Overcoming technological challenges in schools

Schools face a number of challenges when implementing technology. Based on my readings and studies that I have conducted over the past few weeks (and taking UNESCO’s ICT Integration Study as a basis of my findings) here are some challenges that schools face and possible solutions or pointers that they may wish to consider when trying to embed technology across the school and curriculum areas:

Teacher Confidence: Various studies have suggested (you can refer to my previous posts for a detailed look at these) that teachers are often reluctant to adopt technologies as they simply do not have the confidence to deliver their curriculum using the technological tools available to them. Additionally CPD is a problem with many schools who are reluctant to invest money and resources to develop their staff. Online learning platforms are becoming increasingly popular for people wishing to learn about various topics and I feel that they are a resource that are yet to be exploited by schools to ensure the development of their teachers. In order to deliver particular aspects of the curriculum, teachers need to be aware of how to use various technologies and software, one way to do this is to allow them to independently work through online courses and MOOCS that will allow them to improve their skills and collaborate with other teachers and learners to improve their teaching practice and knowledge in a particular area. Sites like Lynda.com, Mooc.com, Coursera, Edx and Udemy are excellent in allowing teachers to learn, practice and ultimately deliver the curriculum with confidence. This is not only a cost effective way of delivering CPD, but also allows teachers to develop their skills in their own time and earn recognised certification from reputable institutions and ultimately build their CPD portfolio.

Money: Schools often do not invest in technologies as they are simply too expensive. Yet time and time again studies have shown that schools that open their doors to institutions and other schools make more progress when it comes to technological integration. Collaboration with organisations and other schools to share ideas, (expensive) resources and good practice is a good way to overcome issues with spending. Sharing of resources is cheaper than buying outright and also allows schools to share the load.

Support: An online Learning Management System (LMS) or Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) where teachers can collaborate, help and support each other as well as share good practice will allow teachers to be less pressured when having to deal with areas of teaching ICT and technology that they may not be comfortable with drawing on the experience of others; this however relies on a good school ICT infrastructure (see point below).  There are an array of websites that teachers can and should be using to facilitate their learning. Teachers should assume that schools aren’t going to be helpful (a sad reality of the current system) – however websites (i.e. TES Resources) offer a myriad of free and paid for resources as well as forums to allow teachers to support each other and share good practice. An added incentive for some teachers now is that they can upload resources and be paid for their contributions.

Technology and infrastructure: How many times have we seen our schools invest in the latest technological developments only to see them shelved? This is a direct result of schools and governing bodies not thinking the problems through and wanting to implement quickfire solutions to long standing problems. When implementing technologies within a school, technologies should reflect of the infrastructure rather than the infrastructure trying to keep up with the technologies that the school adopts. All too often schools realize that their infrastucture cannot handle another ICT suite or a class set of tablets/iPads. A strategy that considers the infrastructure before any investment is made will ensure that schools do not waste money and resources and exhaust a system that cannot support. This will also mean less pressure on staff to deliver their curriculum on systems that just won’t cooperate (I am sure many teachers share this frustration!).

Time: All too often educators are battling with time to produce results and get the all important A* – C grades. Quite frankly, teachers do not have time to implement newer technological changes into their subject areas and often favor traditional methods over new ‘improved’ ones (past experience may tell them that these “improvements will be shelved anyway”). To combat this All stakeholders need to work together and share ideas as well as establish long and short term plans. When these issues are discussed, realistic time frames can be drawn that ensure that no stakeholder is pressured into delivering to unrealistic timings and deadlines.

School Management: With adequate training and development of staff, the management of the school and how operations are run will inevitably be streamlined. This will initially take time, but will work in the schools favor in the longer term and take pressure of teachers once better technological practices are adopted. Schools need to remember that change cannot happen overnight!

Family Context: Again, good use and implementation of VLE where parents are aware of what is going on in the school allows them to be more involved and readily share thoughts and ideas making the school more receptive to the family context. Schools should realize that parents are the important link to their students when they are not in the classroom and shouldn’t be treated as decision makers that influence academic decisions.

Ultimately, no school will be able to successfully implement technology  unless they are prepared to lay down the much needed infrastructure and evaluate where they are and where they need to go. The irony here is that most curriculum areas within schools encourage students to conduct evaluative studies of their work and make educated decisions about where they are and how they need to progress to get where they need to be; unfortunately our schools and their senior management teams seem to fall short in implementing such a strategy for development themselves!

ICT or Comptuing? – Planning for the future

ICT is… “so harmful, boring and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped”

In December 2012, I left my nice job as Head of ICT Department in an East London comprehensive, to venture into the unknown world of teaching beyond the school where I had completed my NQT year. I had six good years as an ICT teacher behind me and could have easily done six more. My department had successfully become a grade production line which took students in with the promise of A*-C grades and duly delivered – I opted to embrace change and go into teaching Computing too…since adopting this change, I have found that one thing that confuses many is the difference between ICT and Computing and how are things changing in schools?

