The Learning System

Ramblings on The Learning System

Where would we be if “learning management systems” kept evolving at the same pace as say, WordPress, LinkedIn or Facebook? I bet we’d be spending much longer helping students instead of preparing learning materials.

Some of you might be familiar with the idea of anti-patterns: “A common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive”. What if took this idea from technology and applied it to education? How many anti-patterns would we see?

Teachers spend considerable time collating learning material for courses (that inevitably change every few years!). How much of this process is replicated up and down the country? What if we had a website where the job of collating materials is divided between teachers up and down the country, overseen by a panel of experts for accuracy? How much time would this save?! Add a sign in system for students so they can access quizzes, tests and track their progress, and you’ve got one heck of a powerful system. Add a small army of media artists into the mix and you’ve got an impactful multimedia site.

Lockdown has brought about Oak National Academy. There is a lot of good content but how much more could it be developed? I’d like to think that a relatively small investment in such a site would pay immense dividends.

There are already a number of private companies developing learning systems. We have a stark choice to make, and one I think that needs making pretty soon. We can either leave development of “the system” to the private world where the finest course material is only potentially available to those with the most money, and where data could end up being used for anything. Or have an open site that is committed to ethical use of data and help to ensure that every student has equal access to the best learning materials.

There is a fine line between tracking student process and then having them feel stressed knowing that everything is tracked. This is definitely something that needs careful management!

I’ve been working on and off on such a system, but it is only meant to explore what could possibly be done if investment was made to adapt or develop an existing system into a National Learning system.

I’m not advocating for computer AI to be used to automatically mark student work on the web site. The introduction of AI can cause strange errors that can have unpredictable outcomes. Take for example the 737Max or A330 “psycho plane” where the AI was literally fighting against the pilot. AI, whilst incredibly impressive is not something to sleepwalk into.

The essence of a system I’d like to see is as follows:

  • People work together to…
    • …rapidly create and curate content* (checked before publication by appointed teacher experts)
    • …decide how much money to charge and being transparent about where it goes, trying to give everyone equal access to resources no matter on how much money their school has.
    • …make sure that data is not misused.**
  • Anyone who is signed up gets access to everything.
  • Student progress is saved and monitored.
  • Save schools a lot of money that could be invested in physical resources.
  • Provide resources and tools to make life for teachers as easy as possible, freeing up their time to focus on helping those that need the most help and human encouragement.

* e.g. web pages, videos, quizzes, topic tests, flashcards, interactive activities etc.

**This is the only way that you can be sure that any income and data collected is used for the good of the site.

Computer Kit

Cheap PCs

With tight budgets and limited time, it can be difficult to source high-quality PCs.

This is what most educators look for:

  • Value-for-money computers that make the most of stretched budgets
  • Kid-proof (to an extent)
  • Low heat and noise output (to keep rooms cool and minimise energy cost)
  • Take up little room to maximise physical desktop space available
  • Computers that will last at least 3 years
  • Inexpensive maintenance

Gigabyte BRIX and Intel NUCs are generally exceptional value for money. High-end Celeron processors are generally reasonable for typical classroom computers.

Be aware that specifications vary considerably. If opting for a different model, make sure you compare the processing power beforehand, and that you buy the correct type of memory! Simply typing in the processor names into a search engine should yield results that allow you to easily compare them, e.g. J3455 vs. J4105.

Don’t be put off by the computer’s small size! In fact, this can be a bonus for making the most of available physical space.

You really don’t need to pay an excessive amount to a third party to source them for you. They are very easy for IT technicians to build (I’ve had students building them).

Example build:

Total per PC: £184.65 (as of Feb 2020)

The PCs have USBs for keyboard, mouse and memory stick. Support WiFi and have a normal network connection. They can output to VGA and/or HDMI (or both – so perfect for hooking up to a projector without any adaptors). There are also audio ports.

Of course, if you are not replacing existing PCs, you’ll need a few extras.

A keyboard and mouse will add around £15. I’ve never used a bad Microsoft Keyboard. Yes they cost a few more quid, but typing productivity goes up no-end owing to the smooth key pressing action. I once bought Logitech keyboards thinking they were a good buy, but the quality was awful and the typing motion was hard work.

Recommended keyboard: Microsoft Wired Keyboard 600 £8.78. The black keyboard is more expensive than the white, but other than this they are the same!

If you need a screen, it will add around £70. Just make sure it has a suitable VESA mount for the PC and is suitably adjustable to the user’s eyeline. I’d recommend making sure that your chosen monitor makes use of a kettle cable instead of having an external power supply. This is only because I’ve experienced problems with external power packs.

I am making the assumption that you have a school licence for an operating system. If you are moving to ‘The cloud’, there is always Chromium OS, but this may take some technical know-how to get up and running.

For a total cost of around £270 for a reasonable-spec computer, I think it’s difficult to go wrong!

And those who are more thrifty may be able to pick up components on eBay or similar.

They are very quick and easy to set up (my students did most of this) and mount on the back of existing LCD monitors – so they are generally out of the way and probably less likely to be fiddled about with. They are silent, consume little power and take up next to no physical space, helping to keep energy bills down and maintain a nice working environment.

Yes, there are limitations if you ever wanted to upgrade (although the model mentioned does support two memory modules), but given the cost of these machines, it would be less hassle to replace them in 2-3 years’ time if needs be, and I’d like to think they could be recycled elsewhere.