Embedding edtech in your teaching practice

Nigel Smith, MD of Courses and Learning at FutureLearn, explains how teachers can bring online learning into the classroom

Educators put great stock in learning, so the idea of continuous learning and professional development shouldn’t be a hard sell. ‘Live your brand’ as marketeers say. Yet while we’ve come a long way since chalk and blackboards — to the relief of anyone who endured their shrill screeching — we’re still to harness the full potential of online learning: a technology with real benefits to teachers in the classroom.

As MD of Courses and Learning at FutureLearn, the social learning platform owned by the Open University, I am, of course, biased. But I’ve also seen the huge benefits that online learning brings. Beyond specific courses, some of which I will talk about shortly, are broader points on the role of education. If at least part of education’s role is to prepare students for the world, then we must acknowledge that that world is increasingly digital; and that the learning environment should reflect that. Others might point to education’s societal duty to produce the professionals and skilled industry workers of tomorrow. For example, it is estimated that more than 500,000 additional computer scientists will be needed by 2022. Initiatives like the Institute of Coding, an ambitious £40 million project which aims to train the next generation of digital specialists, and which counts FutureLearn among its partners, is a bold step forward. But schools, too, have an important part to play.

It is why initiatives like the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)’s Cyber Discovery programme is so welcome. The £20m programme to train almost 6,000 teenagers gives thousands of young people the opportunity to learn cyber security skills alongside their secondary school studies through a nationwide network of extracurricular clubs, activities and a new online game. The programme – delivered by SANS, BT, Cyber Security Challenge UK, and FutureLearn – hopes to produce more cyber security professionals in the coming years.

Where resistance to online learning does exist, it might be born of misunderstanding its audience. At FutureLearn, our research identified several types of learner on our platform, all with distinct motivations. Teachers, in their professional capacity at least, are what we call ‘Advancers’: they are on their chosen career path, ambitious, self-motivated to do better, to progress and not stagnate. And here it is important to note that online learning can have two distinct benefits to teachers: one, it can be used in the class as an interactive tool to supplement other teaching methods; and two, it can be used away from the classroom for inspiration. So what might this look like in practice?

FutureLearn is fortunate in that we have wonderful partners doing great things on our platform. The Raspberry Pi Foundation, for example, is working to put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world — including into the hands of teachers who can make a difference with their own students. Among current FutureLearn courses specifically for teachers are Teaching Programming in Primary Schools, a free course providing a comprehensive introduction to programming, designed for non-subject specialist primary or K-5 teachers. Over four weeks, teachers are introduced to key programming concepts that they can use in the classroom. There’s the chance to apply understanding through projects – both unplugged and on a computer – as well as the opportunity to discover common mistakes and pitfalls, and develop strategies to fix them.

In STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) — so often in the news for a lack of gender diversity in education and employment — the National STEM Learning Centre is providing world-class professional development activities and resources to support the teaching of STEM subjects. Its programs include ‘Inspiring Young People In STEM’, which covers everything from resources and diversity to planning activities and using feedback to improve performance.

Nigel Smith

Elsewhere on FutureLearn, there are courses that educate learners on how to emulate the world-class maths teaching found in Asia. With Singapore, South Korea and Japan boasting the highest-achieving primary and secondary school students in maths and science – according to the 2016 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) – Macmillan Education and the University of Southampton have designed two courses to help teachers understand the key features of how maths is taught in primary schools throughout Asia and what makes those methods so successful.

The first of the courses, World Class Maths: Asian Teaching Methods, focuses on teaching principles and the reasons behind their global success, with learners comparing maths education in their own countries and the importance of teachers’ professional development in high-performing education systems. The second course, World Class Maths: Asian Teaching Practice, examines the subject in greater depth, with learners designing lesson plans to integrate Asian-style maths teaching methods into their own classroom practice.

The examples of courses that can help teachers listed here only scratches the surface of what is available. On FutureLearn alone there are courses on child protection for teachers, inclusive learning, becoming a student assistant, and professional development for early career teachers.

FutureLearn exists with the mission to ‘transform access to education for all’ and is able to reach people on a global scale, with over eight million learners across the world. For those already in education, online learning should not be seen as a threat, but a tremendous boon. Here is a tool — and FutureLearn is by no means the only one out there — that offers accessible professional development and in many cases for free; possibly spelling the end of expensive training days. Educators teach — but they still need to learn.

Learn more about online courses for teachers on FutureLearn at FutureLearn.com.