Earlier that year, the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove along with “…other experts, including the British Computer Society and ICT professional association Naace, confirmed the current National Curriculum Programme of Study was dull and unsatisfactory. Some respondents to a 2008 e-Skills study said that GCSE ICT was “so harmful, boring and/or irrelevant it should simply be scrapped”.” (Ref)

After Gove’s crusade on my subject, I remember walking into my Line Manager’s office and asking her if I still had a job, at which point she smiled and said; “Do you really take what that idiot has to say seriously?!”

Now I’m in no way a fan of the idiot, oh errr, I mean Michael Gove or his “off the cuff” policies which didn’t appear to be well thought out or based on much other than how he was feeling at the time. But one thing I did learn, and stand by, is that most of the policies then (and now) are largely based on the fact that education system in the UK has been overlooked for so long that ministers must have woken up one morning in 2012 and realized that the world had sped on ahead while the UK was struggling to teach working class white boys how to read and write properly (yes that’s a priority of the UK education system); they wanted change and they wanted it quick! Subsequently, blame had to go on someone and as always the teachers were laid to blame for the shortcomings and neglect of the system. (We seem to take the blame for pretty much anything: Economy not doing too well? Must be the teachers pensions; Gun and knife crime on the increase? It’s the teachers’ fault; Increased level of teenage pregnancies? It’s the teachers again!; Too much salt in your cooking?…Yep gotta be them bloody teachers!).

So what’s all this got to do with the difference between ICT and Computing? Well firstly, it’s my blog and I felt like having a rant, but more importantly the idiot actually made sense! ICT had become a subject that had indeed become dull and boring and needed some serious change; it needed to be bought in line with technological developments and not about “hey guys let’s make yet another PowerPoint presentation about…PowerPoint presentations?”

So… what’s the difference between ICT and Computing? Well it’s quite simple really, and I like to give the following analogy to my students who eagerly come to me at the end of Year 9 and are choosing their options for KS4. I tell them:

“See it’s like this, if ICT is like learning how to drive a car properly then Computing is like being the mechanic”. It’s at that point the penny usually drops and students make a decision “Do I want to be a driver or a mechanic?”

ICT has evolved over the years and continues to evolve. In my 10 years of teaching, I’ve been involved in revamping as many schemes of work. Many people are under the illusion that ICT teachers generally have an easy ride when it comes to curriculum delivery. After all, what could be so hard about getting a bunch of kids to sit on the computer and make them watch YouTube videos and make presentations all day long? This has also become one of the reasons why students have, time and time again been pushed into taking ICT as options at KS4 and 5.

“It’s ICT, not Rocket Science!” was the response that I got from my current Headteacher after my students didn’t do as well as expected in a later position I took on. What my Head didn’t want to hear was that the students I had been teaching were doing the A-Level based on poor guidance by their tutors who thought it would be an easy ride and a good backup option. My students in the international school where I am teaching also have English as an Additional Language and weren’t cut out for an exam that was essentially designed for the ‘British’ student. Furthermore students were being entered into the ICT A-Level who wouldn’t have qualified for A-Levels in the UK and were well below the 5 A*-C grades (including English and Mathematics) that is the standard benchmark for considering students for study at Advanced Level. Ironically, the Head’s son took the exam a year later and had found the exam very hard. I was approached in the corridor by the Head and asked about the exam as his son had expressed how challenging it was; I responded diplomatically and said that it was as expected. I should have said “It’s ICT, not Rocket Science!”

“Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” (Edsger W. Dijkstra)

The truth is ICT continues to change but the problem is people’s perceptions and ideas about the subject haven’t. Perhaps it’s this very reason why the subject hasn’t been given the opportunity to develop and thrive like it should. Unfortunately as a result ICT lacks the context that is required by a subject to make it engaging; most ICT is theory based and fuelled largely by abstract ideas and concepts that students can’t fully understand unless they apply them in a practical way. This is one of the reasons why I have become a fan of the International Baccalaureate which uses ICT as a tool for students to complete aspects of their work as opposed to being a subject that is taught discreetly. Computing on the other hand allows students to explore and understand computers on a practical level and is a subject that works well when being taught as a subject in its own right.

I think the quote “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” (Edsger W. Dijkstra) sums up computing and computer science very well as it emphasizes an expected level of understanding computing methods.

So What’s the Future of ICT and Computing?

The International Baccalaureate (IB) (especially at the Middle Years Program) has, in my opinion shown most promise for ICT within schools and laid good foundations as to how ICT should be used within the curriculum. IB expects students to combine learning, skills and theory from a range of subjects to ultimately create a project that demonstrates understanding in a range of areas (ICT being one of these areas). Schools now need to adopt this more integrated approach if they are to make students fully aware of the technological tools they can use to overcome real life problems.

