The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh, and sets the scene for a story we will be following closely on this blog.
By now it’s widely accepted that technology, appropriately used by good teachers, can be a key driver of school improvement. Standing up the supporting evidence, though, is not so easy. There are many intervening variables, as well as distractions brought about by failed or ill-prepared tablet implementations.
It’s particularly interesting, then, to hear about a project getting off the ground at Knutsford Academy in Cheshire, in partnership with Microsoft. There, Toshiba Satellite Click Mini two-in-one laptop/tablets are being trialled in years seven and eight in the maths and modern foreign languages (mfl) departments.
The first, and most important feature of this ‘Proof of Concept’ is that although it explores the benefits of technology, it is very much rooted in ideas about learning.
A vision for learning
Andrew Middleton, Knutsford’s Head of ICT, thinks deeply about pedagogy and learning, and believes it is increasingly important to combine traditional methods with modern technology to meet the needs of today’s learners. Teachers, he suggests, know that children are familiar with technology in their lives outside school, and yet are reluctant to use it in the classroom, preferring the familiar world of textbooks, instructions, and students who sit and listen. Introducing technology into this environment is seen as potentially disruptive, and neither teachers nor learners thrive on disruption and uncertainty.
That’s a very familiar, and understandable scenario. Successful teachers, under pressure to maintain results, are always likely to opt for ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
That retreat to the familiar, though, as Andrew points out, brings its own problems, one of which is ability setting, which makes it difficult to challenge the most able and risks alienating those who are labelled as inadequate. Maths and modern foreign languages – key subjects for students and for the school present particular difficulties in this regard which lead to what Andrew identifies as ‘Our Key Questions’, the most important one of which says,
‘How can we deliver good interactive, personalised teaching, in content heavy, skills based subjects where many kids across the country are currently struggling?’
Is technology the answer?
Clearly, technology beckons, offering the possibility of greater personalisation. The commitment is certainly there,
‘At Knutsford Multi-Academy Trust we believe that the innovative use of the right technologies within the classroom can have a major impact on learning.’
This is already demonstrated at Knutsford’s by the school’s increasing use of Office 365. Andrew Middleton enthuses about it,
‘OneNote is fantastic for instance. I don’t think I have come across a more useful product from Microsoft since ‘Word’. It’s so easy. I can put all my resources into OneNote and dip in and get what I need straight away.’
The challenge, always, is to spread this enthusiasm and productivity around the Academy. Or, to quote another of Andrew’s key questions,
‘How could we get the teachers to try another new initiative at the same time as being held to account for clear improvements in their kids?’
The answer is to begin with a limited trial with appropriate, carefully chosen technology that’s reliable, secure, under teacher control and which makes use, in the first instance, of software which is familiar to the staff.
As Andrew explains,
‘In this Proof of Concept project the tablets are owned by the school and sit within our network infrastructure. This has the advantage that they run like typical school machines and offer our standard range of curriculum software. The teacher has control over what the machines are being used for and what software is available. The resources are managed by teaching staff who are clearly supported by technicians and so the resources are reliable. The reliability of the resources is vital to staff who are planning teaching and learning within a pressured, results-driven environment. Finally, we limited the use of the tablets to two subject areas, mathematics and modern foreign languages.’
The choice of subjects was deliberate.
‘Maths gives hard measurable results, least likely to be statistically unsound of any of the major subject disciplines. There’s also some use of ICT there already, because the Pearson textbook has digital resources. The second choice of modern foreign languages was due to the extensive use of Sanako learning labs and PC suites in this area - and the constant demand for more kit, which indicated a pent-up demand and a vision for how ICT could transform the delivery of the subject. Picking just two subjects has meant that we can focus our proof of concept on two key areas rather than a broad brush style piece of action research that leads to broad general conclusions.’
The project, says Andrew, sets out to demonstrate three principles – that:
The resources we use within school lessons can work reliably on a Windows 10 tablet in our typical classroom environment.
Our technical team will appreciate the ease of the integration of tablets within the network infrastructure.
Classroom teachers will indicate a positive view of the impact of the technology within their classroom. This will be supported by a statistical study with groups of children in both subjects that show a change in the impression of their success and skill following the greater use of ICT and a video narrative that tells their view of the technology.
Watch this space
Clearly we are in the early stages, but the concentrated nature of the study is expected to lead to some significant conclusions in the early part of 2016. This is an important initiative in that it could provide if not irrefutable proof of the effect of one-to-one tablets, then at least what Andrew calls, ‘a robust narrative’ – which is always about the best you can hope for from any school-based research project.
In any event, we will be there to document the outcomes on these pages.
A Powerful partnership
As Andrew acknowledges, the Knutsford Academy initiative is very much a combined effort. As well as Microsoft, there are two other key partners. ‘Phoenix Software’ of York http://www.phoenixs.co.uk/ provided support for procurement and for technical support with implementing Office 365 and embedding the tablets. ‘Hable’ http://www.hable.co.uk/ who specialise in the sometimes neglected area of embedding new technology, with the associated cultural changes, are providing consultancy on the learning front, with a continuing presence in the school supporting staff in maths and mfl .