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Inspiring creativity and measuring impact: the changing landscape of technology for learning

Written by: Christian Turton
9 min read

Note: The authors of this article work for the London Connected Learning Centre, an organisation offering chargeable services for schools.

Drop by the London Connected Learning centre in Clapham, South London, and most days of the week you’ll hear the excited buzz of children programming robots, learning about city planning by building cities in Minecraft and tackling maths and problem-solving while programming. And because teachers need the digital skills and knowledge to be able to support children in their learning, you’ll also find groups of teachers absorbed in our CPD, whether that’s learning to use the iPad creatively and effectively to support learning, getting up to speed on digital criticality or taking part in one of our subject specialist workshops. London Connected Learning Centre (CLC) was one of more than a hundred centres across England opened during the early to mid 2000s to support local schools in making innovative and effective use of ICT. Despite its name, the impact of London CLC isn’t limited by the boundaries of London. Through its work as part of the Education Development Trust, a global education charity, it reaches much further, such as the recently published report on technology-enabled teacher professional development (McAleavy et al., 2018), which takes lessons from developing countries on the most effective way to support teacher CPD through technology, and the recent work they are doing with the Queen Rania Teachers Academy in Jordan to upskill teachers in educational technology. Evidence-informed practice has always been important to London CLC as a way of ensuring that the activities we do with children and technology have maximum impact. One of the common themes across much of the work we have done is that technology use needs to be considered, targeted, appropriate and not ‘over-used’. Here we explore some particularly interesting projects that London CLC has been involved with.

Metacognition with Rosendale Research School

The CLC has a longstanding relationship with Rosendale Research School (part of the Education Endowment Foundation and Institute of Effective Education network of research schools) and worked closely with the school on a trial that used digital portfolios to support metacognition. Metacognition, or ‘learning about how we learn’, is a way of encouraging pupils to better understand how they learn. In conjunction with London CLC, Rosendale developed a programme known as ReflectED – an approach to learning that teaches and develops children’s metacognition skills. Technology plays a supporting role in this programme. iPads sit in the middle of the table and pupils pick them up when they want to record a reflection. They use an app (originally Evernote, now SeeSaw – web.seesaw.me) that gives the teacher access to their catalogue of reflections and allows them to tag their reflections accordingly. It is also easy to enable rapid teacher and peer feedback via text or voice recording. In this case, technology is supporting the process by enabling fast, effective reflections and feedback. Pupils can choose to reflect using multimedia, such as a recorded voice or annotation over an image of their work. The recording lets them hear the expression in their voice, potentially making the reflection more powerful. Reflections can be recorded and then sorted and stored in an accessible way so that pupils and teachers can easily access their learning journey and revisit their reflections. Technology isn’t the focus of this intervention but it plays an important role in enabling the reflections to be achievable and manageable.

The first small-scale, randomised trial in 2013 showed that ReflectEd had a positive impact on children’s attainment. Pupils who participated in the study made an average of four months’ additional progress in maths and developed a more positive attitude to learning compared to the control group (www.reflectedlearning.org.uk/the-reflected-project). Following the success of this initial trial, Rosendale Primary School is now carrying out a whole-school efficacy trial of ReflectED, once again sponsored by the Education Endowment Foundation. More than 100 primary schools around England have signed up to take part in the new trial and Rosendale has teamed up with the University of York, which will be evaluating the impact of ReflectED applied as a whole-school intervention on attainment in both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

In rolling this out to a larger number of schools, there have been challenges, not least that technology in schools is of mixed quality. Many schools had older devices that were no longer supported, highlighting the importance of having an equipment refresh strategy in school, and some schools had very slow internet or WiFi connections. The skill set of staff was also another challenge. We have also found that ongoing, sustained CPD or peer support is essential for schools to effectively embed tools such as SeeSaw. Time needs to be allowed for teachers to support each other and disseminate their learning in external CPD, and formal structure and roles in the school help with this.

Blogging and its effects on pupils’ writing

Research by London CLC’s director Sarah Horrocks, with Myra Barrs, ‘Educational blogs and their effects on pupils’ writing’ (Barrs and Horrocks, 2014) found that blogging can inspire children to different and better forms of writing. The study set out to explore the specific opportunities that blogs offer as ways to encourage children’s writing and as a learning medium for a class. The main aim was to explore the differences in pupils’ writing on blogs compared to their other writing. The secondary aims were to investigate the potential for using blogging to develop pupils’ writing skills and to identify good practice in blogging. Before beginning the study, we were aware that too many primary school class blogs rely heavily on teacher input and control and miss the potential to engage and involve children in creating the blog. We found that the audience that has the most impact is the children themselves. They read and get involved in each other’s work in a way that doesn’t happen with work done in exercise books. The children in our study became more aware of their own writing and more interested in how they might improve it. Most importantly, they felt themselves to be part of a writing community: the blog established an area of sharing.

