Tag Archives: edtech

(Tab)let them eat cake III

A lot has changed since I wrote my last blog regarding EdTech. For one I now have a different role and am directly involved with shaping the digital strategy of the school. Therefore it is probably time for an update of what I have been doing to explore this area of education. Charles Darwin wrote that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and in all of my EdTech blogs I have made it clear that I do not know enough to comment effectively. However, I am now slowly building up a decent idea of what can be achieved, hopefully without being blinded by “shiny news things”-syndrome.

WebDAVNav: I have to start with this because it is so simple but incredibly useful, although no doubt I am seriously behind the times. WebDAVNav is an app that allows you to access your resources from a smartphone. For example mine is set up to see all of the “my documents” folders and files associated with my username on the school system. Additionally it is linked to the shared pupil and staff resources, allowing me to look at a moment’s notice no matter where I am. This has proved to be super-useful and something that I keep returning to as I am out and about. It is difficult to say just how great it is, but I can’t imagine life without it now!

Tablets: The process of convincing me that they have a role to play in my classroom is well underway. I can see how they might help teaching and also learning, surely the only reason you would ever adopt anything new in education? Having met with the tablet working party throughout last year it was clear that they can provide excellent solutions to certain problems. E.g. want to use a computer but don’t need it for a whole lesson? Instead of booking out a computer room for just 10 minutes of actual computer time why not slide open those tablets and dip in and out as and when required to support pupil learning.  This is the type of small-scale learning-focused issue that I think will be the real reason why they might be adopted en masse in education (rather than some game-changing mega miracle that significantly increases student learning with proven tablet causation). It will be the small and seemingly insignificant things that, together, make a huge difference to turn educators’ heads towards any new thing, technology included. This is illustrated by the popular concepts espoused by Sir Clive Woodward (the one hundred one percents) and Sir Dave Brailsford (marginal gains). An obvious example is a calculator; no Maths teacher would plan their whole lesson by simply stating “use calculators” just as much as we shouldn’t be planning a lesson with only “use tablets”. They have the potential to be a very good resource to aid good teaching and help students learn.

To discover just what anything, EdTech or not, can do it is important to try it out. Therefore this year we have implemented a tablet-trial, equipping a teacher with tablets to use with their classes. This boils down to a class set of windows tablets that students sign into and use in just that member of staff’s lessons; neatly termed “bringing a computer room to the classroom”. Although a far cry from 1:1 it is a starting point to evaluate not only their effectiveness but also the logistics and infrastructure should a larger project ever be rolled out. The plan is for six different teachers to use the tablets with their classes and use qualitative feedback to assess their effectiveness. This will also be useful for those in school who would like to see how they might be used. The teachers involved in the trial have been to a Microsoft Showcase training day and it will be very much up to them as to how they choose to implement them. We also have a few members of staff going to see tablets being used in schools to see how and why the investment has been made.

Over half term I attended a Microsoft Showcase event, looking at the Windows Surface. To me this is everything that I would want for using devices in the classroom, most importantly because it comes with a keyboard. I actually borrowed a Surface Pro from school over the summer holiday and can vouch for what an incredibly impressive kit it is (although it should be mentioned I ended up effectively using it as a laptop, but since my training day can see a whole host of opportunities to improve the way I work). The Surface is a great idea, well-realised and compatible with the Microsoft Office way of working that is ingrained within myself and the school. The day was illuminating and all the presenters made good sales pitches for the products and systems on show. Although seeing and using the technology was useful lunch was actually the highlight for me (and not just the delicious macaroons). I spent most of it discussing with Phil Burney whether it was possible to roll out EdTech in a school successfully. His words were very practical in suggesting that only with time, training and ongoing support is it possible to have a successful and sustained implementation of something like tablets. The bigger picture is how can you give staff confidence with new technologies? Going from being highly proficient in something to starting right back as a beginner is a daunting prospect. Leaders should look to change the “yuck factor” or “I am fine without this new fad” attitude with plenty of time, training and support. My thoughts from March’s OSESIS event ring ever clearer, especially the do and don’t comments. For me this raises the central tension with trying to implement anything; how can people evaluate how it might be useful if they don’t know what it does. Bringing me nicely to…

…e-Homework: We are trialling the use of setting homework via our virtual learning environment (VLE) with a year group for the rest of this term. To allow a full evaluation to occur all teachers of this year group have been asked to set homework this way; bringing us back to the issue of mandate versus optional take up. But without trying it we cannot see whether it helps the learning of our students. Once again this is the key point – does it help teaching and learning? If so there is no problem. Another question to ask is “does it take more time and effort than how I was working before?” Long-term, having practiced, it should take no longer than the original way of working. But it is very difficult to comment without having tried it. The results of this trial will be hugely informative.

And finally:

At heart I am very much a moderate and at times can be accused of being quite conservative when it comes to new things. Even more so if they are being forced onto people. However, even I realise that a no at any cost approach to anything new will severely limit innovation (whether technological or not) and that without trying things out all you have is gut-instinct or opinion. There is plenty going on here to start the evaluative process and no doubt I will report back in brobdingnagian proportions in the future.

