Until Christmas 2004 I was a full time classroom teacher – ICT co-ordinator and on the senior leadership team of a large Manchester primary school (Crumpsall Lane).
The trouble was, I’d reached a crossroads. I knew I didn’t want to go for headship and I didn’t want to go to another primary school where I would have had to scrabble around sticking systems together with sellotape and beg for budgets. The solution was to become a self-employed ICT consultant trying to use my experience to help other schools in developing ICT. Luckily, I had a very supportive headteacher at Crumpsall Lane in Alastair Robertson who let me gradually withdraw from full time teaching allowing me a couple of days a week to build my business. It was in this crucial first year that I met Peter Ford at an ICT consultants meeting in Norfolk, of all places. Peter was talking to the group about a series of lesson he had taught about the rainforest in which he had encouraged his pupils to write a blog (at the time, this was at the bleeding edge of cutting). One of the pupils had received a comment from a voluntary worker in Guatamala (or Bolivia, or Columbia, I don’t remember where) and this immediately struck a chord with me. My experience of using social media in school at that point was limited to Think.com and it had been decidedly mixed. Although it had been a really useful exercise in e-safety it had a limited educational impact as I hadn’t managed to come up with genuine collaborative learning experiences for the children. Here was Peter showing me that exposing the children to a much wider audience than a closed community (as Think.com was) offered far greater scope for collaboration than I had ever imagined .
From that first meeting I immediately began to explore the possibility of creating blog platforms for schools. Peter and I came to a gentleman’s agreement, he would do the technical spannering and blog design, and I would do the selling and training. We used the open source blogging software platform, WordPress (fortuitously as it turned out) to build our blogs. The problem was that few people had ever heard of blogging in 2004/5 and I had to spend a lot of time explaining the concept, made doubly difficult by having little in the way of decent educational case studies to show people. Luckily, at an ICT conference in Wigan in early 2006, I met Peter Rafferty from Green Park School in Maghull on Merseyside. He immediately understood what blogging could do and so greenparkschool.org.uk was born. At the time, there were practically no tools that you could use with blogs, no Photopeach, no Voicethread, no Wallwisher (now known as Padlet), hardly anything that you could embed. Yet Peter and the staff at Green Park soon built a blogsite that was setting new standards and exploring new possibilities. 10 years later Green Park are still blogging with WordPress and I’m wondering how many schools can say that they have been using the same platform to learn, collaborate and communicate over such a long period.
In those early days some schools came and went. Building an audience was a real challenge as few schools had blogs and social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook either didn’t exist or were just getting off the ground. Yet there are other survivors from these heady days: Brookburn in Manchester and Rector Drew in North Wales are still maintaining their blogsites. Over the next 2 or 3 years blogging in schools slowly developed. Blogging in a wider sense became much more widely accepted as newspapers began to add comment facilities to their websites, social networking gained traction through MySpace and latterly, Facebook. Progress was still slow, though and blogging was still only one string to our bows. Peter was working for Northamptonshire busily harnessing technology, and I was still teaching extensively in various Manchester primary schools, most prominently at Chorlton Park whose blogsite was gaining wide recognition. Even though we were now able to demonstrate a growing body of cool case studies, few schools were signing up: many were trying to wrestle with the government diktat concerning Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) with varying degrees of success. By the end of 2009 we had about 20 whole school blog projects off the ground.
Looking back, 2010 was the crucial year for Creative Blogs. Towards the end of 2009, an increasing number of teachers were using Twitter, there was a growing frustration with VLEs, and crucially, we had set up Heathfield Primary School’s blogsite (sadly no longer maintained). I need hardly explain the impact of David Mitchell‘s work in the sphere of educational blogging. His numerous awards, endless tweets about his children’s work, and the results that they have achieved have immeasurably increased the awareness of educational blogging among teachers. We owe David a huge debt of gratitude. For the very first time, we were being contacted by schools interested in finding out about blogging and by the end of the year we had doubled in size reaching 40 school blog projects. Still a drop in the ocean, but the seeds of a new and enthusiastic community of blogging teachers was developing on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Meanwhile, there was genuine experimentation and innovation going on: Michelle Hill’s early years team at Leamore in Walsall were investigating the use of mobile devices in conjunction with private blogs to build assessment reords; David Mitchell was using Voicethread to develop peer review and using QR codes to link physical writing in books with blogposts (4D blogging); and we created “Blogtheworldcup”, a collaborative community of 32 classes (1 for each country in the competition) which received over a million hits in the 3 months that it was running. Blogging was finally breaking through to the mainstream.
From a technology point of view, 2010 was also important for us. We started to use Woo Themes to build beautiful looking custom home pages; Peter wrote a new plugin that immeasurably improved the e-safety of WordPress when a child logged in to their class blogs; and, finally, a whole suite of tools reached maturity outside of WordPress that allowed teachers to make their class blogs the centre of all their online work. At last, we had the community and a mature flexible and powerful platform to take educational blogging to new heights.
Sure enough, 2011 was a fantastic year for Creative Blogs: we added our first international customer (the International School of Monaco); we doubled in size again to around 80 school projects and there is no sign of it slowing down. We held 2 hugely enjoyable conferences (Chorlton Park and Silverstone) and sold our first blog project solely through Twitter! Thanks to the pioneering efforts of our many incredible teachers we have an enormous body of work that we can call on to demonstrate the huge potential that blogging has. Foremost amongst these has again been David Mitchell who once again proved that his first year’s SATs results in literacy (powered by blogging) was no flash in the pan by repeating in 2011. He also took children to the BETT show and bMoble conferences to spread the word and set up the fantastic Quadblogging project which we were enormously proud to host. An unforeseen effect was the removal of the VLE target for schools and the associated funding for it, meaning that schools began to look for better value and more flexible platforms to draw together their various online presences and many schools not only stopped using their VLEs, but turned their blogsites into their website (Horwich Parish and Greswell Primary are good examples of this approach).
Things changed again in 2014. After nearly 10 years of working together, Peter and I parted company. He is now head of the Apple Distinguished Educators program and, not surprisingly, finds his time full. We wish him all the best for the future. Peter’s departure led to a radical restructuring of our infrastructure and we shifted our servers to an entirely UK based host: Rapidswitch. We also took the opportunity to significantly increase the power of our servers and added substantial resilience by automating WordPress updates, adding Wordfence anti-malware software and rewriting our custom e-safety plugins. Jack, our new technical advisor, is an expert in Internet security and by the end of 2014 we were confident that our platform was performing faster and more resiliently than ever. Creative Blogs also became a limited company.
What of the future? Blogging seems to still be growing and more of our customers are combining blogging with their website as pressure on school budgets mean that value for money is essential. Our original customer, Green Park School, is still with us 10 years on and we continue to expand our portfolio of clients.
We hope you’ll join us for the ride…
Creative Blogs Ltd,