At the end of the study we asked some children what it would feel like if suddenly their teacher decided to take down the class blog. ‘If we had no more blog I’d be upset,’ Shafia said. ‘Our memories would be wiped away.’ Children and teachers were clear that the blog represented the experience of the whole class and captured the process and outcomes of learning over weeks and terms. Scrolling back over children’s posts, the themes and key events in their learning were evident. All the children’s thoughts about bees, Vikings and teeth were collated in the digital chronicle of one class blog. In another class, the teacher incorporated blogging into guided reading sessions and used the books Trash, Holes and The London Eye Mystery as themes for blog writing, while another teacher used home visits from the class teddy bear to prompt blog posts, bringing home life into the classroom.

Interestingly, among the schools and classes that took part in this study, only one class had permanent computers in the classroom. This enabled the teacher to incorporate blogging into his guided reading sessions and other class-based activities. He saw this as a real advantage, not least because it enabled him to moderate pupils’ blog posts through the week rather than in one go. Although the pupils in this classroom got no additional timetabled provision for blogging, they had a lot more informal access time within the school day. Evidence from other classes suggested that the timetabled use of ICT suites did seem to hold back developments in blog writing.

This research and our wider experience suggested a number of things to consider in order to best in improving pupils’ writing through blogging. For example, invitations to write should be specific rather than too general. Framing the task and giving a resource for pupils to use, such as a video, are most effective in stimulating quality writing. The statistics linked to a blog were important in engaging pupils in writing for a real-world audience and motivating them to improve their writing. Class blogging, with teachers giving feedback, helped to build teacher–pupil and peer relationships. The full report makes further specific recommendations about how we can best use blogging as a tool.

Assessment

In his recent ‘vision’ for putting technology at the heart of education, education secretary Damian Hinds highlighted technology’s potential to make assessment more effective and efficient (House of Commons, 2016). It can certainly do that, but it can also introduce more creativity and flexibility into the assessment system. For example, it can make learning more visible – we recommend apps such as SeeSaw, which allow work to be shared much more easily with peers and parents and for a portfolio of work to be built up over time. Technology also enables teachers to offer feedback in ways that traditional marking cannot, such as responding to work using video and audio tools, which can be a much more personalised way of responding and save time when compared with writing feedback. We have found that apps like Showbie and SeeSaw not only enable the creation of a rich student portfolio of work but can also enable peer and teacher feedback through voice recordings.

Future directions

We are at a pivotal moment in technology-enhanced learning in the UK, where pockets of research-based innovative good practice are on the brink of becoming far more widespread. This is partly due to the increased accessibility of the technology in these settings. More and more schools are investing in devices, whether iPads or Chromebooks, and cloud infrastructure. The key to getting this move right is setting out a vision that is shared by all staff, having an effective staff development programme and ensuring that the choice of devices and cloud services serves the context well: there is no single best device or solution; context is key. For this reason, multi-academy trusts, local authorities and schools need to be clear on how the technology should be used and not just what the technology is. ‘Build the roads before putting the cars on them’ is a good lesson: if you try to deploy devices without the right infrastructure, WiFi and systems, disaster looms.

Once in place, technology must be more than a productivity tool in the classroom. Rather, it is a creativity tool, which in turn promotes active learning. But to understand what works best, we need to look at research. Experienced teachers know, for example, that combining audio with imagery enhances learning, and this is backed up by dual coding theory (see The Learning Scientists (nd) for a good explanation of dual coding theory). However, research into cognitive load also suggests that it is better not to add onto the screen the text that is being spoken, but to simply have the image and the voice. This is an example of where research can refine an intuitive activity to make it more effective.

The technology in our classrooms is becoming capable of so much now that we need to think carefully about whether we are using it in the most effective way and what this means for learners. Technology can encourage creativity and, with its multi-modalities, offers a range of ways to inspire, engage and improve learning outcomes for pupils. In choosing how to make the most of that potential and the best use of these tools to support learning, we must always remember the context of the learners, school and staff and ensure that decisions are informed by research, learning theory and teacher practice. Technology is not an end in itself.

References

Barrs M and Horrocks S (2014) Educational blogs and their effects on pupils’ writing. London: Education Development Trust. Available at: https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/en-GB/our-research/our-research-library/2014/r-blogging-2014 (accessed 9 November 2018).

House of Common (2016) Digital skills crisis. Science and Technology Committee Second Report of Session 2016–17. London: House of Commons.

McAleavy T, Hall-Chen A, Horrocks S et al. (2018) Technology-Supported Professional Development for Teachers: Lessons from Developing Countries. London: Education Development Trust.

The Learning Scientists (nd) Learn how to study using… dual coding. Available at: www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/9/1-1 (accessed 9 November 2018).

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