Ultimately, In my humble opinion, as mentioned, I feel that schools and institutions should be using ICT as a tool to promote learning. You have probably gathered from my previous posts that I am in full support of contextualized learning and promote the use of ICT technologies across the curriculum to aid the teaching, learning and assessment process. ICT as a discreet subject, certainly at GCSE should be replaced in favor of Computing where students are expected to utilize ICT skills in order to understand the workings of a computer. However this doesn’t mean the demise of ICT as a whole, used well (again I will make reference to the International Baccalaureate) it should be used to promote learning throughout the curriculum and students should be encouraged to use it where possible. If we are to equip our students for the 21st Century, then we need to ensure that they understand computers (Computing) as well as being able to use them properly (ICT).

As a crucial first step, students and educators alike need to recognize the difference between the two subjects (I’d be willing to put my money on the fact that most Heads won’t know the difference between the two) and establish priorities for curriculum planning and delivery once those differences have been established. Let Computing be taught discreetly and let us embrace ICT across the curriculum!

Game designers of the future…

“Children need to be given digital building blocks to inspire them to build digital content” – Ian Livingstone, Life President , Eidos

Designing Computer Games in Schools

Computer games are not only fun, but also very educational (I wish I had known this when I was younger, as convincing my father to buy the latest games console would have been much easier!). Nowadays I have to convince my wife, naturally I use my 7 year old son as my excuse to buy my games. “Gaming can extend his learning” I say, or “He needs to be exposed to the rapid changes in technology and kept up-to-date to manage in this digital world”; she’s not convinced, but I end up getting my way anyhow 😉

In my previous posts (Using Games for Thematic Learning and How can we learn through games?), I have outlined the reasons I feel that computer games should possibly be used to establish excellent contexts to learning and allow students to access areas of the curriculum that they would have otherwise found dull and boring. I also spoke in favor of ‘Thematic Learning’ (‘Project Work’ in other words– why do we as educationalists have to use fancy words for simple concepts? Isn’t it supposed to be our job to make things easier to understand?!) and how Thematic Learning it can be used as a tool to facilitate multiple curricula.

I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the different tools that we as teachers could use to allow students to make the games rather than to play them (I’m sure my wife would find this more agreeable for our son). Making games is an excellent learning opportunity and as a teacher of technology I would urge all ICT/Computing teachers and subject leaders to introduce this into their curriculum as soon as they have the opportunity to do so. I will include some helpful links in this article that should hopefully get you started with possible schemes of work and study that will make your lives a little easier when trying to roll out a “Game Creation” module if you do not have one already.

Designing Games

Okay so we can all play games, whether it’s on our smartphones, tablets, PCs or consoles; the fact is that we are more exposed to games now than we have ever been. But not many of us want to venture down the route of exploring how the games were made. Believe me, this can be as interesting as playing them.

So when is the right time to get students started on this road to game creation? Well with the myriad of tools available for us as parents and educators we can start the wee ones off on their progressive journey towards game creation. Don’t worry I will include links for these too!

The important thing is that game creation allows the students to develop some excellent skills like coding and programming, as well as allowing them to let their imaginations, artistic abilities and passion for fun run a little…wild! In addition to this, game creation can have a lot of cross-curricular contexts (yes that’s Thematic Learning again) and you should have no trouble getting funding from your school if you can prove that it will extend the boundaries of your subject…

Step 1: Simple Design Tools

PowerPoint

Okay, so to begin with it’s very important to keep things simple and not to go crazy looking for specific software that is needed to make games. Microsoft PowerPoint (or Apple’s KeyNote for you Mac lovers – believe me, I’d be a Mac lover too…if I had the money!) is an excellent tool to get students started with games that require the user to make choices. A good example of this would be the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” type setup where students can generate a quiz and only progress through the game if their answer is correct. This can also be used as an excellent AfL (Assessment for Learning– more educational mumbo jumbo – AfL is basically when you check if the students get it) in the classroom to check the students’ understanding. You can download a template from here: http://www.teachingideas.co.uk/ict/files/wwtbamtemplate.ppt

This PowerPoint strategy is also good if you want them to create an adventure game which can have several outcomes with every possible outcome being on a separate linked slide. Try it yourself and see how it goes – It’s very good fun and keeps them engrossed for ages.

Scratch Junior (www.scratchjr.org)

This is probably one of my favorites, easy to use and you can let your, errrm I mean you students’ imagination run free. The Junior version that was launched in late 2014 is an excellent tool for children that aren’t quite ready for the standard version and also allows them to access the controls and coding blocks in an easier way. Additionally, the vibrant colors and easy to use interface allows the little ones to become more involved with the activities. The advantage of using the Scratch environment is that so many people have designed tutorials, videos and even done blogs to support the learning of it; this makes our jobs of delivering the curriculum a little easier – it’s a just a matter of filtering through the web to find resources that will suit you and your students.

