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REGION: UNITED KINGDOM

Education Technology

HOW TO KEEP YOUR STUDENTS ENGAGED AND LEARNING DURING LOCKDOWN

Keeping children engaged with their learning while not in the classroom has been a challenge for many parents across the UK in recent months. We interviewed Jo Maule, E-Learning Manager at Talbot Heath School, to find out how technology hardware and software has helped them to carry on providing their students with a valuable education during lockdown.

How were you using technology before the coronavirus?

Jo Maule: We use iPads throughout the whole school and have individual iPads for all students from year 3 upwards. Our junior school (Kindergarten to Year 6) use them quite heavily as part of their everyday learning and use them for every subject, albeit not in every lesson. Our headteacher is a firm believer of interdisciplinary learning, so is happy for them to take the tablets into our woods and use them to video or take photos of what they find, as well as use them for general research and apps. The teachers are usually quite flexible with regards to which app or format the students submit work using. It definitely helps to allow them to use what they might be familiar or already comfortable with.

What technology/software/tools have you used to carry on as normal?

Jo Maule: We have been fortunate enough to be able to carry on almost completely as normal regarding work, to a certain extent. The only major difference was implementing the use of Zoom for video conferencing. We felt it was important for the teachers and students to maintain face to face contact, in quite an isolating environment. So far, the vast majority of feedback regarding Zoom has been positive, and it's something we're planning on continuing to use going forwards in specific circumstances, where students are physically unable to attend for a variety of reasons.

Aside from that, we are a G-Suite school anyway, and we get free iWork apps with iPads, so again it comes down to giving the students autonomy on which apps they prefer to use. G-Suite works particularly well because they can use them on any device (Mac, iPad or PC/Laptop). It's great from an administrative point of view as well, with the students being able to sign into everything using Google SSO (Single Sign-On), we don't need to worry about them forgetting usernames and passwords as much, which makes administration much easier. We also now rely heavily on Google Classroom. Only some of the teachers used it previously, but now most of the teachers are using it since lockdown was implemented. Being able to upload and download work via the G-Suite apps is very easy and suits the teachers and students better than posting out a pack of work.

Lastly, the only other tools we're using for collaborative work/home learning are Seesaw and Classkick. They are both online remote learning apps that create powerful learning loops between students, teachers and families. They're both especially useful for our younger students, in Junior School and Pre-Prep. They can now video and upload their work, whereby their teacher or parents can comment on what they've been up to.

close up of a tablet and books on a desk
“This situation has been a case of 'actions speak louder than words', and I think it has now 'clicked' for a lot of people, in the sense that they've realised how important technology is and how much it can support learning.”
Jo Maule, E-Learning Manager, Talbot Heath School

Were there any challenges you faced when switching to remote learning?

Jo Maule: Surprisingly, not really. We were lucky in the sense that not many of the students had internet issues at home. Perhaps with Zoom, we had a few problems with Meeting IDs and passwords from a security perspective. i.e. should we change them each time or stick to the same ones, once this was ironed out its been absolutely fine though. We do have an IT Helpdesk, but this has really quietened down the past 2/3 weeks, so it's not been too bad at all. We've made this available not only to staff and pupils as usual but also to parents and carers.

Why do you think some schools appear to struggle to implement digital technology within the classroom?

Jo Maule: In my opinion, the  two most important things are to have a rigid infrastructure at school, and to make sure you have enough staff who can support the implementation, maintenance and general day to day running of the technology implemented. I know other schools have gone down the technology route but hadn't sufficiently planned it, or invested in their infrastructure beforehand. Like with any significant projects regarding technology, there can be many issues you can't always foresee beforehand until you're in that position. It can be difficult to implement solutions in retrospect, but fortunately, if you don't have a tech team in-house, there are many service providers around now who can support both physically and remotely.

There are other important things to consider, such as having a suitable MDM (Mobile Device Management) system in place. Sometimes I hear of teachers saying they're going to be responsible for looking after the technology themselves and it makes me shiver! We have a team of 3 – 4 people who help to support the teachers, and it allows the teachers to focus on their areas of expertise, such as actually teaching, planning lessons and marking. When you've already got a full teaching timetable, the last thing you need is to be managing an entire IT estate. I guess it does depend on how many devices you have though; we have almost 700 iPads, so it's just not possible. If you had maybe 50, it's probably a different story, to be fair.

Finally, there's also so many other little bits and pieces to consider to successfully implement digital technology, such as managing and updating apps, researching, testing apps, creating 'how-to' videos, as well as staff training. It's crucial you don't just give teachers these devices and expect them to instantly know what to do. You can't leave them feeling lost, worrying, 'Oh, what do I do with this?!'. That's why we ensure the tech team spend time with the teachers and students and are there to support them with anything they might be unsure on.

 

Going right back to when you first implemented iPads within the school. Is there anything you wish you did differently?

