Saturday, 11 April 2015

Digital Exercise Books

In the modern world, we use technology to replace old ways of doing things all the time,from the introduction of cordless telephones, through to mobile phones and, of course, the replacement of the typewriter with the computer.

But as we can see from the diagram (called the SAMR model of technology integration), simply replacing how we've done things in the past is the lowest level of utilising the power of modern technology.

And we can clearly see the changes, moving towards augmentation, with text messaging, and tools like PowerPoint changing how we present and communicate, but these are 'just' enhancements to how things have always been done, rather than actually changing how things are done - transformation. That's not saying that this is a bad thing, but it is frequently cited as a reason why technology in education is costly and has limited impact. It is only when we go into true transformation that we can begin to see the true impact of technology on education.

At Sandymoor, we were set up with the strap line of being a 'Fresh Approach to Education' and everything we do is explored from the beginning, asking if this is the best way to do something, or just the 'normal' way things are done. This has led to us keeping a lot of things the way they are normally done - we are not into throwing out the baby with the bath water, after all! We even have some very traditional systems, like a house system, prefects and formal assemblies. But where we see a benefit for doing things differently, we embrace the change, and plan to embed the change in how we do things. The use of technology is firmly in this bracket, because we believe that we can only prepare our students for their future by embracing technology and transforming learning through technology.

One of the first things a visitor to the school notices is the fact that we don't have traditional whiteboards on the walls and have no 'Interactive Whiteboards' (IWBs) anywhere. This is because these tools are firmly in the bracket of substitution (or, in the case of the outdated IWB, occasional augmentation); from blackboard & chalk to whiteboard & pen, then to 'interactive' whiteboard, with digital pens. And yes, students could interact with these whiteboards, but surely that's what students have always done when asked to come and write on the board? There is no transformation there! And there really is no difference in a student copying out from a teacher's chalked writing or a writing from a board pen - there is still the relatively mindless, static copying out of information, the student passive and the teacher the active in the act.

But from this summer term, we are taking the transformation on to the next level. We have rolled out digital exercise books to all students. These are in the form of OneNote ClassBooks, integrated into our Office 365 ecosystem. Students can access their digital exercise books from any web-enabled device, giving them full freedom to use their own personal devices. We are enforcing a system where each student has to bring with them a device to lessons; these can be their own device, or a leased, or loaned device through the school, but they need to have something to access their digital exercise book.

So, how does this transform the learning experience? Well, the ClassBook provides a whole range of additional ways for engagement and collaboration. First of all, the ClassBook allows the students to add text, video and audio to their notes, making their work much more multi-media focussed. We already have, for example, students creating audio notes in Spanish for their homework, so they can practice their vocabulary without being embarrassed by their peers. It also enables teachers to provide much richer feedback; with audio notes replacing the red (or if trendy, green) pen. It also allows students to record videos or pictures of experiments in science, or instructions in technology.

There are also collaboration spaces, where students can work together on projects, copying the finished work into their own space for posterity at the end. And to cap it all, the teacher has a whole section that becomes, in effect, a living, growing text book, where class notes, additional material and extension work available for all students to access.

And if a student wants to work on paper, or forgets their device? Simple - they can quickly and easily upload a photo of their work into their ClassBook, again keeping it for posterity. This happens to make marking so much easier too; the teacher doesn't have to carry home stacks of exercise books as everything is online in their ClassBook.

So many young people struggle with handwriting, and the handwriting becomes a barrier to learning, something that causes barriers to go up; in these cases, the technology opens doors for students, as opposed to closing them.

Some will say that this is all well and good, but is at the cost of traditional skills. Not necessarily; handwriting is still an important skill to develop and one that the use of digital exercise books enhances, rather than degrades. This is because we can separate the skill from the content - when handwriting is being taught, this becomes the focus and rather than being assumed to be taught can become something that is explicitly developed. The same for grammar and spelling, where it can be easier to see, and correct, without impacting on the content. The development of spelling and grammatical skills is not degraded by the use of technology. Again, by the fact that we separate the knowledge & understanding from the skills development, we can spend more quality time focussing on and enhancing student understanding of the importance of grammar & spelling.

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