The added advantage is that now both the Junior and the Standard versions of the software are supported as a web based application as well as being available handheld devices (yes, even the iPad supports it) – and it’s free!

Step 2: Game Design for Young Children

Okay now lets have a look at some specific examples of software that you could use to get students to create games using something a little more advanced (remember progression?)…

Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/)

Well we’ve seen the Junior version, the standard version is pretty much the same but has scope for so much more. As with the Junior version, this standard version has a whole host of resources available FREE online (that’s right, they wont cost you a penny and they will keep your students enthused all year long if you want!). Stuck for ideas? The Scratch website (https://scratch.mit.edu/) has loads of examples of other people’s work on there that both you or your students could check out.

Kodu Gamelab (http://www.kodugamelab.com/)

This is very immersive and allows students to create very professional looking games (Sorry Mac lovers, you’ll need a PC or Xbox for this one). The beauty of this is that it allows you to design games on your PC and if you have an Xbox controller, you can plug it into your PC and play your game. The environment also allows for characters to be introduced that can interact with eachother (links to literacy?) as well as being able to develop the much needed computational skills that you want your aspiring game creators to be familiar with.

Again, something you’ll be glad to know is that, like Scratch, Kodu also have plenty of free online resources and support. A couple of popular sites where such resources are available are Interactive Classroom and Consolarium.

Project Spark (http://www.projectspark.com/):

Sorry Mac fans, Project Spark is another Xbox thing, only works in Windows 8 using Internet Explorer 10 or higher; I bet you wish you’d bought a PC now – jokes aside, this looks pretty neat and generally simple to use, however, having a lot of optimization issues – I haven’t used this as extensively as I would have liked, but will be sure to keep you posted if I ever do. Have a look at the video to get an idea of what this game creation platform is all about.

Minecraft (https://minecraft.net/)

I thought I’d save my favorite to last. I absolutely love the creative nature of this game. The potential is huge and there’s no wonder Microsoft bought this for $2.5billion! If you haven’t played Minecraft yet, I suggest you get yourself a copy, free up an evening of your life; send your wife out with her mates, get a babysitter to watch your kids, stock up on essential rations and, get your creative juices flowing and spend some quality time just doing…stuff!

I won’t go into the educational potential of this game as there is loads out there on the net that you can use. Unfortunately not all of it is free, but there are loads of tutorials and videos etc. that you can refer to. Minecraft’s Education site (http://minecraftedu.com/) as well as the dedicated Minecraft Wiki (http://minecraft.gamepedia.com/Minecraft_Wiki) are excellent places to up your essential Minecraft knowhow. Here’s a quick video to get you going:

Step 3: Advanced Game Design Tools

Okay, so as mentioned, progression is important, so now lets move onto the bad boys of the game creation world…

RPG Maker (http://www.rpgmakerweb.com/)

If you like your Nintendo DS style games, you’ll like the RPG maker.  This is a map based game creation engine which is able to generate the Nintendo style games we have all come to be familiar with. The games are extremely narrative and the limit is basically the imagination of the individual using it. It’s worth checking out and generally good fun to work with.

UDK (Unreal Development Kit – https://www.unrealengine.com)

Okay guys – this is what you should have reserved for your extremely gifted and talented students. If you get this far in teaching games creation at school then you’ve done really well. Firstly, you’ll need a very good network and hardware to support this, and secondly, you’ll need loads of time.

For those that don’t know, Unreal are known for making some top games. They now have this development kit which is an engine that allows anyone to create games…for free! I was shocked to see that Unreal have made this stuff free as it’s basically professionally quality game creation stuff. If you do create a game using their engine, you’ll have to pay them royalties to be able to sell and distribute it.

I’m not going to go into much detail, as the potential for this is vast. Also, no one can say it better than the founder of the Unreal engine, Mr. Tim Sweeney:

 

The Royal Society of Edinburgh

On a final note, if you’re looking for pre-made stuff that’s been tried and tested, the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Computing Science resources are amazing. Why not have a look at: http://www.royalsoced.org.uk/1050_AnIntroductiontoComputingScience.html

So there you have it! A load of resources to get you started on your gaming journeys, hopefully you’ll have a lot of fun implementing games into your curriculum – would be interesting to know what you have done and how you’ve implemented it … Good luck and happy gaming!

What technology is right for my school?

A successful VLE is indicative of the involvement of staff and students (as well as parents and external bodies) of the technological health of the school.

4.1.2

When trying to integrate ICT into the classroom, there are a number of things that inevitably have to be considered. A good school looking to implement ICT into the curriculum should think about the following questions:

  1. Who should be involved in choosing technology or digital content for a school?

Choosing technology for a school is definitely a school wide effort. I have previously spoken about Internal, External and Academic factors that dictate the decisions made by schools with respect to the use and integration of ICT within schools and established that more often than not it’s the External factors that usually supersede all the others (i.e. the views, concerns and demands of external bodies and stakeholders i.e. school governing body, local council or businesses etc).