Jo Maule: It has been a real learning curve, and as time has gone on, there have been lots of changes for the better as more schools and educational institutions have realised the benefits of using iPads and other mobile devices to support learning. Apple and our Apple Education Specialist have both played key roles in supporting the use of iPad in education, by putting on free events and allocating us representatives, who regularly check in on us and support us. Not only are the events interesting and enjoyable, but you also get the opportunity to meet people who are at different stages of their journey in implementing and using mobile technology to support education. Everyone has something to offer or share, and I've met some amazingly inspirational peers at these events. I always come away with loads of useful tips and tricks, which I go on to share with my school community, and beyond.

Although there's no 'official community' as such, for picking up tips from other educational institutions, I've found Twitter is a great place to find out what others are doing. The Head of Computing in our Junior School is quite prevalent on Twitter, and she shares a lot of great content and ideas she's picked up. Sometimes it can just be as simple as when I've spent days researching and evaluating different apps and ways to do things, and then found out there's a problem, or it doesn't work as expected. Being able to speak to other schools who have already gone through these processes helps massively, so as a school at the forefront of technology, we're always happy to do the same.

Finally, one of the things I feel quite passionately about is teachers listening to students, and not being afraid to try new things, even though they may not always work! Our students and young people have grown up with technology and are generally more confident in experimenting. If a pupil has an interest and is capable, why not let them teach you and share their skills and knowledge with the rest of the class? I appreciate it can be daunting for a lot of teachers, especially for those who have been teaching a long time, and watched teaching change significantly, but the pupils really love it, and I think it's great for them to see you are human! They usually love having a chance to be the teacher and also realise that they may know more about a topic than their educator. Lockdown has really helped to develop skills and confidence in our students, which has been wonderful to see. For example, some of the students have been sending in phenomenal videos of things they've learnt at home, such as making 'how-to' videos on how to create origami, sports skills they have developed, as well as the wildlife they have found in their gardens.

"In my opinion, the two most important things are to have a rigid infrastructure at school, and to make sure you have enough staff who can support the implementation, maintenance and general day to day running of the technology implemented."
Jo Maule, E-Learning Manager, Talbot Heath School

How do you see schools returning? Will it be a new normal with an increased focus on technology? Or perhaps even a blended approach - classroom vs remote?

Jo Maule: Honestly, I don't really know at the moment because it's a fluid situation, but it's important to remember that despite the serious nature behind lockdown, we have definitely experienced some positives too. Many teachers have been significantly upskilled in their use of technology because they've been forced to start using it because it's the only way to accomplish certain tasks. The same goes for a lot of the students, and I think that can only be a good thing.

I expect that this situation has had a huge impact on education in general, and many of these adaptations will continue to exist, and develop further in the future. As an example, a while ago, one of our pregnant teachers needed to isolate due to a student being diagnosed with chickenpox. She said, "why don't I just carry on teaching my lessons, but via Facetime?" Our headteacher is very supportive of technology and wholeheartedly supported giving it a try. A member of the Tech Team set this up, and supervised, to ensure everything ran smoothly, which it did. We are lucky because our students are generally very well behaved, and I appreciate that perhaps this wouldn't work for every school/class. But in a situation where a teacher or student can't physically be in school, we now know it works well, and we've got a good back up in place for most subjects.

What many educators, students and those working in the industry already know, is that as long as you have an internet connection and a mobile device, you can pretty much work from anywhere nowadays. At first, we were worried about how we might carry on without physical, technical support, but the vast majority of the time it's been absolutely fine, and it's been business as usual. If a problem has occurred, we've just video conferenced a student or staff member, and remote-controlled or looked at their screen that way. We already have a helpdesk ticketing system, so we have just opened that up to parents now, as well as staff and students. So potentially in the future, we don't see why there couldn't be a mix of working from home, school and other locations if we can't all physically be in one place at the same time.

Finally, I've experienced how great it's been from a parental perspective as well. My daughter attends our school, and she's been able to just take her iPad, sit down and follow her school timetable as usual, which has been comforting for students at a time when it appears that everything else is not normal. I've been able to work from home without being disturbed, which has been a real blessing! I've seen friends working in other schools, trying to teach lessons while their own children are climbing the walls because they're bored and their school hasn't set them any work, or enough work, or the work is not engaging enough. Others have had to physically post out packs of work, and then recover it to mark, which blows my mind and seems so much effort and hassle when there is a much quicker, easier way.

What's the biggest takeaway/positive from this experience?

Jo Maule: Because I'm so passionate about technology and it's what I do, I think previously not everyone 'got it' and fully appreciated the benefits it can bring. This situation has been a case of 'actions speak louder than words', and I think it has now 'clicked' for a lot of people, in the sense that they've realised how important technology is and how much it can support learning. Previously, many teachers I know of saw technology as another thing to learn and add to their workload, when, in fact, with self-marking and quizzing apps, as well as collaborative and organisational apps, teachers now realise technology can significantly help them, not make their life harder.

I think sticking to our regular timetable of 6, 50-minute periods, with a 20-minute break in the morning and an hour lunch break has helped as well. It's been good for everyone to stick to a routine and gets you up and ready in the morning! Plus, it's been great to still have face to face contact as a lot of the students and teachers are missing their classes, but by the kids sharing what they've done out of school, we can still feel like we're part of each other's lives. Overall, it doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. I really do think there are a lot of positives to take away from this experience.

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