EdTech: A digital collective

Traditional teaching models are giving way to more collaborative classrooms, and tech is the glue holding it all together, finds Charley Rogers

The current focus on student wellbeing, and on ensuring that pupils receive the most suitable kind of education for them, means that the idea of a collaborative classroom is one that is becoming more and more relevant across the sector. The age-old model of a teacher stood in front of a classroom of 30 pupils, teaching at them and not standing for any chatting or moving around is slowly going out of style. Although classroom control and direction are still very much an important part of a teacher’s job, the advancements in technology have had an impact on pedagogical models, leading to more flexible and collaborative spaces, and to the teacher paradigm being redefined as curator, rather than recepticle of knowledge. 

“An ideal collaborative classroom is one that enhances the learning experience for students and creates a space that they – and the teacher – feel comfortable with,” says Janice Prandstatter, a Teaching and Learning Consultant for Promethean UKI. And technology plays a big role in this curation of space. Portable devices such as tablets allow for both expanded access to resources, as well as movement, not only within the classroom, but also outside, meaning that students can experience more hands-on learning and real-world applications of the theories that they are learning in class. 

And this portable technology is not only an advantage for students. Teachers also reap the benefits, both in their active teaching and in their work behind the scenes. “Portable technology has opened up the possibilities for a range of creative uses, from virtual reality science to an app for finding supply teachers,” says Shahneila Saeed, former teacher and Director of the Digital Schoolhouse programme. “Each [application] allows us to do our job in creative and exciting new ways,” she continues. 

So how do these two camps combine to allow for students and teachers to work together? “Today’s collaborative classroom relies heavily on student participation, including the sharing of ideas and constructive feedback to help improve learning and growth,” says Elliot Gowans, Vice President EMEA at D2L. Again, the developments in edtech now allow for these streamlined systems of feedback and sharing of ideas through group work. For example, if each child has access to a tablet, questions can be posed by the teacher through an app, where students can engage with them at their own pace and work together to form solutions. There are also apps available that allow teachers to monitor how each pupil is progressing with their work, meaning that useful data can be collected about where they may be struggling, or which topics interest them most. This process frees up more time for the teacher to engage with pupils one-on-one, rather than spending hours personally viewing each student whilst they work, marking their work by hand, and then composing reports to understand how they are coping with material. 

On the flip side

Flipped learning is another model that is becoming more and more popular through the advent of ever more sophisticated edtech. This model contributes to a collaborative classroom through giving the pupils more freedom in how they source their information, and what specifically they look at, as opposed to the standard teacher-in-front-of-the-class model where all students receive the same information from the same source and work independently to learn it. This also allows pupils to have more input during class time, by contributing their own findings to the lesson, and working together to compare what knowledge they have found. This is ideal within today’s collaborative classroom, says Elliot Gowans, and this atmosphere can be fostered “using technology to encourage collaboration for those who don’t naturally do so in a traditional environment, thus removing barriers and opening up the classroom to more people.” 

So what tech is required to facilitate such a classroom? This entirely depends on each classroom, and what tech is already in place, says Shahneila Saeed: “Sometimes we have a tendency to buy new tech without fully thinking everything through. It’s easy to just jump on the bandwagon without being fully prepared.” Although there are certain tools such as the aforementioned tablet, and integrated learning management systems that have been frequently cited as useful in the transformation of traditional classrooms to collaborative spaces, there are so many variables in play – including existing ICT systems, budget, and teacher and administrator knowledge – that a one-size-fits-all model is just not possible. 

There are, however, tips that schools can follow in order to ensure that they are doing all they can to provide the most suitable tech for their students and staff. In relation to streamlining resources, Janet Prandstatter suggests a central hub that supports the use of additional technologies. “This gives the class, including the teacher, a main focus, but then allows for more collaborative and individual learning opportunities,” she says. 

“Where a school has a mixed ICT estate,” Prandstatter continues, “cloud-based software solutions provide a valuable resource. These enable the same platform to be used across a range of devices, and several secure, high-quality, browser-based products, such as ClassFlow, are available for free.” 

Preparation is key

Knowing your classroom, then, and analysing its key needs and boundaries, is essential to ensuring the most effective collaborative environment. “Before implementing new technology, it’s important that schools understand what barriers are preventing their students from collaborating, and how technology can improve student engagement,” says Elliot Gowans. Once you have planned out what it is your classroom needs, and what constraints you have – whether that is space, budget, or staff capabilities – the next stage is to research what products are available. Many things need to be taken into consideration during this stage, especially the physical space at hand, says Janet Prandstatter: “Ensure the learning space and technology are in place to support any pedagogical activity that will be taking place,” she says. “The space needs to be able to adapt to the changing roles of the students and teacher and support different learning styles.” 

It is essential at this stage, then, to understand that needs and roles of both student and teacher will go through periods of change. Collaboration can often include trial and error processes, and a certain element of ‘letting go’ is needed to allow the new model to develop. This ability to distance yourself from the need to control all aspects of the classroom is crucial, says Saeed: “If students are going to be collaborative and creative, then we must allow them the opportunities to be so.” Maintaining a certain control of the classroom is important, she says, but it is also tantamount to the success of collaboration to allow students to feel out their own experiences. “Provide opportunities for guided exploration, letting students make their own discoveries within a framework that you, as the teacher, define.” Finally, says Saeed, don’t worry about being an expert before embarking on the use of tech. “Allowing yourself to learn alongside your students can not only be an effective way to manage your time and workload, but also a highly effective teaching strategy.” 

It seems then that the age of Teacher as Canon is slowly being replaced by Teacher as Guide, and that in order to ensure the process is as smooth and effective as possible, carefully selected and implemented edtech is paramount.