Just before the end of the spring term I was lucky enough to be at the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools held at the always marvellous Eton College. Having written before about EdTech I hope it is clear that I am nothing if not open minded to anything that can improve pupil learning whether pen and paper or ones and zeroes. And at OESIS there was a wealth of ideas, innovations and enthusiasm from the US and UK all aimed at helping learning. Within minutes of the conference starting Tony Little, outgoing and indomitable Headmaster of Eton, addressed one of the main issues in eLearning (and I paraphrase): how does it become a real positive for students in the UK, rather than a distraction? When will eLearning be recognised by UCAS and therefore not seen as a diversion from the examinations that form the basis of university entry? Pertinent points to ponder.
Image taken from OESIS Group website.
The conference itself was incredibly enlightening as a succession of US teachers, Heads of School and educationalists presented on how they made the most of technology to promote student learning. It seems across the pond there is a similar amount of innovation within this area than in the UK and also the same difficulties with separating benefit from cost (in the Hattie sense of the word as well as monetarily). Blending learning between “bricks and mortar” schooling and online courses seems the furrow being ploughed and one I heard a lot about over the course of the two days. Perhaps one of the most surreal moments was a session where we were shown around a virtual classroom for students to explore using avatars, answering questions from teacher-avatars also inhabiting this SIMS like habitat. Indeed during this session a huge smile was brought to many faces when, having been invited to join up and explore the space as an avatar, a delegate blocked a virtual-doorway so the presenter’s avatar could not leave a room! Conversely it was the human interactions over the course of the symposium that really helped me understand what sort of impact technology can have. I find this is always the way with conferences; chatting with other delegates is often worth the cost of the event alone.
The sessions I learned most from related to how to fully involve, engage and use staff to help guide the process of using EdTech. For example Sarah Hofstra, of the Hybrid Learning Consortium, outlined a few dos and don’ts during her session on SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses):
- Do offer eLearning as an opportunity to increase the impact of teaching and improve student learning.
- Do not force teachers to use eLearning.
- Do be patient, wait for the second or third year to be a watershed moment where staff see the effect of using technology.
- Do not push or pressure teachers into this way of working; it will be severely counterproductive to any aim to increase impact as staff “lash out”.
- Do allow staff themselves to spread positivity about using technology, do not impose it from on high.
- Do not necessarily expect it to work within existing frameworks, be prepared to create something completely different; at the most radical end of the spectrum think about using a non-traditional timetable.
- Do emphasis the benefit of developing life-long learning, amongst students and staff.
- Do allow students to embrace their own technologies (smartphones, tablets, etc) and be there to help guide their use.
Perhaps the statement that most caught my attention was that the US schools that have made the most progress and greatest success with eLearning have been those that paid their teachers to be more involved. E.g. paying extra for staff to spend their summer developing a course or topic online to then use in to complement their teaching. Additionally schools that successfully use EdTech hire firms, such as the Hybrid Learning Consortium, to actually come in to set up, train and manage the initiatives.
Another session that I found very illuminating was a panel involving a number of Heads of School who had successfully set up and built EdTech and blended learning into their curriculum. In particular the responses to the two questions below:
- What would you do differently?
- Have different expectations; not expecting uptake / effect too early and not assuming everyone is on board.
- Allow more time to educate staff.
- Allow teachers to still teach in the way that they want to.
- Have the infrastructure in place and staff employed for instruction (one school had two full time “tech instructors” for training purposes, but others found they needed more).
- Have a greater emphasis on not allowing precious skills, such as picking up a pencil, to be lost.
- If you started afresh at a new school what would you do?
- Hire well! Employ open-minded and passionate teachers, ideally with a keen interest in EdTech.
- Design creative and collaborative workspaces that not only enhance learning but bring the best out of any technology being used.
- Use a non-traditional schedule for the school day, e.g. timetable based on blended learning rather than classes, labs, etc.
- Ensure “messy classrooms” (e.g. student-driven, project based and tech-inspired group work) were encouraged.
In summary the two days really did have a profound effect on my understanding of using technology in a school. And this is without going into detail about the amazing Emerge Education lunchtime workshop where I was treated to presentations on using a RaspberryPi laptop from Pi-Top, the incredibly interesting OceanBrowser from Rodney Tamblyn and Cristian Dinu speaking about Learn Forward’s interactive textbook.
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Header image taken by Michael Smyth, 2011.