So who should be involved? Well interestingly I do feel that external stakeholders should indeed have a say in choosing technology and digital content for the school; after all they are probably going to be the ones that fund it…right? However, I hasten to add, that such decisions should draw in internal and academic influences (i.e. the school management and more importantly the teachers and their students). In my opinion, a bottom-up approach that goes from students (and their learning needs and expectations) to the teachers (and their ability to cater for the demands of students (and their parents) to the school’s management (and their vision) to ultimately the external stakeholders and their capabilities.

This grass-roots approach should allow everyone to have a say and allow views and expectations to be refined as they move higher up the ladder. A top-down approach may dictate a particular way of doing things whereas the bottom-up approach will make appropriate suggestions that will ultimately give all more scope and understanding of the requirements.

  1. What criteria do you think should be the most important to be considered when choosing new technology or new content?

So taking my ‘bottom-up’ approach, we firstly need to address the academic needs and requirements of the students and in turn go onto asking the following:

  • Is the technology needed to serve a particular area of the curriculum?
  • Will the technology allow students to develop necessary skills? Which ones?
  • How will introducing the intended technologies affect the way teachers deliver the curriculum? Will it generate more work?
  • Will training be required or provided by teachers to effectively deliver the curriculum with the technology? Will this be factored into the overall cost of the technology or will it come out of the CPD budget?
  • Will the investment be a cost effective one?

Clearly these are some of the questions that should be asked at every step of the process and refined as you mover closer to the external stakeholders.

  1. What are your plans for further extending the digital environment of your school, or your schools? What should a school be aiming at?

Following an extensive independent report of my current school, it is clear that use of ICT throughout the curriculum needs to be extended and promoted. Currently the school is working hard to deliver ICT CPD and promote the use of it’s FROG Virtual Learning Environment. This unfortunately, in my opinion is going in the opposite direction (i.e. motivated by external factors rather than the school starting it’s pursuit from where it matters; addressing the needs of the students).

I am a supporter of VLEs (when they are used correctly and the infrastructure to handle the user demands is adequate enough that the system doesn’t crash every time it’s overloaded with users)

Schools must embrace a technological vision. Technology, if not implemented carefully (often it is introduced prematurely) will not only go unused, but will also be a potential waste of valuable school budget and resources.

So what would I do to improve technology use within my current school and what should my school be aiming at?

Firstly, I feel that the school should address its curriculum expectations, look at the courses it is delivering and assess the need for ICT. This can be done through a detailed audit of the schools technology. Details like Computer to Student ratio etc. is an essential first step; establish what you are working with.

Secondly, the school should see whether its current ICT infrastructure is well equipped to deal with CURRENT expectations. If the ICT cannot meet current demands, then it will have no chance against any ‘improvements’

Thirdly, teachers need to be asked about their expectations by way of surveys etc. as to what they would like to do and whether they will benefit from newer technologies. It may be the case that they do not require any technological developments and their subjects are actually doing well without additional technology.

Finally, the school must embrace a technological vision. Technology, if not implemented carefully (often it is introduced prematurely) will not only go unused, but will also be a potential waste of valuable school budget and resources. A vision for the future is essential – everyone should be aware of this vision and work as a collective body having their input in every part of the process.

At the very least, all schools aspiring to be ‘future schools’ must be in the process of, or have already fully implemented a VLE. A successful VLE is indicative of the involvement of staff and students (as well as parents and external bodies) of the  technological health of the school. It also indicates the health of the staff and their abilities and can inevitably open doors to a wealth of cheaper (and even free) resources that can be used by all curriculum areas in the schools drive to be a 21st century school.

Ultimately, in my opinion – collaboration and an open mind is key!

Blooming Marvellous!

If you’re in teaching and education, then you need to know about Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Here’s a quick overview of what it is:

Blooms is something that I have used a lot over the years in my teaching career as well as my own personal development in a range of areas. It’s a fantastic way of outlining the different stages of understanding and operates, in my opinion, on the basis that ‘Knowledge precedes Action’.

When we teach concepts from first principles, we cannot expect the student to fully understand the intricacies of a particular topic or subject area. Rather we have to lay the foundations and ensure that the student are aware of some of key terms and terminology that they will be required to know (LOTS) and later build on that knowledge, understand it and ultimately translate it into an action based on that knowledge (HOTS).

This is where Thematic/Project based work is an excellent way of incorporating Blooms Taxonomy into the ICT classroom. Based on the principle that projects allow work to be contextualised, students will be able to learn newer words, terminology and ideas based on a common context that they will ultimately be able to extend through a series of understanding, analysing and evaluative tasks and activities until they ultimately reach their HOTS goals of Creating and Sharing.

