed in a Learning Task (I had high hopes there!).  I haven’t yet tested anything else in Learning Tasks – watch this space!

P.S. Another great use for your Google Docs account is for uploading/storing your images – very quick and simple to do.  Once in Google Docs each image has its own URL which means you can use this to insert it into any suitable Ultranet application without having to upload it to your content.

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Facebook

There is a lot of talk about Facebook – in the media, the staffroom, amongst the parents in the carpark.  Some parents flatly proclaim it the work of the devil while others get their under-age children online to help them acquire points in games.  Schools often have Facebook blocked but most students can freely access it on their phones.  Some teachers refuse to have anything to do with it because they think they’ll compromise their positions, while others seem blissfully unaware of any possible consequences.

Fact is Facebook itself is only a tool – it’s the way it is used that makes it useful or dangerous, good, bad or otherwise.

DEECD Technology A-Z warns:

SOCIAL NETWORKING/FACEBOOK

Safety information: Information posted on sites and in profiles is used to create targeted advertising. It is difficult, if not impossible, to delete an account once opened. There are privacy issues with Facebook. Users are offered the chance to ‘connect to your friends’ and then asked for their email account and password to collect details of email contacts in order to make the connections. All users (both teachers and students) should be aware of their digital footprint. Once images and content are posted online they may become public, despite your initial privacy settings.

The VIT Code of Conduct requires that “teachers are always in a professional relationship with the students in their school whether at school or not” but as explained here by Andrew Douch, this does not preclude the use of Facebook:

When I asked the [VIT] field officer about Facebook specifically, she confirmed that the alleged VIT anti-Facebook policy was unfounded, but cautioned that teachers who choose to use Facebook should make sure that their practice adheres to Principle 1.5 of the Code: “TEACHERS ARE ALWAYS IN A PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STUDENTS IN THEIR SCHOOL, WHETHER AT SCHOOL OR NOT”  Part D of this principle says that a breach of this standard would include (among other things) “having contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context”.

Therefore Facebook has no different standing to any other form of interaction, electronic or otherwise, between teachers and students.  It is the nature and topic of communication that is subject to the code of conduct, not the conduit of communication.  This is just as it should be.

Douchy’s WeblogVictorian teachers who friend students on Facebook will be automatically de-registered by the VIT

I strongly recommend staff do not ‘friend’ current students on Facebook; and I encourage them to carefully check their privacy settings to ensure that what is posted is shared only with friends.  If your friends have friends you do not know (and who doesn’t?) how can you be sure who is seeing your posts/photos/events or what your friends see via your other friends?  Another option is to categorise your friends in order to share only certain things with certain categories (see How to Friend Mom, Dad and the Boss from Read Write Web) but I still would not recommend being friends with an existing student.

Your profile should look almost anonymous to anyone who doesn’t know you, this is how mine looks.

If you wish to connect with your students the best alternative is to either create a Facebook page (which your students can ‘Like’ in order to see what you post there), or to create a Facebook group where you can control who can join and what is shared.

Categorising your friends, creating pages and creating groups is well explained in this article: The why and how of using Facebook for educators – no need to be friends at all.

Some of the differences between a Page and a Group are illustrated here:

Facebook Groups Vs Pages

Facebook Groups Vs Pages

At my school teachers of senior classes (VCE, years 11 & 12) have set up Facebook groups for their students; I encourage them to use a group for its immediacy and ease of communication but in conjunction to use the Ultranet to provide access to resources.

Recently I presented a workshop on using Facebook safely, creating a Facebook group and using the group to link to resources in the Ultranet – here is the presentation:

Andrew Douch has written about the value of Facebook Groups here: Why the Facebook group my students created for themselves is better than the discussion forum I created for them

Some more interesting reading:

The Evolution of Privacy on Facebook An interactive graphic shows how default Facebook privacy settings have changed over the years.

3 Rules of Facebook privacy From Common Sense Media, good advice for parents to help your child set up their Facebook account with appropriate privacy settings.

Three ways to create fake Facebook profiles for historical characters from Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers. Use Facebook as a way for your students to consolidate and present their knowledge about a historical or fictitious character.

