The Digital Genie is out of the Bottle

Harnessing Technology to Support Learning in the Time of Covid

Dr Tim Cook Headteacher, Liskeard Hillfort Primary School

Jonathan Bishop CEO, Cornerstone Academy Trust

We’ve all had the same conversation with the IT department.  It ends with the fabled advice to turn the computer off.  And to start it up again.  It shouldn’t work, but so often it does, the ‘reset’ often has the desired effect.

In amongst the tragedy of a virus we have the opportunity to ‘reset’ our education system.  And in particular, we could explore how the digital world can lead to a brighter future for our children.  

This blog highlights how two schools have approached this issue.  One is a school which serves a community with high levels of deprivation, and is itself on a recovery journey.  One, an academy from the earliest tranche of academy conversion, is an outstanding school, on the cusp of national practice.

A possible future

In their clarion call for a shift in education landscape, Hyman and Robinson offer a vision of an education system that is forward thinking.  In their argument for a curriculum of ‘Head, Heart and Hand’, they disavow the current focus on those canonical texts of our culture, those texts deemed to have cultural capital.  Their impassioned plea is for a curriculum that leads to children being “hard working, who take control of their own learning and show initiative” – all of which is underpinned by a command of oracy.  The vision of these leaders of exceptional schools is compelling.  

And it is a vision that is all the more compelling in this time of pandemic.  However different schools across the country have coped with their own unique circumstances, those children who were already hard working, who could already take control of their learning and who could show initiative, would fare better in these difficult times.  But even those vibrant souls need some tools to be able to develop.  

And without the face to face relationships that are at the heart of education, the reliance on the digital world has been almost absolute.  Those schools that have been able to harness the power of the internet have provided a much enriched experience in comparison to those schools where pen and paper (chalk and slate?) remain pre-eminent.  Even the excellent Oak Academy has relied on the video lesson to offer its provision!  

And now that the digital genie is out of the bottle, there really will be no putting it back in.  Going forward, let’s not expect children to meekly comply when instead they might ask for lessons to be recorded so that they can ‘rewind’ over the weekend. Let’s not expect that parents will not request virtual meetings in place of the traditional grind of a Parents’ Evening.  And let’s not expect that professionals will have to spend long periods in transit for face-to-face meetings when a virtual seminar is only a click away.  

It is the argument of this blog that as part of the resetting process, teachers should maintain the power of those human relationships without which we are all lost.  To help them to do this they should be supported to embrace this digital opportunity.

The road already travelled – Liskeard Hillfort Primary School:

Liskeard Hillfort Primary School is a two-form entry school. The school has become much more popular in the last few years as we rise to 400 children, a rise from 340 over only a few years.  For the second time ever (consecutively), we are oversubscribed in reception.  Outcomes have been on a consecutive four-year journey of record results, which would have improved again this year.  Exclusions have been at a record low.  

Our school serves an area of deprivation where FSM indicators are higher than national average – approximately 16% of the school comes from the bottom 10% of income whilst 56% come from the bottom 30% of income.   Many more families are ‘Just-About-Managing’.   Significantly, this is an area of rural deprivation – the work of Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope has been instrumental in identifying some of the additional challenges for those rural and coastal schools nationally.  In relation to this blog, it is of note that Cornwall has broadband coverage that is in the bottom 10% nationally.  Culturally, the school reflects the Cornish demographic of being almost exclusively white, with a high percentage of learners identifying as “White Cornish”.  

And whilst we have been re-brokered into a new multi-academy trust, our community has been exposed to the worst aspects of the MAT project through being part of the Bright Tribe/Adventure Learning Academy Trust fiasco.  This left our school impoverished.  Teachers have purchased many resources out of their own pocket for the children they serve.   This school improvement journey is all the more remarkable in this light. 