All the work I do now in my ICT classes is thematic, whether students adopt the Olympic Games as a topic of study or whether it’s Global warming etc, the beauty of Blooms is that it can be broken apart and used in practically any setting and can become relative to any topic if applied in the correct way.

I have recently applied this to a scheme of work where I have successfully taught basic Python programming to Year 8 students. I am sure that with a little tweaking there is no reason why i couldn’t deliver the course to younger/primary students.

This is also, in my opinion, more of a reason for schools to become more integrated with the use of ICT and roll out an ‘ICT across the Curriculum’ style approach to ensure that students are always using technology to fulfill a need that extends beyonds the confines of discreet ICT lessons.

Other Links of interest:

Lessons from the Developing World

I am a fan of Charles Leadbeader, he changed my way of thinking after I came across his book ‘Living on Thin Air’ which discussed in much detail how the world is now operating on the ideas and thoughts of people; intangible assets or intellectual property if you like, that is worth more to the world than tangible assets are.

In any case, I came across one of his talks on TED which tied in a lot with some of the ideas that reinforced my own ideas on educational and the need for its global reform. I would urge you to have a look at this TED lecture:

Leadbeater gave this talk in 2010; in the education world that’s a long time, however, he makes very interesting points that are unfortunately still relevant and need to be addressed today.

One quote stuck out for me:

“… children, in the right conditions, can learn on their own with the help of computers” – Charles Leadbeater

What’s interesting is that Leadbeater’s study didn’t focus on the developed nations of the world that promote use of technology and are at the forefront of educational and technological development. Rather he focuses his attentions more towards the developing world and sees how necessity and the desire to learn has allowed individuals and organizations to become successful within education.

Push and Pull factors are an interesting way of looking at how education works within the developed world and the developing world. Leadbeater establishes that here in the west we are pushed to study and do well, whereas education in the developed world needs to be such that is pulls the students in so that the students have a reason to study. Shouldn’t this be the case in the developed world too? Have we adopted a “study or else!” culture where students only study because it’s an expectation of them rather than studying to fulfill a particular desire or need?

Something that I have argued for a long time is that pumping money into an education system isn’t really the way to improve a school’s overall performance. Sure you can improve the school’s facilities, make it a place where students may feel more comfortable studying and teachers more comfortable teaching, but do we really need to pump excessive amounts of money into schools in order for them to do well? (Another gripe of mine is that despite the billions that are invested in education, my pay as a teacher never seems to go up… but that’s another discussion).

You only need to look at the caliber of the graduates coming out of places like India (the world’s largest producer of graduates) to appreciate that students in India do not have access to the same quality of facilities and educational technology as the UK or American systems do, but they still manage to produce good quality graduates at all levels of their education system. We can again link this success to the student’s desire and need to do well as no education in India usually means no job, money, respect or social status. What is the need of our ‘developed’ students? Perhaps that’s a discussion that some teachers can have with their classes (it would make a very good starter!).

From my experiences, many schools are under pressure from external factors to implement a range of facilities to improve standards and ultimately grades; in my opinion it’s the drive to push up grades (as a direct response to things like the Global Education Reform Movement; no I’m not a huge fan!) that has made schools enforce more of the push and less of the pull that Leadbeater talks about.

It is clear that context based and thematic learning does indeed seem to be the way forward. This allows students to have a reason or purpose to actually study. For example, In Finland (a country that is usually used as a benchmark for good educational practice), students have many of their early lessons outside where they learn outdoor crafts and physical activities to get them to be familiar with their surroundings; a need to be able to live and operate outside drives their learning.

So what have we got wrong in the British/American (besides others) systems of education? Well I think we need to stop obsessing about grades and results and focus more on the development of the student (isn’t that what education is about?) – Sure, grades are important and very good indicators of how well a student has performed, but I feel that grades should be a positive side-effect of the learning process that show how much a student knows rather than how much the student can regurgitate – Micheal Rosen is able to highlight this issue fantastically in his Guide to Education which I think is a must read for all involved in the education process (I actually have this printed off and put up in my classroom where I teach!)

“You have to engage people first before you can teach them” Charles Leadbeater

Ultimately when the student wants to learn, that learning can be facilitated by teachers and educators, but as Leadbeater highlights, it isn’t always possible to have students accessing this facility, especially in the developing world

“How do you get learning to people when there are no teachers?”

In the developed world, we shouldn’t have a problem. Educational technologies are readily available, most students now carry mobile electronic devices and have access to a computer. What schools should be investing money in are the resources that educators can use to collaborate and share good practice as well as technologies that students can use even in the absence of an educator to learn effectively. We as teachers have held the hands of our students for too long, it is our duty to promote independent thought and allow students to make informed choices about their learning based on their needs, and nurturing their positive motives; not the desire to become another school-wide statistic used to show how brilliant pass marks can be at the school.

