Simon Hunt and his class at Tottington Primary share a lesson over Skype and their Promethean ActivPanel.
When blackboards gave way to interactive whiteboards their purpose was clear. They allowed content from computers, mobile devices and the internet into the classroom, and provided a large digital canvas for writing, drawing and other forms of annotation. When interactive touch screens came on the scene, enhanced file sharing, video communication and collaboration were among the reasons for making the change. While the corporate sector has been quick to embrace the potential, education has proved reluctant … but not entirely.
Those of us who use interactive touchscreen technology for their work wouldn’t readily be without it. It is no exaggeration to say that the ability to screen share, video and audio conference with colleagues and customers has changed business life for ever.
At the outset of the education boom in iFPD sales, amid all the conversations about avoiding projector blindness and sunlight issues with projectors, some progressive thinkers were suggesting that the ROI form an interactive touch panel could be much improved by sharing teaching resources between institutions. At the very least, the education experience could be made truly engaging by enabling students to see remote sights or talk to kids in different countries.
The point about an interactive touch screen is that it brings new capabilities into the classroom. Most solutions have a camera and audio, and all link to the internet either directly or through an external device. Pairing a touchscreen with a cloud-based video or collaboration service is usually free or, at least, cheap.
While education has engaged with interactive touchscreens to further the adoption of the ‘flipped’ education model, where content is both shared and personalised. there has been much less enthusiasm for opening the doors of the classroom (metaphorically rather than physically) to the outside world, sharing expertise and resources.
It’s a truism of technology that solutions are rarely used to their fill potential, and so why would education be any different? Fortunately, there are some pioneers out there: Those of you who visited the Promethean stand at BETT in January might have seen a presentation by teacher Simon Hunt of Tottington Primary School, in Bury, and one of his pupils, 9 year old Jamie Berry.
After emerging as winners in the Promethean Grant 2017, Mr Hunt’s school now benefits from access to a state-of-the-art ActivPanel. Stars of the competition entry, Mr Hunt and Jamie are no strangers to the use of edtech and joined Promethean on-stand at BETT earlier this year to share their approach to gamification and camouflaged learning. This so impressed us that some GoPro footage from BETT was used as part of Promethean’s Award-winning presentation at the AV News Awards in February,
Geography without walls
For Simon, a passionate primary school teacher with a love for expanding learning opportunities for his pupils, having access to the ActivPanel will enable him to build on using Skype to break down geographical boundaries and bring even more exciting lesson content in to the classroom.
“At my last school we started to use Skype as a collaboration tool with the outside world – connecting us with inspirational figures which just wouldn’t have been accessible otherwise. With Skype we were able to run a writing competition with Peter Jay Black, an author who writes his books in California, hosting a briefing session with pupils where he asked them to write their own work of fiction based on his Urban Outlaw series (which he then subsequently read and judged),” explains Simon.
Simon made the initial contact with Peter Jay Black via a simple tweet, which resulted in a prompt response and a Skype session being arranged quite quickly: “The speed at which he responded was great, it meant that we could get going with the collaboration right away – showing that technology is playing a prominent role in helping learning to progress at a lively pace. Our original plan was simply to give the children an opportunity to ask questions, but it was the author who threw down the writing challenge. The class was so excited by the fact an important writer would be reading their work, it created a real buzz around the activity.”
Based on the high levels of pupil engagement which were achieved, Simon replicated the collaborative approach when he joined Tottington Primary – this time bringing Australian writer, Marc Martin into the classroom.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the power of bringing experts in the classroom. It really inspires the children which ultimately motivates them in their learning. With tools like Skype and the ActivPanel, collaboration is no longer defined by geographical boundaries. Instead, we have the technology which literally opens up a world of opportunity and gives pupils a much broader perspective on curriculum topics.”
Simon’s creative collaboration techniques are not just confined to literacy. He has also leveraged Skype and the ActivPanel to interview arctic explorers and scientists live from the North Pole as part of geography lessons: “We always look for ways to make learning more real for the children. With the technology available these days, we need to make teaching less about the text book and more about experiences. And importantly, schools will generally already have the kit needed to do this – it’s just a case of thinking how and who you want to collaborate with and asking the question!”
