Learning in and out of the classroom

Emma Kershaw, E-Learning Programme Manager at Civica discusses key trends to consider in 2015 and advice from success stories

It seems, nowadays, the only thing schools can rely on is change. Whether it is a new curriculum, changes in legislation or technological advancements, educational bodies have to cope with a tidal wave of change. But sometimes, these fluctuations present an opportunity.

It is especially hard for institutions to keep pace with the speed at which technology advances. But they can’t afford to ignore it either. Today’s students need to have the requisite skills to cope with a digital world to be employable. The government’s response to this is the introduction of a computing curriculum designed to equip rising generations with coding skills. But how can schools afford to keep up? 

These are the challenges we see all the time – the balance between providing a first-class education and the need to manage a tightening budget. But there are some advances in technology that can offer schools a more flexible approach to budget management, better value for money and deliver an engaging learning experience. 

The cloud

Cloud computing has the potential to be a game-changer– making it easier to securely share and collaborate amongst students, staff and parents; as well as support extended learning and save money.

Where once schools had to commit to a significant investment in licence fees and then annual support costs the movement towards cloud-based delivery of software brings a more flexible approach. We see it in the consumer market as well, with manageable monthly fees replacing a large up-front investment. 

Civica worked with Sandymoor Free School to create a customisable online learning environment using Office 365 technology. Using cloud technology has revolutionised the way the organisation works – giving students and staff easy access to the learning environment anytime, anywhere from any device. This has drastically reduced the need for on-site storage and created a device-agnostic environment. Staff and students can now “plug in” using their own personal devices, rather than the school having to invest more heavily in mobile devices. Pupils also have a virtual homework diary hosted within the learning environment. Teachers upload and share all the necessary information, resources and deadlines with reminder alerts, so that students have everything they need to succeed. The platform also encouraged better communication between students and staff; and they are currently building in a behaviour reporting function so pupils can safely report any incidents without the fear that they will be seen talking to a teacher. 

The school’s online learning environment is as much a business tool as it is a learning tool, providing efficiencies in administration to maximise teacher time in the classroom and a full audit trail that can in turn be used to support Ofsted inspections. Andrew Howard, Head Teacher at Sandymoor School claims that “with the customised Office 365 and learning environment that Civica helped us develop, we are revolutionising the education experience and giving our pupils relevant skills for today’s employment market. I’m excited by the opportunities such technologies present.” 

Technology as an enabler

Technology can also be used in fun and creative ways to personalise learning and engage potentially challenging students. Holy Trinity School in Barnsley, South Yorkshire has famously been using cult-computer game Minecraft to successfully develop language and writing skills. They were keen to see how it could support the boys in the class who are particularly difficult to engage with reading and writing. It’s used to stimulate student’s imaginations and ideas so that they can then put together a creative piece of writing which describes the adventure they’ve just created in the game. The same process can be applied across the curriculum; from learning how to read maps in geography, building bridges in engineering or understanding how ancient communities built their villages in history. As Holy Trinity School knows, the key to successful learning is embracing new technologies in a way which appeals to students but also supports them on their journey to achieve target performance levels so no-one is left behind. 

Schools such as St Birinus School in Oxfordshire are using technology to create options for their students, personalising learning by giving them a choice of medium in getting to their learning objective. So, students can use blogging, podcasts, animation or the more traditional paper-based worksheets to complete their learning activity. Everyone is motivated by different things, by providing children with a choice of how they learn, they personalise the learning journey whilst also preparing them for the world of work.

Mobile devices and BYOD

This kind of self-managed learning is naturally best supported by allowing devices into the classroom; whereby pupils are able to work on the device they choose – accessing workbooks on their iPhone 5 or using e-readers and tablets for their reading assignments. Research from the Pearson Foundation has shown that 60% of students feel using tablets helps them to study more efficiently and perform better in the classroom.

Implementing a well-planned Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy can enable schools with limited budgets to take advantage of this; allowing them to make use of the devices that many pupils already have, with a small hardship fund to support those who don’t. St Birinus School in Oxfordshire is one institution that has successfully embraced a BYOD scheme. Pupils there bring in whatever device they have, all devices are then given secure access to CloudBase; Civica’s customised online learning environment powered by Office 365 technology, which brings teaching and learning to the fingertips of teachers, students and parents.

Concern for student e-safety is tackled in multiple ways from educating children on responsible use of internet technologies and implementing an actionable user acceptance policy, to deploying filtering software on the network to block inappropriate material.  

Big data

Behind all of these digital devices, platforms and processes is a huge amount of data, which is supplemented with the data a school has to collect for their census returns. With the right tools and partner support, this data can be used intelligently to identify problem areas, success stories and improve general operational efficiencies. One school we work with uses data to produce a weekly report card for children and parents, so they can see how they’re doing against key markers such as attendance, behaviour and achievements. Extracting this data allows them to reward and reprimand pupils appropriately; but by giving students a weekly update they’re empowering them to take control of their own careers at the school.

Strong foundations

Underpinning all of these technologies and inspirational projects is the need for a strong ICT infrastructure. A BYOD initiative will only work effectively if a school has a robust wireless network designed to cope with a sudden influx of multiple devices. Before embarking on any new innovations, organisations should first consider whether their existing infrastructure can cope – or speak to an expert third party to get their advice. Without strong foundations to ensure the stability of any new projects, schools won’t see the return on investment they would otherwise expect. 

A supportive culture for teachers is also essential when implementing new technologies and driving change around any organisation, particularly when teaching staff are already juggling so much in the classroom. Senior leadership teams should consider staff ICT capabilities, and the potential need for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to ensure staff have the requisite skills to get the most out of the new technology and that they feel comfortable in planning lessons that incorporate ICT. 

Technology can support a school’s vision, it can increase the time teachers spend engaging one-on-one with pupils and streamline administrative tasks to support better management. But every organisation is different, with its own challenges and ambitions. The right technology for one school, may look very different for another. It is essential that individual institutions find an ICT partner that listens to their priorities, understands their challenges and creates a solution that will deliver against their specific outcomes.