I would like education to return being just that; knowledge that precedes a positive action through understanding. This understanding can only be established if the student is motivated and there is a need for them to know what they want to be able to achieve through education. Grades and certificates should be used to show that a student is competent in a given area, not that s/he is able to learn to the test and fulfil a school’s ultimate goal of looking good in front of parents, governors and other external stakeholders.

Education+Technology = Hope

In conclusion we are very lucky to have access to resources that others don’t. we must educate our students and allow them to become independent learners through need and exploration. We should embrace newer technologies and be prepared to take some risks as teachers and not always have to worry about grades as if we educate and motivate the child properly through correct investment in resources and exposure to technology, then the grades will inevitably follow…

Using Games for Thematic Learning

Context is very important in learning. Usually if we don’t know why we are learning something, we won’t learn much (if anything at all). So it’s important to have a good context to your lessons and the work you do as a teacher to give your students a reason to engage and hopefully do some learning.

This is one of the reasons why I’m a big fan of Thematic Learning (that’s Project Work to you an I). The idea is that you pick a topic or a theme and base your learning activities around that theme to ultimately create a project that incorporates a range of skills. Primary schools are great at doing this; for example, they may choose the Ancient Egyptians as a topic or theme and base their lessons around the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Students may be expected to write an article, report or create a presentation (English); learn about the Pharaohs, mummification and Ancient Egyptian society in general (History); look at the climate and geography of the time (Geography); understand medical practices, inventions, hieroglyphics and mathematical methods needed to build the pyramids (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)… and the possibilities are endless.

But why stop with thematic learning in Primary school? Furthermore, why not extend this idea and use themes and topics that interest and enthuse children (as well as adults like myself) as the basis for the thematic learning process? In my opinion, computer games are a very good opportunity for teachers to use and embrace technology and extend the learning of their students; having a good time in the process.

In my post ‘How we can learn through games’, I spoke about how my son Adam had embraced Minecraft wholeheartedly and started asking questions about thrust as a force and how it could be used to project objects in his virtual world (he has since gone on to discover that materials with different properties can be used which work in different ways and how he can use pressure pads and sensors to control different parts of his creations within the game). I hope to eventually get Adam interested in the programming potential of the game and get him a Raspberry Pi to help him combine his love for the game and his need to understand control, logic and programming. I will of course post any updates!

So how can Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Zelda and the likes help our children learn about the things we feel are important at school?

My interest in gaming and education has led me on a path to follow an online course conveniently called ‘Games in Schools’ that has opened my eyes further and reinforced my view that games are an invaluable tool to support learning.

We’ve established that topic based work (like the Ancient Egyptians) gives context and scope for students and aids learning; but students can’t engage with the Ancient Egyptians like they can with computer characters in their favorite games. Students can play games for hours (my son controls my PS4 now; I have to wait my turn!). Think of what could be achieved if this gaming was coupled with education?

Since I’ve mentioned Mario and Sonic, lets see how they can help:

Mario and Sonic at the Rio Olympic Games

Giving the children responsibility – Firstly, if using a games consoles in the classroom, students need to be aware of how to responsibly set up and respect the technology. Giving ownership to the students is important to allow them to feel like they are contributing to their own learning and are taking charge of the lesson.

Humanities– Students can learn about the different countries participating at the games which may pave the way for teachers to discuss the socio-economic and political views and situations of the countries and how the countries perform and are seen by the international community. Students could also explore stereotypes and explore the languages as well as the cultural and geographical influences of the countries they choose to follow (after they have participated in a serious gaming session, perhaps representing that country).

Science, Technology, Engineering  and Mathematics (STEM)-  The Olympics can essentially be the basis for many STEM projects (The possibilities are vast). Additionally, issues like substance abuse, timing, affects of weather on performance of athletes etc. can contribute to a variety of additional areas of study.

Global Citizenship – Why stop at the classroom? With use of conferencing software like Skype, the Olympic games could be used as a means for schools work together across international boundaries and generate opportunities for collaborative learning (perhaps even play the game and create a leader board or mini school Olympics?)

Languages – Perhaps learn a language of another nation taking part in the Olympics? Through Skype perhaps?

English – Presentations, reports, and even going as far as becoming ‘journalists’ and making use of Green Screen technology to put students at the heart of the action?

and the list goes on…

One could argue that the this could all actually be done without playing the game and perhaps just using the Olympic games as a backdrop for all the aforementioned ideas. But this brings me back to my initial point; will students have a context and engagement with the particular area of study had it not been given to them in the form of a computer game?

Children’s Perceptions of ICT at School

As a teacher of ICT, it’s important for me to get an idea of how students perceive the subject as well as get an understanding of what they like and what they dislike. My students are usually quite direct (a culture that I promote within my classroom) when it comes to telling me how they feel. This is usually done with me interrogating them and asking them about how they feel about the course etc. Well I decided to give them a break today and instead turned my attention to my daughter instead. Alisha is 9 and currently in Year 5; I was interested to compare her views and ideas about ICT in Primary Education in contrast to that of my Secondary students.

