Can Moodle make an Outstanding School?

Sometimes, you have to get out of the forest to appreciate the beauty of the trees. That was my experience on Thursday when I was invited back to (the school formerly known as “mine”) Our Lady’s High School Preston to meet Bob Willetts, an Australian Headteacher on a sabbatical educational research tour of Europe. He’s  a big  Moodler and had asked last year to visit the school and see how Moodle influenced teaching and learning. His main contact was with Assistant Head Mark Greenwood who set Moodle up and made it a success amongst staff and students, but while Mark was on lunch duty, I got to take Bob on a tour of the school, and it was a pleasure to be smiled at by passing students who had no idea who Bob was, but smiled anyway, a pleasure to see them cheerfully and calmly engaged on homework tasks in the Learning Resource centre. We walked into one class room to find a DT teacher who happened to be entering feedback on Moodle assignments -it couldn’t have been more opportune if we’d planned it. And Bob was impressed throughout by the wall displays inside and outside classrooms, showcasing achievement, rewarding effort and offering learning opportunities “right in your face” as one teacher put it, her room packed full of post-its, student exemplar work, mini quizzes, revision key terms….

We had a chat with history teachers who talked about a recent trip to Poland, where the students recorded their impressions as podcasts and uploaded to Moodle for feedback; Mark explained the points system whereby students are rewarded with points, prizes and badges (bronze, silver and gold, oh so coveted) and the points clearly linked to on Moodle. It’s a happy school with happy people.

Proud to be a Winner!

But it wasn’t always like that.

Just over ten years ago, the school was rated  by Ofsted as “satisfactory”. Two years later, as part of a bid to become a specialist Maths and Computing school, they introduced Moodle and it fast gained popularity amongst pupils – the pupils got it first! And then staff. Not the technical geeky staff, mind – the “normal” ones, the ones you would talk to in the staffroom and would be more likely to believe if they said that new thing called ‘Moodle’ was worth trying out with your pupils. By 2007 the school’s use of Moodle was featured in the TES, quoted by Mark Greewood as being ” a way of life” but the way of life didn’t turn out quite how it was originally planned. The original aim was simple: to get teachers to put some resources online for their classes to access. That was achieved within the first term but what became an unexpected side effect of the use of Moodle was that, in order to fill  up the  Moodle front page in some way, Mark started putting up photos and videos of recent school events.  Pupils and parents suddenly had a “window” into what was happening in the school. Heads of department saw that here was a chance for free promotion of their departments by sending in news items that showcased their subjects. And whereas in the first few weeks, people were quite reticent to have their photographs taken, it soon became really “cool” to be on Moodle. the competition was on!

Our Lady's Head Boy and Head Girl

Alongside this of course, resources and activities were being added to Moodle. No teachers were forced to use it, but gradually, with pressure from pupils who wanted similar learning experiences in all their subjects, all teachers eventually came on board and started to use it in some way. The 2007 OFSTED report rated Our Lady’s as “good with outstanding features” and mentioned Moodle  9 times in 12 pages  -and they made the news again.

Year 9 options were then reviewed and selected entirely in Moodle (through a questionnaire) “Pupil voice” questionnaires sprang up in every subject and every pastoral area conceivable, giving the Senior Leadership team an excellent, accurate and regularly updated picture of progress. Personalised GCSE revision plans for each pupil were added to Moodle and grades improved continuously year on year.

In 2010, Mahara was introduced to students on a pastoral level: they used it to build pages recording their points, badges and successes. This ran and still runs side by side with the use of Moodle front page to archive Everything that’s Good about Our School.  8 Moodle “books” with hundreds of chapters tell the story of a school where , to quote one pupil in the  inspection report “everyone matters and know that they matter”.  Last November OFSTED returned and rated the school Outstanding on every count possible. In January the RE inspectors came -and found the same. Read more here. The 2012 GCSE results were of a Gold Standard – see all the statistics for yourself here in the Government League tables.

Is it just coincidence that grades and Inspection reports have improved at the same time as Moodle became embedded in school life?  As Mark Greenwood said to Bob, “we love Moodle and so we’re bound to say this is all  because of Moodle”  For sure, other factors have played their part: a culture of caring based in the school’s Catholic ethos; total consistency of approach by all staff; involvement of parents throughout study times; high expectations of lesson quality; extensive support of the feeder primaries (through Moodle; my own little part in the big picture.)

It’s hard to quantify, but what absolutely cannot be denied is the beneficial  pyschological effect that using Moodle and later also Mahara to highlight successes (not just academic but personal, not just student but staff) has had on the motivation to learn.  If you feel good when you come to school, you want to do your best. You do something good at home or at school – we tell the world on Moodle!  And true to form, Bob wasn’t allowed to leave without his visit being recorded either!

Bob Willetts (centre right, Head Nigel Ranson (centre left)

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