Faced with the closure of our school to all but our Educare cohort, in keeping with many schools, we made many changes to practice.  Those listed here are the ones that we judge to be more likely to continue to impact on a longer term basis:

  • A localised hub of great resources.  Having been relatively infrequent users of technology in our lessons, we have created an incredibly popular website that holds a mass of learning material.  With over 150,000 hits to date on the website, we have trended in the top ten nationally at various points.  The key point for our school was that this was static content – to access the material did not require the ability to stream videos.  This allows those people with slow broadband, or access to the internet only via a small phone on a data plan, to gain a more equitable access to the learning provided by the school. This resource will continue to be useful long after lockdown ends.
  • A national hub of great resources.  There has clearly been a development of resources from a range of organisations.  In the education sector, this has clearly been led by Oak National Academy.  The wider collective effort to provide resources – from English Heritage to The Woodland Trust – has also been remarkable.  Across the country we now have a repository of learning activities that, if nothing else, should see teachers through more than a few cover lessons… 
  • Communication with parents at our school has changed significantly Having been reliant primarily on the standard primary school newsletter, we have now made much more use of digital technology.  Our online assemblies, bedtime stories, staff pastiche video of George Ezra’s ‘Shotgun’ and walk-round videos of the school all found a happy home on YouTube.  Facebook Live was used to effectively host Q+A sessions for parents who wished to talk directly with the Head and Deputy Head when we opened more widely – we’ll be doing something similar in place of an EYFS Introductory Evening soon.  It seems that the use of this type of media might be more widely ‘read’ than the usual Friday newsletter missive and is something I am sure which will continue.

The road already travelled – Broadclyst Community Primary School, Exeter:

In rural East Devon, Broadclyst Community Primary School, part of the Cornerstone Academy Trust (TCAT), has a national and international reputation for its innovative use of IT and digital media. It has been a Microsoft Showcase School for over 15 years and has been appointed a Microsoft Training Academy, a DfE English Hub and a Science Learning Partnership and is also part of the West Country Computer Science Hub.

Shortly after the UK covid-19 lockdown, it was awarded EdTech Demonstrator School status by the Department for Education and has been running online training events for schools looking to build their own digital strategies. 

In this digitally enabled environment pupils were used to 1:1 access to devices in the classroom. They worked on Microsoft Surfaces where the resources for the lesson were shared via Microsoft Teams and OneNote. The teachers’ board notes were synchronised in real time, via the cloud, to the child’s own device. Crucially, these resources and board notes could be accessed from home, where parents could view them, and the learning was extended beyond the classroom. 

So, for TCAT it was in some ways ‘business as usual’ after lockdown. Since the start of lockdown, TCAT has been offering a full virtual education programme, from 9am to 3.30pm daily, to all its schools. It is streaming classes and activities that range from full Trust assemblies for 1000 children, class lessons and group work to one-to-one mentoring sessions for individual pupils. 

Our teachers have been able to run their classes by live streaming their lessons, delivered through Microsoft Teams video calls. Teams brings together the tools in the Office365 Education suite that they usually use at the schools, supporting the children’s lessons with screen sharing, lesson resources in OneNote and class assignments. The whole education programme is recorded, so that those families who have children in multiple year groups, and who may need to rotate access to a home device, can catch up on, or watch again, anything they need to. Lessons and activities have included art, music and even cookery classes that involve the whole family in order to boost well-being at home.

Understanding that some children would not have access to laptops or computers at home, the Trust loaned all the devices usually used in school to parents supporting their learning.

Within days of lockdown, it also built a home-learning website (https://homelearning.education/) through which it delivers webinars to support parents supervising children’s learning, hosts parent consultation meetings and offers lessons on e-safety. 

The next steps for TCAT are all about defining a blended learning model that embeds both live-streamed and recorded lessons into daily classroom routines. This will result in a mix of face-to-face sessions and virtual lessons; some will be synchronous (real-time) and some ansynchronous (pre-recorded), taking place in the classroom using multi-screen facilities and digital inking. They will also be live-streamed to children who are in ‘bubbles’ or who may have to be isolated or shielded at home, and available to those who need to catch up having left a class for a music lesson or medical appointment. 

We were in a very good place before the pandemic, but now we’re taking it up a level. If we’re in bubbles, we’ll deliver lessons and assemblies by streaming them to up to 1000 children across all the Trust schools. We’ll embed pre-recorded elements – about science experiments, art, music, for example – into livestreamed lessons with Q&A that are themselves recorded so that children can pause and play them again if they need to. 

Blended learning isn’t just ‘some at home and some at school’ – it’s the combination of one-to-one mentoring, tutoring, synchronous and asynchronous lessons and livestreaming that altogether makes a rich learning environment. With the pandemic, suddenly parents became part of the lessons at home, and now there’s a transparency about what happens in school, which helps to keep our standards high – it’s a brave new world!

As Marquez writes in ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, “He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past”.  Similarly, our children will be able to eliminate the bad from this Time of Covid.  But let’s use this opportunity to magnify the good in their lives by resetting our education system – both literally and figuratively.

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