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Brave new world

From BYOD to fully immersive classrooms, Steve Wright rounds up key technologies boosting learning across independent schools

Posted by Hannah Oakman | June 02, 2016 | Technology

Coding, gamification, bring your own device (BYOD), Virtual Leaning Environments (VLEs): the last few years have seen a significant increase in the harnessing, by the UK’s independent school sector, of digital technology. This technology, when properly deployed, has the power to make learning yet more engaging and transformational. Just as importantly, it will prepare this generation of pupils for a future in which the digital and virtual worlds will be more all-pervasive than ever.

First, some context. David Horton is a Science and ICT teacher at Orwell Park School, and is ICT subject advisor for the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS). David says: “Over my career, I have noted various cyclical trends with technology in schools, one of which is the balance between innovation and consolidation. At this time we are at the zenith of a transition from innovation to consolidation, with many schools adopting the advances made by their most adventurous peers.

“This can be seen most clearly in the use of mobile devices, where the majority of schools have some sort of provision in place. The range of adoption is wide, from those schools perhaps with a class set of devices, through those (mostly senior schools) with a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy in place, to others like Orwell Park where we are currently rolling out 1:1 iPads through years three to eight.” 

Recent changes to the iPad’s iOS operating system have given Orwell Park, primarily an Apple school, more management options than ever before. “We will be using the devices in ‘supervised’ mode, giving us full central control through our Mobile Device Management system,” David explains. “We can control which apps are available, and ensure that all internet access from the device comes through the school's filters, even when not on the premises.

Boundary Oak School

David strongly believes that a key part of pupil engagement with mobile devices is ownership, and so has asked parents to supply their children's iPads. “Although we have set up a scheme allowing them to do so with educational discounts, this has probably been the toughest ‘sell’. What I do not want or expect is that these devices take over lessons: I would hate to sterilise lessons by using online resources instead of practical experiments, but being able to write them up quickly using photos and video on the iPad would really augment the whole learning experience.”

Like many other schools, Orwell Park are about to take delivery of the new BBC micro:bit – a handheld, fully programmable computer being given free to every year seven child across the UK. “Many people are comparing it to the 1980s Micro computers and, as a child of that generation, I believe there will be some similarities, although I think that the opportunities for creativity afforded by the micro:bit will give it much broader appeal,” David reveals. “Will it turn everyone into programmers? Probably not. Will it be a major step in closing the technology skills gap? Probably.”

Elsewhere, The Mount School in York has adopted BYOD in the past 12 months. “This innovation has enabled Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), gamification and more,” explains Vanessa Charters, the school’s Director of Marketing. “We became the first school in the UK to be awarded Gold Level certification from the Historical Association for our excellence in History teaching, where pupils regularly use online blogs, resources and media.” Recent projects include research on the 1,400 female casualties of World War 1 commemorated in York Minster’s Five Sisters’ window – using the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Lives of the First World War’ digital platform, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database, the website and other online sources. Elsewhere, Head of Classics Caron Downes uses QR codes to create gaming-style activities that help her students to learn vocabulary and conduct research on ancient civilisations – and has found that, 18-24 months later, students are more likely to retain information learned this way.

Surrey’s Tormead School has also embraced a 1:1 iPad scheme. In March, Tormead was appointed an Apple Regional Training Centre, allowing it to share with local schools its active and transformative teaching and learning using iPads.

Tormead School

One of the biggest successes of Tormead’s iPad 1:1 programme has been the introduction of an innovative homework diary app, App4 Students. In addition to a personalised timetable, App4 Students helps the girls to manage their educational life on a daily basis. Teachers can populate a class’s App4 Students diaries with a homework assignment, and students can enter homework assignments and due dates into their diary. Other useful school information within the app includes links to sports fixtures, House activity announcements, lunch menus and club rotas. 

Tormead’s Head of Biology has his own website and YouTube channel, Mr I Explains, where videos explain various scientific processes and concepts. The History department also has its own Vimeo channel, providing support outside the classroom. Since September, moreover, Tormead has installed 84” Activpanel interactive screens to complement its brand new classrooms. The Promethean ActivPanel screens deliver full HD and 4K Ultra HD picture quality, powerful interactive software and an intuitive touchscreen, creating a truly engaging, 21st-century learning experience. 

