How to introduce digital technology and ignite your students love of learning

Light_bridgeIt has long been my belief that technology can have a transformative effect on education.  In the context of many schools, using technology imaginatively is a real opportunity to re-engage young people whose expectations of education are extremely low.  Students are curious when working with technology, and this can provide both a short term hook and long term motivation to extend their expectations and encourage them to take risks in their learning.

But there are significant barriers in the way of making progress in this direction in many schools.

Often the imagination of teachers is curtailed by the lack of availability of technology for a particular learning experience. It is difficult to plan to use laptops, computers and other devices, if they are not reliably available to a particular class. Technology therefore often gets used in a piecemeal way, with teachers rarely pushing students outside of their comfort zone of Internet access and PowerPoint presentations.

Meeting this availability challenge by swamping a school with available devices is also a risky strategy, as teachers ability to learn new skills and re imagine what they teach to fully take advantage of the technology being used doesn't happen effectively over a short period of time. It would be easy (if expensive) to swamp the school with digital devices and PowerPoint/Internet lessons that lack focus, merely duplicate bad practice, and make no positive gains at all.

How to bridge the gap to a more digital education

The solution as I see it, is to look for a variety of 'digital bridges' between our schemes of work and teaching styles, and where we might want to be in the future.

1. Blogging

Currently most students  provide a record of their learning in written form in each lesson. These exercise books are only seen by the teacher, the student and anyone overseeing the learning process, and it is this lack of a wider audience that limits their effectiveness.

A problem we face in digitally rich lessons is that much of the students creative work and progress in their learning is evidenced digitally, but we still ask them to reflect on marking done in books. They do not easily connect the digital work they have done with the evaluations they write, and anyone external to the classroom wanting to see proof of student progress often doesn't see the digital side at all. When classes and students have blogs and present, publish and reflect on their work in one place, the learning journey they are on becomes much clearer.

As blogs ask us to categorise our posts, what is to stop us from using blogs started in one class  being used across the school? Students can tag their posts with different subject or class names and the blog easily becomes an electronic portfolio of work from different places in school, with the categories menu on their home page allowing it to be viewed by subject or year. As teachers may not yet be able to rely on the certainty of digital technology in their lessons, they can build the use of blogs into their schemes of work where they can, and use printed QR codes in their exercise books to link to work students have completed digitally.  Initially blog use by those new to this may simply be presenting work written in books in a different way, but it could quickly lead to collaboration between students, classes, even countries.

Students are used to raising their own performance when an audience is present, and blogs offer a unique opportunity to offer them a wider audience for their work. While we must be careful to protect them online, it is still possible to collaborate with other schools safely, on work which takes on a much wider meaning for the students concerned. Numerous schools report that students experience an increase in their motivation to write, and gain an enthusiasm for developing their own literacy skills as a direct result of having a blog which is read by a wider audience.

The quad blogging website provides a way to connect our schools together and give the students an immediate audience for their work which can be difficult to generate quickly otherwise. These initial collaborations can easily lead to schemes of work designed to take advantage of the technology. Imagine students doing research on a particular country in the world and having a direct link to students living there, with students in other countries commenting on our UK blog posts overnight.

2. Digital tools to spark teacher and student imagination

Another aspect of building a digital bridge is giving staff in schools digital solutions to problems they currently solve in other ways. Often this means different ways for students to explore different concepts or demonstrate their learning. This is important, as simply turning on the Internet and expecting students to find something wonderful will often fail, as there is simply too much there and students lack the experience and patience to find it.  The often neglected Virtual Learning Environment is a perfect way to bring elements of the Internet together in a more manageable way for staff and students. Staff-facing pages can hold a growing list of Internet based resources and web apps, designed to give them new tools to deliver learning with. Student-facing pages can present learning attractively, and build independent skills by giving students access to a range of resources they can use to solve a problem or learn something new at their own pace.

A list of 36 web applications to investigate can be found here.

