The following describes our arrival at a scheme for deploying SMART Learning across our school, a scheme to use mobile devices as a learning tool. But it might need some context first. Quite a lot of context actually. Bear with me...
(Quite a lot of) Context
As part of our ideas for moving the school I work in beyond its current "Outstanding" I have undertaken a project as part of my ASLDP course. We were asked to identify "gaps" at the start of our course, which we would have to close with a whole-school project. This isn't so much a gap as an area where students cannot always move beyond at present. We have really good, keen students in general, but very often they are not as independent as we want them to be. There is some excellent practice across the whole school, but not consistency. One of the things we are hoping to achieve is a level of student autonomy and independent thinking which will free them up to work at their own pace, to their own potential.
I've talked about the idea of "flipped learning" before, as it caught my eye a year or more ago. While I don't subscribe exclusively to Salman Khan's methods, I think the principle of getting students learning content at home and putting it into action in class is a sound one, as it allows the teacher to look at how well learning is applied, and to address misconceptions more individually, and more quickly, thus keeping students all moving forwards, albeit at a pace which is appropriate to them. I also think the idea of using videos is a good one for many students, but I'd be foolish if I told you it was the only way to do it (and who am I to tell you I'm not a fool, eh?). Some students work much better from reading material, others from videos, with examples and short tests, while others prefer something more auditory like a podcast.
At the same time I have been exploring the fantastic opportunities to work with iPads in my classroom, and I could see immediately the potential they had for integrating with flipped learning and enhancing it further. My early attempts were limited, but at least I could see the potential, so I started using the iPads in class, and invested in them within the department so that each student could have one whenever they were in my class. This has been a huge step forward, as the quasi-ownership of the devices has allowed students to store some work on there, but there are limits to this when other students come in for the next class, and want to use the same apps. Sign the last student out, sign yourself in, yada yada, faff faff faff. Not a good use of "bell work". Ownership is definitely key when it comes to using mobile devices in schools, so it soon became apparent that we would need to get a device into the hands of every student if we were to move this forward. We started talking about iPad roll-outs, leasing schemes, BYOD, and pretty soon were lost in device considerations, and getting into pointless Android vs iPad vs Microsoft Surface (obviously that last is a joke) arguments. At the end of it all, we've had to remind ourselves that the learning is the key goal here, so our iPad or BYOD scheme ideas have now given way to SMART Learning (© Jason our fab techie)...
SMART Learning is predicated on the idea that we can use mobile technology in classes in order to achieve the following aims:
- Increase student motivation and engagement in class, especially boys
- Stop students relying on teachers as their first recourse
- Promote student independence and inquiry
- Allow for personalisation within class, and more individual and effective interventions by teachers
- Remove the ceiling over highly motivated students' heads
- Get students ready for the demands of the future workplace
We live in a relatively affluent catchment area, but the recession is biting everyone, and now isn't the time to ask everyone to pay for new devices, to lease them, or the like. However, the key factor of ownership must still be tackled, so we have opted for a system where we allow students to bring their own devices (BYOD) over a roll-out of one particular type of device. While it is true that in my media class we use iPads only, that is largely because of the productive rather than consumptive nature of what we do with them, and I have to acknowledge that many teachers will not need as much out of the devices being brought into their classes as I will. Students already own their own phones, and bring them in every day anyway (because as we know, and contrary to the evidence of hundreds of years of children getting to and from school without them previously, the poor darlings can't be without their phones in case of an emergency). Why not make use of what they already have? Indeed, many of them also own tablets, or laptops, and feel eminently more comfortable working on those than they do on school PCs. Cost bullet dodged...
The right infrastructure is key to enabling a solid, reliable use of mobile devices in all lessons. The whole advantage of mobile devices over computers is the fact that I don't have to set half an hour's worth of bell-work just to kill time while the damn things boot up! Why would we then negate that with a network which slows to a crawl when all the students are on it? Besides, if we save money not issuing all students with devices out of our own pockets, then we can afford to invest in the best servers, bandwidth and access points to ensure full coverage anywhere in the school.
Technical obstacle number two is app incompatibility. "Sir, I can't get that app on Android", that sort of thing. When you're used to the iPad, the limitations of other devices can be a pain. But there are two answers to this. The first is to use web-based apps as much as possible: Popplet, Socrative, Prezi, GoogleDocs, Dropbox, Evernote are all excellent web-based solutions which cover all sorts of key workflow areas, from mind-mapping, to document creation to storage and sharing: They have the advantage that once students get home and need to access what they've been working on that day, they don't have to do it on the phone, they can do it from their laptops, computers or whatever.
A more intriguing second argument for a "deal with it" attitude to incompatibility issues was put forward to me a while back when someone suggested to me that different devices forced students to examine the needs of tasks, and to find different solutions for themselves. They then often ended up engaging in meta-cognitive discussions about the relative merits of different apps, and by extension different devices, to assist their learning. The creativity and awareness of their learning needs which this generates are perhaps a price worth paying for the odd compatibility issue.