Further west at The Royal High School, Bath, Head of Geography Raphael Heath harnesses technology in various fascinating ways – most innovatively through geographical information systems (GIS), or computerised mapping technologies. Raphael has been developing the use of GIS at the school for a number of years now, and has created some global collaborative mapping events in which over 20,000 students from around the world have participated.

Royal High School Bath

“These ‘Map Off’ events occur on World GIS Day every November,” Raphael explains. “Using the ArcGIS Online platform, I invited schools to contribute data about their home location to the online map, and to then analyse the complex large data patterns using a variety of spatial analysis tools. In 2014 students contributed data relating to their ratings of the quality of life in their home area. In 2015 students used a series of maps to calculate the risk to their home location from a potential mega volcanic eruption event.” The 2016 Map Off will be themed around climate change – students will be asked for their views on global warming and will then be able to see how these views vary between regions and countries. 

Headington School’s Prep School has made significant investments in computing hardware and software, including iPads, robotics kits, Crumble Kits, Raspberry Pis and a 3D printer. “We have combined these exciting additions with Google Apps for Education and, most importantly, a very robust network and server infrastructure, super-fast Internet and plenty of training,” explains Computing subject leader Matt Wimpenny-Smith. The results are plain to see: weekly Code Club and Minecraft Club are always over-subscribed, while a group of year six pupils act as Digital Leaders, meeting weekly and helping across the school with IT support as well as updating the school's VLEs and undertaking their own projects.

Heading ton School

Matt’s advice to other schools wanting to boost their technological offer? “Spend money on infrastructure – get the best you can afford. Research the hardware and software, start small and grow organically. Have a clear vision, strong leadership and specialist teaching if you can – and plenty of training. And don't be afraid to let the pupils lead!” 

Students from Portsmouth High School, meanwhile, recently took part in the final of the first ever Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) 3D Design Challenge. Working in teams, junior and senior students were asked to design a 3D printable product to support the work of international charity WaterAid.

Year 11 students at Portsmouth High School using a 3D printer

The students presented their ideas to a distinguished panel of industry experts and innovators. Portsmouth’s Evelyn Sadler and Yasamin Naser, both 16, were awarded the prize for best technical design. Their design was produced using the school’s new two-colour, multi-material 3D printer, funded by the school’s Parent/Staff Association. 

Elsewhere, innovations at Croydon High School include an Immersion Space or 4D Room, which uses a combination of light, sound and projection to transport pupils to any given time or place. “We use the 4D room across the curriculum and invite other local schools to use it too,” explains Junior School Head Sophie Bradshaw. “Teachers have previously ‘immersed’ children in an environment by building a war trench from tables or covering the walls with material and hanging fish from the ceiling – which took hours to prepare and was arguably less realistic!”

The 4D Room at Croydon High School

To complement year four’s study of Oranges in No Man’s Land – a novel by Croydon alumna Elizabeth Laird, set in war-torn Lebanon – teachers uploaded images of the Lebanese civil war to the 4D room and programmed noises of bullets and shelling. “Stepping into the space was like a window into the heroine’s world,” Sophie recalls. “It was no surprise that the resulting poetry was filled with vivid images and emotion.”

Deputy Head James Polansky runs Boundary Oak School’s Coding Club alongside some keen year eight pupils. “Parents may be surprised when their child comes home talking about algorithms, debugging and Boolean logic,” James reflects. “But code is everywhere: in your phone, your car, the cards in your wallet. It’s the language that is shaping our children’s future.

“Children want to learn how to code. It empowers them. It gives them control of their computer and their learning. They decide what their app or games will do and, more often than not, they teach themselves or each other. Coding builds skill sets with lasting benefits – logical thinking, problem solving, persistence, teamwork, communication – and the pupils have really embraced it.”

Orwell Park School:

The Mount School, York:

Tormead School:

Royal High School Bath:

Headington School:

Portsmouth High School:

Croydon High School:

Boundary Oak School:

Mr I Explains

Raphael Heath’s 2016 Map Off!event-details/miwbg


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