While collaboration between Tottington and the North Pole is impressive, it is by no means the only transcontinental learning experience we have to report. Coffs Harbour Christian Community Junior School is a centre with students from ages five to eleven, based in sunny New South Wales, Australia. As part of a wider kindergarten to year 12 school, its middle and senior schools are situated in Bonville, approximately 15 km south.
Since 1999 it has pioneered an exciting and unique language learning programme in partnership with five schools in Bali, Indonesia. The scheme promotes authentic communication between students from the school and its sister schools. As well as regular contact, a student and teacher exchange program for the senior years students provides the opportunity to meet the children that they have built a relationship with.
There is total of approximately 1200 students actively involved in the Bali Buddies programme across the two campuses, which positions Coffs Harbour as a centre of excellence for the Indonesian language.
Realising the potential
Coffs Harbour contacts its ‘buddy classes’ via conference call up to twice a term and also tries to connect as a whole at an assembly or presentation once a term. The sessions are planned to enable maximum learning opportunities. Historically, the schools have communicated by writing letters or creating drawings, artworks, crafts and cards, but recently the school is realising the potential of interactive technology to collaborate in real time.
In 2017, Coffs Harbour submitted a video to the ANZ Promethean Grant competition, with students presenting the reasons why its Android-based, interactive display ActivPanel would be perfect for the unique programme. The successful video communicated how the technology had potential to provide clearer interaction with their friends and Coffs Harbour became one of only 11 schools in ANZ to be awarded a Promethean Grant.
Speaking about the success of the Bali Buddies sessions, programme co-ordinator and Coffs Harbour teacher, Andrew Pratley said: “Having access to an ActivPanel is such an exciting development for the future of our Bali Buddies programme as we strongly believe in learning language through relationships.
“The ActivPanel has assisted the development of our joint learning both here in Australia and in Indonesia, as aside from the endless collaborative opportunities that this now provides us with, the biggest benefit is having direct access to native speakers of Indonesian (and Balinese), while our partners in Bali get direct access to native English speakers. The benefits work in both directions.
“Students are able to put a face to their buddy’s name, which means they are more motivated to communicate and learn Indonesian, Balinese or English. We have even found that new enrolments tend to pick up the language quickly through their exposure in a ‘live’ context.”
Whole class activities
The ActivPanel has enabled spontaneity in learning and communication with teachers and students alike having immediate access to maps, the ability to search topics or questions as they arise meaning that the children are much more engaged in their learning. Activity is planned and varied according to the age group, with the younger students enjoying whole class games. Andrew explained: “Games are great as the kids don’t realise they are using a different language and they learn through osmosis. We have played games like ‘International Twister’ and Bingo, all on different topics or themes, with great success.”
Part of the collaboration has been the ability to harness the ActivPanel’s capabilities with app’s such as OneDrive, Google Docs, Dropbox, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Rocketbook while using video-conferencing helps Coffs Harbour to communicate quickly and efficiently. As students move through the school the format of the conference calls slowly change until students are having one-to-one conversations. Critically the interactive calls allow the children to show their buddies that they have received their letters, postcards and artworks with teachers from both schools helping to shape conversations.
Andrew concluded: “We wanted to be using cutting edge technology that complements what we do and is easy to use. Being online and interactive helps to research and understand the world around us, across all subjects. The greatest success of our programme has been the development of personal relationships between students. Through these relationships we hope to foster greater cultural understanding of our nearest neighbours.”
Continued evolution of this ‘open door’ learning platform calls for continued investment in bigger and better screen technology, audio and camera solutions. Where funding is made available, the effects on student engagement are immediately apparent. For example, Paul Land of Elementary Technology has just installed a Sharp video wall in a new build Academy, the Aureus School, in Didcot, Oxfordshire.
School staff report that: “The video wall has been absolutely amazing for student engagement, the scale and clarity of the screens helps to bring imagery, videos and ideas to life.”; “It is so immersive. Students can imagine themselves in the scenes presented, the video wall helps to draw viewers into the presentation.”; and “The quality of the video wall has improved the imagery and videography that staff can use when presenting.” For the funding authorities, it’s a matter of reprioritising their allocation of resources in respect of effectiveness.