Header image from www.freefoto.com

An OESIS in the desert

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.

Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools

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: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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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Image taken from pixabay.

Image taken from pixabay.

This post uses a simple coding trick – if I can do it you can too!

Header image taken by Michael Smyth, 2011.

(Tab)let them eat cake II

A few recent blogs have re-kindled my interest in “EdTech” and its place in teaching and learning. Following my post on discussing tablets during a Teaching, Learning and Assessment Group meeting last term I also feel obliged to give a quick update of what happened next. My own thoughts remain very similar to before. I have the same healthy scepticism for any new learning directive or teaching strategy regardless of whether it includes technology or not; convince me that the benefit outweighs the cost. This theme was further highlighted by Tom Bennett’s Raging against the machines? Not really. Adventures in misunderstanding post on EdTech. He too has a “hearty scepticism” and would like to see “wide-ranging evidence” to persuade him it has a significant impact  – but too often this sort of attitude is perceived as technophobia rather than a considered stance to new methodologies. As Bennett says

“If tech adoption were cheap or easy, and didn’t take much time, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. But if you want to persuade people that it’s right for them then it’s not unreasonable to ask what evidence is there that this will have a positive impact before they money on it. That’s just good governance.”

The fact is that it is not cheap nor easy to implement ,on a whole-school or even departmental scale, changes to EdTech so we had better be sure that they make a measurable difference. I am pretty open-minded about most new ideas but can be prone to paralysing cognitive dissonance when I fear that they might cause colossal amounts of work… In this respect I would imagine I am very much like everyone else who actually works as a classroom teacher and understands all of the trials and tribulations required to semi-successfully teach and assess a large(ish) class of students. In fact a blog post from December by the excellent Heather F on how technology has transformed her teaching struck a chord with me. In addition to her, as always, sensible musings her point that “if applications of technology are genuinely useful they won’t need the hard sell” is bang on the money (pun intended). I have no doubt that tablets will prove very useful both in specific subjects and across the school at some point, but I have not yet been made aware how. Perhaps this will be something I find out as I look to delve deeper into their impact in the classroom. However, I am equally open to the idea that we are not at that point just yet. That is what I mean by having an open mind and not being immovably one way or another, pro or anti EdTech.

Ain't no party like an S Club party! (Image taken from Flickr)

Ain’t no party like an S Club party!
(Image taken from Flickr)

So what did we do next after our aforementioned TLAG meeting? We set up a ‘working party’ to explore staff attitudes further (it seems from my own personal experience that jokes on the theme of “well it certainly is work but I’m yet to get to the party” are either unfunny or have been said before).  The group was made up of seven members of staff from a range of subjects across the School and hoped to represent a spread of opinions, from those very open to EdTech, those with experience of its implementation and those who were healthily sceptical. I believe that we got the balance about right other than we seem to have more “sceptics” than “champions” to borrow from Harry Webb’s superb recent post on why EdTech sucks (and what to do about it). The aim of the group was to discuss how best we could survey what teachers across the school thought about the possibility of EdTech, specifically personal devices such as tablets, aiding teaching and learning in the classroom. One thing that we all agreed with is that coercion of having to use EdTech will simply not work, as Harry Webb says “mandation is clearly not the answer”. However, there are definitely some benefits or “lots of small gains” as a member of the working party mentioned at our last meeting. We also felt that people did not know enough about what you could do with a personal device in the classroom; the “unknown unknowns”. I include myself in this category – I do not know exactly what I could or could not do with something like a tablet – and aim to expand my knowledge by attending conferences, reading blogs and participating in workshops to see what they can offer. No doubt you’ll hear my experiences in the eagerly awaited third instalment of the (Tab)let them eat cake saga, release date to be confirmed.

I am lucky enough to work with a range of talented people and one such colleague summarised a sensible approach to EdTech and the vast array of shiny gadgets available with these two simple questions:

  1. How does ‘it’ make the teacher’s job simpler, easier and more effective?
  2. How does ‘it’ make the student learning process simpler, easier and more effective?

If ‘it’ does not have evidence that it improves either of the above then you need to re-consider whether ‘it’ is the right approach to learning and teaching, whatever ‘it’ might be. The working party has also focused the direction of how we will canvass the opinion of the staff body; in our most recent meeting a method we considered and agreed upon was to actually go into departmental meetings to discuss the range of options available. Following a chat with one or two members of the working party (staff with the “known knowns” to bastardise further the Rumsfeld quote) there would then be a short departmental questionnaire to fill in. Our aim is to roll this out in the next half term and try to get round every department before the end of the academic year. I am intrigued to find out what people around the school think and this will then inform the next steps of the working party. Additionally I am also looking forward to discovering myself, first hand or via the conference circuit, what might be possible. However, if it does not improve upon or simplify what is currently in place then I may well remain the open-minded sceptic. To be continued…

Header image taken from Flickr.