Adapting and learning to love technology in the classroom

Adapting and learning to love technology in the classroom

(A guest post by Claire Nellany, history teacher at the Stephen Perse Foundation)

I have recently started working at the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge, a school which so far I have found to be an extremely inspiring place to work, with wonderful students and staff alike. It is different in many ways to my previous school (independent, currently single sex in the senior school but moving to a ‘diamond’ formation). Despite slight mixed feelings about moving from a comprehensive to independent school (do I feel guilty? Yes. Is it the best thing for me and my development right now? Yes. Will I go back to the state sector? Quite probably), I am really enjoying it and am learning *lots* every day. I wanted to restart my much neglected blogging today by reflecting on one of the big learning curves I’ve faced over the last few weeks: adapting to a school where use of technology and digital learning  features centrally to teaching and learning, school organisation and communication, and even, rather excitingly, to their outreach strategy and wider plans going forward. In summary, I love it. It makes my working life easier, it seems to be improving my teaching and my students are able to connect in ways I hadn’t previously considered. This post considers how I have adapted in these first few weeks, observations about my use of technology and my plans and questions going forward. As ever, thoughts, comments and advice are eagerly welcomed.

As a teacher very early on in my career, it goes without saying that my main priorities and development needs are rooted very much in becoming a good teacher – improving my subject knowledge, reading lots, trying out new approaches to improve how my students are learning and, importantly, reflecting, reflecting, reflecting. I have so many different areas to develop, and this post considers just one of those. If you’d told me this time last year, or even six months ago, that I would be spending any amount of time thinking about technology and ‘digital learning’ I’d have never believed it. With so much on my mind, I really saw technology as something I would think about in a few years time, when I felt competent at…er, teaching.

But I have to admit my mindset about technology and its place in the classroom and in my development as a teacher has changed quite dramatically in the last month. I used to see it as something almost separate to becoming a good teacher, some ‘add on’ that may aid some aspects of teaching and learning, but was not something I yet needed to concern myself with. When training, if I am truly honest, I used to flick over the chapters in my ‘learning to teach’ books that mentioned technology, I ignored all #edtech chats on Twitter, and I don’t think I ever used anything more than a PC or an IWB in any of my lessons. I am far from a tech phobic, and regularly use gadgets and interactive apps in my social life, but I really hadn’t put much thought into technology’s place in the classroom.

That mindset was probably never going to work at the Stephen Perse Foundation (see Principal Tricia Kelleher @StephenPerse or Director of Digital Strategy, Dan Edwards – @syded06 – Twitter feeds to see why). What I have found particularly reassuring and inspiring about the attitude towards ‘edtech’ at SPF, however, is that technology is viewed as just another ‘tool in the toolkit’ and it is only considered important when, and if, it improves something about the school, most centrally, of course, if it improves the learning experiences of the students. All students and teachers use IPads regularly but, of course, there are many, many times when pen and paper do the job better, and so pen and paper is then what’s used.

Seeing technology as a possible tool in my gradually building toolkit has made it seem both less scary as a new teacher, and also more important. It is, surely, my central aim to learn to use whatever tool will best improve the learning of my students. Very often, these tools will be the more ‘traditional’ approaches to teaching – questioning, well planned lessons and effective assessment and feedback – but I realise now that, sometimes, the best tool may involve technology.

So what have I learnt and observed so far?

– The importance of technology being a central part of whole school strategy, not just a new fad in which neither staff nor students are truly invested. I have seen, previously, a case of students and staff being given IPads without an overall strategy about how they would be used, and while I am sure that they were used effectively by some staff and students, the impact of such a tool was, overall, minimal. You can’t just have the technology, you need to embed it within your strategy for teaching and learning.

– In order to do that, good quality training is vital. I am a fairly quick learner when it comes to technology, but I would not have had a clue how to use my new iPad effectively as an educational tool if we hadn’t received several sessions as part of our start of year INSET. What was particularly good about this was that some of the sessions were led by other classroom teachers who had found a particular app to be effective, and so were able to deliver the training on a level that their colleagues could both understand and, importantly, see why we would want to use such an app in the first place. Where training was less effective was when staff were left, literally, asking ‘Why would I want to use this?’.

– An individual teacher’s way of teaching and their mindset about technology are important. Being the age I am and beginning my teaching career in a time in which technology is increasingly being used in the classroom, I guess my mindset about technology’s role in education is fairly malleable and if I go to a school where it is considered important, I am inevitably going to see it as important. Clearly, this is not the case, nor should it be, for everyone. I really don’t think the use of technology should be forced top-down into the classroom, as the experience for everyone, staff and student, will inevitably suffer. I wonder, then, what the best approach is to ensure technology is used successfully in a school without overriding the views, experiences and competencies of its teachers?

How have I actually used technology so far?

Primarily, so far, my use has been centred on organisation, communication and sharing of resources. We use Google Drive as our main internal file storage, allowing very easy sharing and co-editing. I still occasionally encounter problems with this, and it’s very easy to accidentally move (or remove!) files that others might depend on, although this risk is obviously reduced with training.

Linked to Google Drive, is Google Classroom, which I am finding very useful for sharing lesson resources and homework with my classes, and making announcements/linking them to interesting resources and articles as and when I find them. I am definitely still finding my feet with this one, and will likely blog in the future about it, when I can start using it more as a collaboration tool rather than just as a sharing and organisation one.

In terms of my own teacher organisation, I have been using iDoceo as my mark book, attendance record and homework organiser. Again, it’s early days, so I may post more about this when I start using some of its more interesting features.

In the classroom, having every student with their own iPad has allowed for greater flexibility of activities, and easier (and I *think* more effective) differentiation (more on this in the future).

This week, I plan to use the iPads to aid my 6th Form students understanding of how to integrate ‘critical analysis’ into an essay, by easily displaying some of their work on the screen for the rest of the class to deconstruct, discuss and improve as a group (Yes, I realise this could just be done with a camera, but past attempts have shown me that it involves too much faff).

In a few weeks time, we also intend to use FaceTime to allow a student who will be off for several weeks to be able to be ‘present’ in her A Level lessons.

What problems or limitations have I encountered so far?

– Mindset of the older students – my KS3 students are far more used to the apps and gadgets than the 6th Formers who I have found to be more reluctant to using them, and sometimes even forget their iPads (but as this is a school expectation, can be treated in the same way as forgetting their file or other needed equipment)

– WiFi failures! Admittedly a lot fewer than expected, but when this happens, it can be frustrating, and definitely has highlighted to me the need for flexibility.

– My own knowledge of what is possible, how to use particular apps….

Questions I have….

1) How can I best use technology to allow greater collaboration between students, classes, other subjects, other schools…? Any advice on this, especially from a History teacher’s perspective, would be greatly appreciated.

2) Is my excitement about the possibilities of technology going to distract me from improving other areas of my teaching? I really hope not, and in fact technology does not feature centrally on my actual action and development plan for this year, but I guess I can see it as a potential risk at times.

I hope you can tell that I am excited by what technology might have to offer my teachinng, but also cautious of the ‘side effects’. I plan to do a series of posts as I get more comfortable using technology effectively. I might even conclude that it is not as important as I currently think, who knows?  Please do feel free to share your thoughts/offer me advice, all is appreciated.

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