Test, Test and Test Again:
A new idea is hard for many people to accept. In the ever-changing world of teaching, it is too easy for teachers to dismiss new ideas as "yet another initiative" in an already over-initiatived system. Any technical difficulties presented by new technologies are the perfect excuse to ignore the idea, so you have to make sure that issues of workflow, technical problems etc are ironed out well before everyone gets into the training phase. We are going to run a variety of class trials by teachers who are more tech savvy, who can try to raise the technical issues which were unforeseen, and get them dealt with promptly. God knows, in the last year, I've come up with a lot of them, and it's important to overcome them, and give the technical teams time to get to grips with these issues. We assume that because they're techies this should all be easy for them, but this technology moves them largely out of their PC and network-based comfort zone, and that can be hard for them. In my case, bringing in iOS devices alongside a PC system has raised some issues (as well as hackles!), but better they're raised now than when every single student and teacher in the school is using them.
The limited class trials I'm running will be accompanied by student voice surveys to measure the initial impact of the technologies on learning. So far, I can tell you that it started as a distraction, and sometimes an obstacle whenever technical issues occurred, but students are now reporting that the technology is almost a non-issue for them, and talking about the learning opportunities they have offered, and the efficiencies they have brought into the classroom: There have been plenty of cheers for the "photograph the notes from the board rather than copy them down approach" for a start. Students have appreciated the ability to dictate notes sometimes, to share their work easily, to show work to the class through the AppleTV, and to collaborate on projects online in real time. More importantly, the students are also the best people to tell me what the problems are: Brutal honesty can be instructive, as long as I've forgotten my ego hat at home.
We are also hoping to put together a "Dangerous Teaching" Group, a cross-curricular forum for teachers who are interested in using mobile technolog to enhance learning and student independence in their areas. I get some great ideas from Twitter which I can share with them, but they will all have ideas of their own, and the power of group collaboration will bring swift advances in our use of the technology to enhance our core activities.
Once we've tested these things in a few lessons, with a few regular classes, and evaluated the impact on learning, the next stage will be a wider trial. It will probably involve opening the wifi network to Sixth Formers, a safer option perhaps than lower down the school at first, and again they will give us plenty of evaluative data.
What training do students need in using mobile devices? They use them every minute of every day they're allowed to, and many more when they probably shouldn't in all likelihood. Well, that doesn't make them good users in an educational sense. Students need to be taught how to use the devices responsibly as educational tools, but also as social tools. If the wifi network is always available, then break time use is likely to be a very different beast compared to classroom use, with cyber-bullying more than a possibility, and we need to teach students about the safe use of these devices, social networking etc. Internet Safety Day next week provides us with our first opportunity to talk to students about these issues, about social networking, about what they think are their rights and their responsibilities. We would hope to expand this so that students can use PHSE sessions to devise a whole-school Acceptable Use Policy, which could then be reviewed annually as the technologies change. Education in digital citizenship is one of the most pressing needs our students have in this decade, and as my good friend @Gripweed1 is fond of telling me, you can't leave these things to the ICT department alone (this may largely be about avoiding doing any more work though!).
(This last phrase is an excellent example of something which, though written online, is nevertheless clearly libellous, and I expect he'll use it to exemplify cyber-bullying to the students on Tuesday, after he's had me arrested!)
And finally, there's the issue of digital leadership. This idea has been written about a great deal on Twitter by folk much more practised at developing it than we are, and we'll be nicking their ideas in due course! You know who you are. Suffice it to say that the students are probably your best advocates for any mobile technology roll-out, and if they can be convinced of the merits of using them for learning, they will probably be more than willing to engage in training in how to use the devices, how to trouble-shoot them, and how to help staff to get the most out of them. Our intention is certainly to get students trained up so that they are as much learning ambassadors as they are technical support, and attaching them to departments will enable departments to get to grips with the potential of mobile learning with digital natives by their sides. We hope the students can trouble-shoot for staff, can find them appropriate websites and apps to teach certain tasks and concepts, and whenever anything tech goes awry in the room, they will be the ones who should come to the rescue. Teachers may take a while to get used to this role-reversal (I know I did!), but for the students, their new role is nothing short of empowering, helping them to become much more equal partners within the school's learning community. Not a bad place to start when you're trying to foster independence, engagement and inquiry...
This is just the first phase of our plan, and any feedback would be really useful. We appreciate there will be issues, but this blog is a bit of thinking out loud, in the hop that many of you may have walked down the same path, and be able to share your experiences with us, and help us avoid too many mistakes.
Next issue: Staff training, parental involvement and buy-in.
Will keep you posted.
Oops, your cartoon.