Yes. Kind of. Sometimes.
The inauspicious launch in August 2010 is often pointed to by those familiar with the Ultranet as being indicative of the issues that the platform had experienced throughout its development.
Whilst ICT in education throughout Victoria has undeniably experienced pockets of innovative development over the past 20 years – FUSE, ideasLAB – for the most part this has never been able to develop the momentum to become mainstream or accepted among the wider teacher community. At its inception, the Ultranet represented the best opportunity for schools to tap into the ground-swell of technology acceptance that was coursing through society during the early/mid 2000’s. Somewhere along the journey, the Ultranet failed to live up to this lofty and ambitious goal.
As a relative newcomer to the industry, I offer the following as possible reason for this:
1. The Ultranet tried to be too much for too many and in the end became unwieldy, unmanageable and uncompetitive against private industry solutions that were more flexible and easier to use. The reality is that Governments cannot compete with private industry for responsiveness, development time frames or commercial constraints as they are beholden to the court of public opinion and the election cycle and as such, cannot guarantee long-term support for major reform initiatives.
2. The Ultranet does not reflect the real-world experiences of online interactions. The internet is not a walled garden and our students use ICT in a social way – both within school and outside it. Why publish to the Ultranet for my teacher when I could publish to the world on Youtube/Tumblr/Twitter/Facebook? For this reason, the Ultranet was always going to struggle engaging students – particularly at the Secondary level.
3. Teachers never felt empowered to use the Ultranet through investments of time and training. Whilst there were numerous examples of Professional Development opportunities and Ultranet Coaches were (initially, at least) easily accessible, a clumsy effort was made to communicate to teachers the importance and value of the Ultranet as a tool to enhance the learning of students. Some – but by no means all – public school teachers are very reluctant to embrace the changes associated with the advent of technology in education. They see it as “flashy” and “without substance” – just another fad that will soon pass by, like the others..
4. Parental buy-in (and hence, broader public support) was never achieved. This was primarily due to the delay in the release of ‘Release 2’ of the Ultranet – the Learning Task and Assessment areas. This component of the Ultranet failed to garner the support required to achieve critical mass among teachers and students, leaving parents without any data to view and hence no reason for them to access. To my mind, by the time Release 2 was put out, the Ultranet was already beginning to falter.
The above points highlight possible reasons for the Ultranet not taking off as a unique Learning Management System in Victorian State education. There are, however, aspects of the Ultranet that were quite good or at least offered a glimpse of what was possible:
1. Collaborative Spaces. Allowed students to share their work, experiences and learning with a broader audience through Blogs, Wikis and Chat. It enabled peer-feedback and I feel that in future, many students will point to this area as the beginning of their education in how to behave as a 21st Century learner.
2. Design Spaces. This area focused on teacher collaboration and enabled many (myself included) to work with a diverse range of teachers from across the state in the common construction of quality learning programs. In the days before the ubiquity of Twitter and Facebook, this was the first opportunity for a community of practice to evolve around education in the state of Victoria.
3. eBookBoxes. These are, hands down, the best thing to come out of the Ultranet. eBookboxes provide teachers and students with a fully-sequenced, fully-resourced learning pathway from Year 7 through to Year 12. The resources are relevant, free and matched to key outcomes, VELS and learning dimensions. If nothing else survives, the work of Graeme Henchel, Wendy MacPherson and colleagues should be maintained at all costs.
4. The reporting, task setting abilities of Release 2 enable teachers to take a greater level of control over what tasks students were set (differentiation of tasks based on abilities was a key component of this), how they were graded (removing the emphasis on mark-based assessment) and how the ongoing, formative assessment could be utilised to generate more meaningful reports for parents. These options are highly valuable to teachers as, despite the initial learning curve of understanding the process, the eventual time-savings come report-writing time are significant. The increased transparency to parents also enables a greater level of accountability to be shared between school and home.
The points above highlight to me a pretty big win that came out of the Ultranet. Yes, it is not perfect. But it did bring home to quite a few teachers that, like it or not, wikis/blogs/twitter/facebook and numerous other learning gems were here to stay. It forced many teachers into looking at their computers as more than email repositories and begin exploring ways that learning technologies could be better utilized in the classroom environment. Finally, the Ultranet can take some credit for bringing eLearning into the forefront of educators minds.
The old marketing adage springs to mind, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity, except your own obituary.”