Original article published in the October edition of Independent Schools Magazine.
Will bringing iPads and iPod Touches into the classroom distract students from the main business of learning? As a new two-year trial using Apple mobile technology in lessons gets underway at Felsted School, Essex, assistant headmaster Dr Nick Dennis explains the reasoning behind it and the theories he expects it to prove.
Many schools are still very wary of introducing mobile technology to the classroom. The main fear is that it prevents students from becoming properly ‘engaged’ in lessons, that it distracts from the main business of teaching and learning. We believe this is a result of the technology becoming the focal point rather than the learning. Placed within the correct pedagogical context, a mobile enhanced teaching and learning platform can usher in substantive benefits in terms of students’ academic progress and also pastoral care throughout the school. As a history teacher with a particular interest in the relationship between historical processes and the use of ICT to help further understanding, I was very concerned that the use of ICT was often thought of as a panacea to what is essentially a teaching and learning problem. After becoming aware of the growing body of research on effective teaching and assessment strategies by Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie, I began to think about the ways technology could aid effective classroom practice at Felsted. I was also keen to explore the possibilities mobile technology offered with regard to safeguarding and easy accessibility to information to help the administrative side of running a school.
Apple and Orange involvement
Apple were aware that we had a slightly different view on the use of technology in education and after a series of meetings with them, they understood the goals we had for our students and the school.
As a result Felsted has been named a Regional Training Centre for Education – one of the few independent schools to have this status and the only one in the UK with History as its focus – and Apple initially loaned a selection of MacBooks to Felsted. However, we decided to expand the programme with a particular focus on mobile learning over a two-year span, using class sets of iPods and iPads, the results of which Apple will monitor with interest. We are hosting a number of events throughout the trial period to show other schools and interested parties just how the technology complements traditional methods and what other benefits it can have for the school and its students. Mobile phone company Orange is also closely involved and has provided iPhones so that Felsted’s Housemasters and mistresses can stay in touch with their charges throughout the school day and access medical, registration and academic information necessary for their role.
Our project is focused on four academic departments in the Senior School, covering a range of age, ability and examination groups. These subject areas were chosen specifically as they have no clear link with technology in the classroom – Business Studies/Economics, Biology, Classics and History. Baseline student data and target grades will be used as the benchmark for measuring student progress and we are currently devising an approach where we can measure the actual learning taking place using the work of Graham Nuthall as a basis. One area we are keen to explore is Dylan William’s idea of ‘Hinge Questions’ as part of improving assessment of learning and providing the next steps for improvement. A ‘Hinge Question’ is where students face a number of multiple-choice questions during the lesson on their mobile device but instead of having one right answer, each answer refers to a particular level of understanding. Student answers are recorded and collated by the software and the teacher can then use this to give effective feedback to help move the student on. The devices can also be used to personalise content to students based on their performance so that learners are always challenged in relation to their performance.
To ensure that the research is rigorous, Miles Berry, Senior Lecturer in Information and Communication Technology at Roehampton University and Apple Distinguished Educator, is one of the academic advisers.
On the basis that the results of the first year of the trial prove to be successful, the plan is to roll out the mobile enhanced teaching platform to all other areas of the school in the second year and to monitor its effects there.
The benefits of using mobile devices in a pedagogically focused way are enormous. Not only do they move us away from the ‘office model’ mode of using technology, but their battery life, portability and multi-functionality allow them to be used in a variety of contexts. They offer basic academic staples tools, such as an electronic dictionary, thesaurus, calculator and planner, but also serve as note takers by using the camera/video and typing interface they provide. Outdoor and international visits take on a different dimension with the ability for GPS use and to create video blogs without the need to go to a computer to edit footage. We are also developing a mobile interface so students can gain easy access to their academic information, such as target grades and reports, and link to personal and school calendars, thereby removing the need for a paper planner. Pastorally, it is anticipated that the use of mobile devices will promote the quality of tutoring at Felsted by giving staff finger-tip access to student information, such as sanctions and commendations, medical details and contacts for parents, across the school campus and beyond. We also see the devices as having a key social effect in promoting the school community by the ability to respond to social- networking groups such as Houses, Year Groups, or the School Forum.
The desire to use these devices at Felsted is not driven by them being ‘cool’ (although the students perceive them as such). We believe that they may offer a vehicle to help improve what are already effective teaching, pastoral and social practices but with more speed, precision and in a context focused on striving to help students achieve their best. While the ‘office model’ of computers has promised much and has led to some improvements, it often meant that students had to be chained to desks. Learning can happen anywhere, and we believe that mobile devices may be able to help promote, capture and extend learning within and outside the classroom.