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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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One week as a Masters student

Recently I wrote about the first four weeks of my new job – Four weeks in. To add excitement to my life (because working in a new school isn’t enough!) I have also started studying for a Masters of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation). The course is taught by distance education through Charles Sturt University. This video from the course director Judy O’Connell will give you some idea of the scope of the course. I certainly hope that through study I’ll understand everything she is talking about soon!

So this first week of study has been a lot of setting up, joining, reading, developing systems and connecting. The first subject I am undertaking is called Concepts and Practices for a Digital Age; as one of only two compulsory subjects it is considered the “keystone” subject for the course. This week we went through the Introduction, watching a talk by Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM, A New Culture of Learning, to provoke some thinking about the nature of learning; joining the Diigo group; following and contributing to #inf530 on twitter; learning about the library resources available to us; thinking about how we will manage references; introducing ourselves and sharing our goals on the subject forum, and setting up a new blog for reflection, a compulsory part of every subject in the degree. A twitter chat was held on Tuesday evening. Surprisingly, for someone who has used Twitter for a long time, I’d never used TweetChat before – it was a good way to concentrate on a hashtag at a high-use time and saved being distracted by the other columns in Tweetdeck.

So far I’m feeling pretty good about what is to come. Unlike some of the other students I’m already very comfortable with Twitter, Diigo, blogging using Edublogs/Wordpress etc so the structural/techno things won’t hold me back. I’m very happy that, working 0.8 this year, I have a full day each week to devote to study and with the commuting I do, around an hour a day to read or keep up with other things. As always, though, when faced with intellectual dialogue, I start doubting my ability to engage at the expected level. Just reading some of the early blog posts from other students has me gasping in admiration at the depth of their perception, the academic eloquence of their words. I do fear that, intellectually, I’m not actually up to this. I hope to prove myself wrong!