A positive look as we move to ‘Life after Ultranet’

RIP UltranetmanBeing my first post on my new blog (I am consolidating some other blogs), it is quite appropriate to reflect on the Ultranet Experience over the last 3 years. Today feels like a bit of a milestone, a new start and a time to move forward.

Although we are without the finer details, the future directions of the Ultranet appear pretty clear with this week’s announcement. Schools will be asked to opt into a ‘User Pays’ system with NEC taking full responsibility for its provision in 2014. However, reading quotes linked with this announcement such as “I think the time has come to put it out of its misery humanely” would suggest there is little hope for real provision to occur. Perhaps, the advice should have read “NEC should take responsibility for pulling the plug on its provision”. This is amongst a strange climate where some schools have waited, some have moved on already and others have yet to make any move at all. I think Martin Dixon describes this as allowing “schools to choose a system that suits their need”. Perhaps this could be described by the popular term ‘school autonomy’, which is can be interpreted as “sort it out yourself”.

For all of the passionate educators who have invested time in the Ultranet, it was intended as a partnership with the government not as something we should be charged for.  Personally and as a College we have invested a lot of effort in the Ultranet and although it would be easy to be bitter and twisted about Ultranet Experience there are many positives worth reflecting on before moving forward.

1. The concept and timing were both great. Just as schools were going 1:1 – BAM! here is the Ultranet. The Ultranet offered the concept of full package LMS supported by training – Spaces, Web 2.0 tools, resources, assessment & reporting, staff collaboration, consistency for staff and students..……… Although there could be lengthy discussions about what worked well and what didn’t, it did expose many of these tools to teachers and schools – A great training ground for many. Because of the time we have invested in the Ultranet we have very clear idea of what we want in a LMS, which will certainly help us move forward. We will have to find a number of tools to offer all that the Ultranet promised, but we now know what we are looking for. I don’t really think it is beneficial to sour these thoughts by carrying on about how the cost blow out or poor roll out have affected things.  The concept had legs!

2. A focus of learning. I feel that the Ultranet stayed true to having a focus on Learning.  On the Learning Tasks side of things we found a really good framework. Observations linked to tasks gave the opportunity to improve and increase our feedback to students. The process of attaching Learning Outcomes to our tasks online encouraged purposeful teaching. Both having a positive impact on good teaching and consistency at our College.  Using technology it is easy to focus on tools rather than the learning.  It is worth remembering the Ultranet is just a tool – grand in concept, but just  a tool.  What really has come with the Ultranet for me is the shift in how I think about teaching and learning.

3. The assessment/ongoing reporting answered a need. Quite simply the Learning Tasks side of the Ultranet is what schools needed. When demonstrations of learning in the Learning Tasks could be used for ongoing reporting it improved teacher efficiency when reporting. What seemed the most powerful aspect of this end was the creation of rich student profiles. By being able to see other teacher’s observations about students and observations from other years and schools was fantastic. Having these sorts of student profiles has the capacity to really change what we do in the classroom. Our experience with this side of the Ultranet was quite positive. While there might be other alternatives for many of the other aspects of the Ultranet, this will be a hard hole to fill. I feel that this side of the Ultranet never really had a chance.  I welcome any suggestions to fill this void.

4. The connection of Educators. What a fantastic opportunity there has been to collaborate with so many passionate educators. For me it created a great opportunity to connect with so many people over the last few years. In particular I think of the Ultranet coaches – what fantastic people, who were able to extract so much positivity in often difficult circumstances.

5. We are more aware of the support that is needed for change. It is clear that one of the big blockers in whole school change was staff capacity. Not a criticism of teachers – this is just where we are at. Not only the purpose of change needs to be clear, but the tools need to be super-easy to learn and use. In schools time is the most precious asset and it is important to recognise that the support required for these sorts of changes is significant. We had Ultranet Coaches, Lead Users, and Training Days and still only scratched the surface. Clear direction, Simplicity and Support are needed as we move forward.

OK……….great to get this all said.
Yes, disappointed no future funds for development to its full potential. However, I see plenty of positives from the last few years – I am calling things even. Now time to be moving on and looking at options.
Starting points to explore some tools I am familiar with:
Edmodo/Schoology  (for class communication, tasks and quizzes)
– Google Sites – for staff that want a Space for content
Edublogs (for class blog/space).
Wikispaces – however, I feel online collaboration is moving pretty fast. Maybe some new tool for the job.
Would welcome any suggestions you might have of what works well in your class, but also what might work well on a whole school level.