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Embedding in the Ultranet – Glogster

Glogster

Glogster is a fabulous tool creating interactive posters. Glogs are an excellent format for students to create presentations showcasing their knowledge and understanding of topics studied.  There are heaps of options for customising fun and appealing graphics and text and all sorts of resources are easily linked or in the case of Youtube, placed straight on the Glog. You can read all about the benefits for students (according to Glogster) on the Glogster site.  I’ve used it as an ICT newsletter for our teachers (with the secondary motive of introducing Glogster)
and as a pathfinder of resources for student research projects.

Embedding in the Ultranet

Well…

Two months ago when I embedded the aforementioned ICT newsletter in our staff resources design space the code looked like this:

<embed width=”760″ height=”1028″ wmode=”window” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” src=”http://edu.glogster.com/flash/flash_loader.swf&#63;ver=1306921161″ flashvars=”sl=http://edu.glogster.com/flash/glog.swf&#63;ver=1306921161&amp;gi=20779579&amp;ui=8744139&amp;li=3&amp;fu=http://edu.glogster.com/flash/&amp;su=http://edu.glogster.com/connector/&amp;fn=http://edu.glogster.com/fontyedu/&amp;embed=true&amp;pu=http://edu.glogster.com/blog-thumbs/11/20/77/95/20779579_2.jpg&amp;google_analytics_url=http://edu.glogster.com/js/glogsterGA.js&amp;si=x&amp;gw=3,8,0&amp;gh=5,1,4″ allowfullscreen=”true”></embed>

and worked perfectly.

A few weeks later when I tried to embed the pathfinder into my library collaborative space the code looked like this:

<iframe src=”http://edu.glogster.com/glog.php?glog_id=21409784&scale=100″ width=”960″ height=”1300″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” marginheight=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ style=”overflow: hidden;”></iframe>

and wouldn’t work at all.

That actually wasn’t a surprise because I’d already had failures with code that starts with “<iframe” but it was a BIG disappointment.  I got onto Glogster’s support site and posted a question about the code, specifically was there any way for them to provide “old style” embed code as an option (a la Youtube) but I haven’t had a response.

Incidentally, to make these glogs fit here I have slightly altered the code – where you see scale=100 I have changed 100 to 65, meaning 65% of the original size.

Network issues

All aspects of Glogster have worked perfectly within my school’s network and internet filters.

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Embedding in the Ultranet – a new series

This is the first post in what I hope to make an ongoing series.ultranet_logo

Here in Victorian government schools we have a new-ish Learning Management System called the Ultranet.  Teachers will use the Ultranet to assign and assess Learning Tasks; to collaborate with their colleagues; record and share their professional learning and create resources for their students.

The Ultranet has Web 2.0-like tools such as wikis and blogs which can be used to provide access to all kinds of resources.  One of the key things I want to be able to do is to embed things I or others have created using other Web 2.0 tools – videos, podcasts,  animations, documents etc.  These might be resources I have prepared for my students or they might be the students own work.  I have found that some things embed easily while others simply will not.  My limited understanding of HTML code allows me to see the difference in the types of codes that embed and those that do not (any code that begins with “iframe” is guaranteed not to work) but sadly I don’t know what to do about it – perhaps someone will comment here and help me out.

What I do know is that it would be useful to others to know what will embed easily in the Ultranet before going to the trouble of creating something, rather than after, and that is what this series of posts will do.  Each post will also describe any other issues around using the tool in the school environment – for example something in the way my school’s network and internet filters are set up prevents me from uploading to certain sites even though I can visit and embed their content.

Future posts will describe a tool or range of tools that perform a particular function, with tips and ideas about how and when to use, but for today, just a couple of quick tips.

Youtube

Something as ubiquitous as Youtube doesn’t require me to explain anything about what it is and does BUT it’s worth knowing that you need to use the Old embed code for Youtube embeds to work in the Ultranet.youtube

AuthorSTREAM

I’ve described authorSTREAM previously, in this post.  Its embed code works fine in the Ultranet and there is no problem uploading your PPT file from within the school network (it can be scarily slow though, be patient it will get there).

Issuu

Again I’ve described Issuu in this post.  Embedding in the Ultranet is absolutely fine however I had to upload my PDF file from home.