I asked Alisha about her use of ICT at school and at home. (I am a teacher in the Secondary school that she attends) – It was interesting to see that her perceptions and frustrations of using ICT at the school were very similar to that of the teachers. Her biggest complaint being that she was unable to access the resources due to problems with the computers (this is seems to be a common trait within most schools?) – Mathletics seems to be very popular with her!

It is clear that schools are happy to invest in a range of resources to allow students to use ICT productively, however, it’s counterproductive to have them participate in these initiatives with no working technology. Schools should work at embracing sound technology and networks to facilitate the active use of modern/cloud computing, applications and learning platforms. If students feel that they cannot access such resources, then in my experience,they will quickly lose interest, get bored and they just wont…

This comes back points I have mentioned in previous posts; schools MUST ensure that there is a sound IT infrastructure to  ensure that students are able to use modern technology to facilitate and extend their learning!

Recent insights into network infrastructure issues got me thinking about computer networks and why they appear to be a common problem within schools. I have worked in industry and much larger organasations that facilitate the use of 1000’s of workstations. In comparison, a school with a few hundred devices shouldn’t really be a problem…should it?

All these problems, issues and concerns have prompted me to take a deeper look into networking infrastructure, so I’ve recently taken it upon myself to learn about them – The industry standard; Cisco CCNA seemed like a good place to start. Lets see if this will blossom into something wonderful or whether it’s another fad… watch this space!

How can we learn through games?

My 7 year old son impressed me a few days ago when he asked me what “thrust” was – I eventually got him to understand that it was a force that was required to make objects move in a given direction. I then asked him what had bought this idea on, he told me that he needed to “generate thrust to make something move in Minecraft” – I actually don’t know if he managed to solve his problem (I will be checking); but the fact the he was interested and asking very good questions he probably wouldn’t have asked otherwise…

The fact is that games provide a medium that children can use to enhance their learning; this doesn’t have to be electronic gaming, it could just as easily be a games played outdoors or even board games. All games, to a certain extent have an educational value that can be exploited.

While I’m on the topic of Minecraft and video gaming, I’d like to reflect on the reasons why I feel that such gaming is not only enjoyable to children, but also very educational:

Competition – Most games promote a culture of competition; whether it’s the individual competing against themselves or they are fighting off aliens from outer space – it ultimately boils down to winning! Healthy competition is something that should always be promoted and a culture of competion will no doubt allow students to excel. (One interesting example would be Brain Training where the child may play games to complete with themselves, in order to get a better score, at the same time training their brain…)

Relationships – The student learns about the different relationships that they must have with the characters in the game. This can be likened to charactes in a story or people that they interact with in real life. The fact is that awareness of relationships and understanding others (which can sometimes be reflected in games) is very important for the learning process.

Cultural Relevance – Games always accommodate the culture and demographic that they are aimed to satisfy. This allows the audience to become familiar with the game and allows them to engage and learn. An engaging game that is educational is no doubt an excellent tool.

Common Language – This allows users of a particular game to interact with the game and possibly other users. When game manufacturers create games they target them to the individuals that understand the language (what would be the point of a game that you couldn’t understand?)

Games unite people – Unity and collaboration is an excellent tool in teaching and learning and one that is heavily promoted in a lot of games.

Ultimately, if used properly and in the right contexts, games can be an excellent tool to promote teaching and learning…

Going Beyond the Classroom

Its always nice to leave the classroom and do something different – unfortunately with current curriculum constraints and the inability of many teachers to facilitate any other learning within their schemes of work, it seems that we as teachers often struggle to engage students in different areas and facilitate things that actually go beyond the classroom.

Thankfully there is some hope – This week I have come to realise that there are a number of organisations that help teachers with the tools and resources that they need in order to take that step beyond the classroom, a step that I also intend to take whole-heartedly in the new academic year, at the same time being able to deliver the requirements of my students’ curriculum needs.

The UNESCO project on ICT in Primary Education (and this can just as easily be applied to secondary and college contexts), there are a number of initiatives highlight major international associates that provide information, resources and CPD and opportunities to exchange ideas and for educators to collaborate and engage in projects with students in different countries.

Some initiatives that are available around the world that schools may get involved with and some that I will certainly like to follow up and engage in on a personal level to help improve my teaching practice:

  • International Society for Technology in Education – Developed standards for ICT literacy
  • Microsoft Partners in Learning – Offer resources and expert advice and participation for educators
  • Intel Teach
  • eTwinning – Opportunities for teachers across Euroope offers teachers to collaborate in various events
  • iEarn – Not for Profit organization that allow schools to work together on various projects

Others country specific examples include:

  • Future Schools (Singapore)
  • PlanCeibal (Uruguay)
  • JEI (Jordon)

Lets see how things go… my first step would be create my Microsoft Educator account… here goes!