8 thoughts on “A positive look as we move to ‘Life after Ultranet’

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  3. Wendy

    Interesting post, Steve. I agree with many of the thoughts you wrote.
    The Ultranet certainly was timely, I have to agree. Being a Lead User at the special school where I work, I invested many hours to ensure the students could access learning content.We used the Ultranet daily. We also used to use PowerPoint to make personal student digital portfolios each year, to showcase each student’s work. Staff take-up was always a slight problem.
    Now we are using a Mahara based learning management system, eduPLEX, a small Melbourne based company. Using eduPLEX the students build authentic learning portfolios, and access collaborative learning groups. There are many units of work already provided, or the teachers can make their own learning groups. There’s provision for forums, wikis, online feedback and many more features.
    We are currently becoming an eSmart school, and our schools online portal, eduPLEX, serves as a fantastic cyber-safe way for the kids to communicate online. We will be able to maintain cyber safety through daily practice in our cyber-safe portal. We do not have a Parent portal with this, unfortunately, but it has been embraced well by students and teachers.Our school pay a small amount for accounts now, after first trialling for FREE, with several teachers and grades.

    1. seddonsteve Post author

      Thanks Wendy,
      It is great to hear a little about the LMS you are using. I will have a look into eduPLEX as we look for options. I have been ‘shopping around’ a little to weigh things up and I have noticed that a number of the LMS’s don’t offer too much in the way of student portfolios. So it was great to read of your focus and work here.
      In regards to the point about staff uptake – Yes, this is a real important one to consider. We need an intuitive system. We need it simply enough so it happens in every class with every teacher, this consistency maximizes the impact for students……..and we are all winners.

  4. George Sorgi

    Sadly, the Ultranet was a political and economic hybrid. DEECD chose Oracle after serious probity issues were dealt with. To save money Oracle bolted on a 10 year old front end that was used for business and it was FREE. Hence the intuitiveness for use in schools was lost.
    I saw the Microsoft tender product. it was far superior. BTW I’ve been an eLearning consultant working with kids and teachers in schools for over 15 years. Prior to that I was a sec teacher.
    Yes the concept was timely and needed. Sadly, those who made the decisions had never used ICT in a classroom. email= george@ozbiz.com.au

    1. seddonsteve Post author

      The disappointing thing is that there was vision and significant financial investment. Obviously, the execution didn’t quite cut it for a number of reasons.
      The fact that the Ultranet was not intuitive was quite damaging for many users. You have made me dream of ‘what might have been’ if a more intuitive product was launched.

  5. johngthomas

    That’s a helpful reflection Steve. You point towards positives we can take away from our experience with the Ultranet and to some newer tools worth exploring. It’s interesting to read Wendy and George’s thoughts too. I think the question of cyber-safety is particularly interesting. I suspect that we’ve been too timid, and our caution has limited the educational opportunities the Net provides. For example, do we really need students to use aliases? I suspect that, at least for those teachers (and parents) who know how to supervise and guide their students’ activities online (and that may still be a minority of teachers and parents), aliases are a hindrance, not a help. It’s a complex question with good arguments on both sides, but I lean towards facilitating easier collaboration and communication. If a student wants to share a document with their classmate Harry Paulson, it helps if Harry’s username is harryp and not HPAU003. What risks does Harry face by exposing his first name and initial online. It’s an important question, but I’d lay odds that the risk is substantially less than the risk Harry faced playing cricket during lunchtime recess or riding his bike on the weekend.

    The Ultranet was an ambitious and visionary project, but the Net and our understandings of how best to use it have moved on. We’re more open, more transparent and less anxious than we once were. I’m happy to see schools given the opportunity to explore newer technologies that provide more flexible and more powerful ways to facilitate communication and collaboration. Two cloud based technologies in particular, Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Office 365 for Education, offer particular promise for the future. I hope more Victorian schools take this opportunity to explore them.

    1. seddonsteve Post author

      I agree with your point about over the top security we can sometimes see online. Certainly this was one of the challenges navigating the Ultranet. The Ultranet was purposefully built with this level of security. Perhaps important for families, staff and students that are not comfortable working online – a safe training ground before moving to other online tools. Maybe also because it was a government product. The ironic thing is this challenge helped contribute to some classes moving to less secure tools.
      I also agree that we will see schools moving to some fantastic new tools – powerful and flexible. I think each school will find their own mix of tools. However, with this we also lose the benefits of consistency that were in the Ultranet Vision. I love the idea of teaching a student in Y7 (no matter which Primary School they are from) and being able to read a student profile with Learning Task observations from their Primary Teachers, actual work submitted and confirmations. Maybe this is in the too hard basket!


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