The iPad is also a wonderful source of digital tools to accomplish all sorts of things in staff and student hands. Many of these started life as web apps, but some are native to the ipad. iPad digital tools suggested for staff and student use are linked here.

There are also loads of web apps which allow students to embed their creations directly into their blog posts, edublogs teacher challenge site is a gold mine of these.

3. Digital Leaders

While staff may learn new technical skills at a slower pace, the same cannot be said of many students. As has been documented elsewhere, having students leading the development of digital tools in their school has extensive benefits. It can be disruptive to learning, and interrupt the pace and flow of a lesson to wait for technical support to solve a problem, and this can be a barrier to educators trying new things. Teachers will have more confidence to try some of the new tools they are being shown because of the ability of students to help if the risks they are taking don't always work first time.

It is unrealistic to expect many teachers not yet confident with technology to teach students new digital skills. When it comes to demonstrating their learning digitally, it is useful to have students who will suggest different ways to do this themselves. This allows staff to learn new ways of doing things too.

4. Staff skill development

It must seem to many staff that they are simply expected to know how to use the technology in their classrooms, as it is often difficult to find the time to deliver technical training, with everything else we are expected to do outside of the classroom. In additional, the development of digital skills is often not seen as a core part of the teaching job, or a way to improve progress and student outcomes either.

The problem of a lack of time is one which will always plague us in education, however there are ways to use time better, particularly in terms of the development of staff technical skills. The concept of the flipped INSET classroom, where teachers learn digital skills, new software and web apps by video tutorial before a session, means that time in training can be spent discussing the educational uses of what they have seen, rather than learning the software/web app itself. This also personalises the training to suit staff, who by nature will have very different skill sets. Wherever possible we should avoid providing technical training for all, that only half those attending actually need.

The Digital Destination

This is all very well, but what are we moving towards, where are these digital bridges leading us to?


'New approaches to learning' blog's flipping the classroom model

Many teachers have had success with 'flipping' the learning of students in their classrooms. This teaching style requires resources which are created and made available digitally, so students can learn something independently before a class, which results in class time that is spent more effectively. Many teachers fear trying this learning style as students can wreck a lesson by not doing this preparation. Flipped learning also often involves a narrow use of digital tools, as often learning is still demonstrated on paper in class.

The element that excites me about this teaching style is providing students with digitally created resources they can learn from independently. As a teacher this is a golden strategy when teaching the digital literacy strand of our new subject, as students begin to learn how to teach themselves and stop expecting their teacher to be the leader of their learning. When they take control of learning themselves, true personalised learning takes place, as students are accessing work and learning at their own pace.

How often in classrooms is the pace of learning slowed to that of the weaker students because the teacher still leads the learning process? Even when we try and differentiate to extend the more able students, too often their expectations are low enough that while we help other learners, those we hope will extend themselves choose not to. This is often because the type of extension work provided follows the 'same but different' model, and kids see through it.

Using video tutorials in lessons really can give learners the next major step in their understanding of how to do something. It is a real extension of their learning rather than something that is tacked onto the end of the classroom experience for anyone who gets that far. This is the real opportunity of developing more digital learning and the real definition of a digital lesson. It results in independent learners who lead and personalise their own experience and has huge cross curricular application and whole school benefits.

There are a growing number of digital tools, websites and apps which allow teachers of more traditionally paper based subjects to produce resources which would provide a similar level of personalisation:

Screen recording software (for recording and narrating PowerPoint or other screen based lesson material):

Easy to use video editing tools (after teacher has recorded themselves or other appropriate video):

Free video converting tools
Free video downloading tools

It is my belief that we will look back on this decade as one which revolutionised education for the better, and that technology will be central to this progress. How do we prepare our students for an uncertain and rapidly changing world but to seek ways to help them love learning new things. Digital learning does this, motivating students to take control of their own learning experience. Take deliberate steps and you can take your staff and students to a place where outstanding levels of commitment and progress is commonplace.