Supporting learning with technology

Nicola Yeeles talks to edtech experts and leaders in independent education about current technology trends and how schools can invest their money wisely

Prioritising technology trends can be tricky: admin support, infrastructure and data management, or teaching and learning? Now that technology can support all manner of processes in the busy school day, what key trends are happening now in independent schools – and importantly, how can schools make the most of them by investing wisely?

Now that schools have to comply with GDPR, software to help schools manage the enormity of pupil data has proved essential. Portsmouth High School, and over 9,000 other schools, have invested in a piece of software called the Child Protection Online Management system, which allows them to monitor child protection, safeguarding and a whole range of pastoral and welfare issues. Members of staff can message each other on a need-to-know basis without worrying the email might go to the wrong person.

Reflecting on the importance of such investments, deputy chief executive officer of the Independent Schools Association Peter Woodroffe says: “Background infrastructure and admissions software is essential for the smooth running of any school, and schools need to be aware of two important issues before choosing a new product.

“Firstly, they need to ensure that the system is set up correctly for the independent school’s system, as there are regulatory requirements for admissions and staff recruitment that schools cannot afford to get wrong. Secondly, with a new system, the more time that is spent at the start, in understanding and populating the system, as well as in training the staff, will reap dividends in the future; these systems need to be implemented effectively, as otherwise they can prove to be more of a hindrance than a help.” 

pi-top’s Andrew Webb says technology gives children “skills they need for life”

Overcoming challenges

There’s no doubt that independent schools face particular challenges when it comes to getting their supporting technology right. Often based in older buildings on sites that may be large and spread out, it can be a challenge to get systems that talk to one another rather than working in silos.

At Cheltenham Ladies’ College, a new telephone system was needed.

Like many boarding schools, it is on a big, distributed site and parents, pupils and staff rely on it being available 24/7. Mat McMahon, network manager at the college, reports the effort that has been put into finding the right solution.

He says: “We wanted to go VoIP [voice over IP] but had heard horror stories from some schools we spoke to. For this reason and to get best value for money, we looked at a large number of companies and systems before choosing swcomms.” Staff now use a PC to control their phones from their desktops. They can search the dial-by-name directory, enter any telephone number or copy and paste from any application, establish and handle calls, and view the status of their colleagues from their computer.

Fads come and go, but as a teacher, I know that the most important part of education is the process of learning itself

A further trend is in investments of technology for teaching and learning, with a vast range available to schools.

Woodroffe says: “The huge push in coding and computing over the last 10 years has helped develop this market. Schools can invest in robotics systems, many have abandoned paper textbooks and moved to interactive electronic ones, and many schools have fully embraced the one-device-per-pupil ethos.”

The focus on STEM subjects has seen a greater push across independent schools for pupils to achieve in this area, with schools like The Queen’s School in Chester offering computer science A-level and others welcoming-in tech entrepreneurs to inspire pupils, as Ratcliffe College did in autumn 2019. St Faith’s School in Cambridge has run a hugely popular holiday ‘multi-hack’ course with pupils experimenting with Raspberry Pi and BBC micro:bit computers.

Schools are also encouraging teams to enter awards such as the CyberFirst Girls competition which aims to support girls interested in a career in cybersecurity and was entered last year by 841 schools across the UK. The competition saw a number of independent schools reach its top 10 teams.

Curriculum integration

Some independent schools are investing in maker kits that use simple computers that anyone can use to design, code and create just about anything. They are proving popular with independent schools keen to get their pupils thinking outside the box.

Head of content at pi-top Andrew Webb explains: “With the technology, learners choose a problem and design a solution, often with a real-world link, like how a robotic guide dog might work.

“Having written code, designed their solution and tested it, they then iterate to improve that solution. These are the skills that children need for life. To that end, we encourage schools to use pi-tops in an integrated way across the curriculum, not simply in silos into IT classes, for example.”

This is all happening in the face of a declining trend for IT nationally; in 2018, 130,000 students got a GCSE in either computer science or ICT, down from 140,000 the previous year after the phasing out of the less demanding ICT qualification.

But beyond the STEM curriculum technology is also making waves in how independent school pupils learn, and helping schools to deliver that all-important personalised curriculum that helps them stand out from the crowd. Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference, recently told TES magazine that his organisation is collaborating with an artificial intelligence (AI) company to produce a personalised learning portfolio for 16-year-olds to use as proof of their work and skills. 

The CyberFirst Girls competition

Former teacher David Camilleri is a maths specialist at CENTURY Tech, a teaching and learning platform.

He explains the value of AI for learning: “Using AI to aid teaching allows students to receive a personalised learning experience that treats them as individuals.

“With each teacher being responsible for teaching sometimes upwards of 100 students, this would be difficult, if not impossible, without technology. AI means that classroom teaching can be more reactive to the student’s individual needs.

“This is also true of when a student is studying at home or in their own time, making it a more holistic way to improve education.”

There’s no doubt that independent schools face particular challenges when it comes to getting their supporting technology right

What to invest in

So what should schools consider investing in this year? Camilleri says: “Fads come and go, but as a teacher, I know that the most important part of education is the process of learning itself. Focus on what is proven to improve the way children learn. Look for solutions that enable the human aspect of teaching to flourish.”

Jane Prescott, the Girls’ Schools Association’s incoming president for 2020, and head of Portsmouth High School GDST, agrees.

She says: “Wise investment is in anything that makes processes easier and simple. That can range from programs that help with admission procedures, trips and visits and checking the suitability of staff. Of equal importance is software that supports learning, from specialist subject interactive systems to platforms for collaborative learning.”

Woodroffe adds: “Also, it is not always necessary to spend thousands on technology. Many schools are finding wonderfully innovative ways to excite children at low cost to the schools.” 

An example is Oxford High School’s very own online course, designed to help sixth formers transition to university life. Their partnership with the Open University’s digital platform, FutureLearn, gives sixth formers an online course which focuses on how to make the transition from school to university smoothly with topics such as budgeting, time management, interview technique and negotiation skills. It functions like a MOOC but is tailored specifically to the school pupils’ needs.

Nevertheless, across the independent school sector, it’s clear that the focus of investment remains on teaching, learning and pastoral care, and not on the technology for its own sake.

Woodroffe says: “I suspect there are a reasonable number of parents who will be ‘wowed’ by a dedicated and flashy looking suite of machines. However, parents and pupils need to be careful to see what pupils are actually doing with the machines, and ideally, talk to the existing pupils themselves to find out whether the implementation is effective. 

“Investing in high-quality and passionate staff is of far greater importance. If the pupils are not inspired and enthused, as well as guided professionally, then the investment will be wasted, and pupils with be discouraged and put off,” he says.

Prescott agrees: “Technology supports school-based learning – it does not replace it.” The future looks bright for schools which are prepared to see tech as an enabler of, not a replacement for, intelligent humans.

You might also like: ‘Technology will create superteachers, not replace them’

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