How technology supports feedback at Surbiton High School —A case-study

Below is a case-study of how technology is used to support teaching and learning at Surbiton High School. The case-study was written by Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology at United Learning, and it is reproduced here with his permission:

Surbiton High School has had a 1-to-1 mobile learning strategy since the Autumn term 2014, with every teacher and student using an iPad as part of their day-to day work, a strategy led by Assistant Principal José Picardo. Stakeholder surveys of KS3 pupils in 2015 and 2016 indicated that gradual declines in positivity seen in other contexts between Years 7-9 were not reported at SHS (e.g. students were remaining positive about learning) and that many of the well-evidenced processes behind learning (agency, collaboration) were increasingly positively reported. SHS is using the iPad app Showbie as its workflow for digital submission of work, marking by staff and access to feedback by students. The author visited the school in November 2016 to observe lessons and interview staff and students about their perceptions of technology’s impact on marking and feedback.

Notable features

  • Staff perceive both efficiency and effectiveness gains for marking and feedback when technology is used:
  • Teachers are agreed that the use of ‘voice notes’ (audio recording of their narrated feedback) is far quicker than either hand- or type-written marking. Almost uniformly, they are using this reclaimed time to give more detailed feedback;
  • Teachers also consider the quality of feedback they are able to leave through a voice note to be much more effective for learning, due to a combination of factors. They perceive that students are more likely to access feedback in this form, that it reduces the ‘distancing effect’ of written feedback and encourages dialogue, that it forces engagement with the substance rather than the surface of ‘grades’, that they can make themselves understood more clearly, that ‘dense’feedback is more accessible, that it scaffolds self-assessment and target setting;
  • Teachers value some of the administrative affordances of the technology, including the ability to share classes’ marking with co-teachers, the ability to leave whole-class feedback when relevant, the ability to see a student’s entire history of work in their subject at a glance and to be able to access this instantly, the power this gives them to ensure that no student falls through the gaps;
  •  Several staff reported enhancement to parental partnership because of the technology, particularly in supporting Parents’ Evenings.

Students’ views echo the effects perceived by teachers at Surbiton:

  • Students describe verbal feedback as much more nuanced and less ‘black and white’ than written comments, seeing it as a continuation of teaching rather than a separate process;
  • Social distance is reduced through feedback delivered by a trusted voice, using language/ inflection with which the students are already comfortable and familiar;
  • Some students believe that the technology is improving the turn-around speed of marking because of the simplification of the process for teachers – no missing books, no piles of work to carry around, nothing to be lost, the ability to work on it anywhere and in any spare moment;
  • The relative inaccessibility of the medium (verbal feedback can’t be glanced at, it needs to be listened to in its entirety) was reported as a drawback by some students. Staff, conversely, see this as a strength, forcing students to listen (sometimes repeatedly) and to transcribe targets into their own words.

The most notable feature of the school’s use of technology is, counterintuitively, that it is not noted. Surbiton has successfully embedded technology-enhanced practices into the ‘business as usual’ of learning so that students and increasing numbers of staff do not see it as a discrete activity.

Success factors

The maturity of technology use observed at SHS has taken years to emerge and to spread through department structures. It is not a novel observation that successful change must be a gradual process, but it is starkly clear at Surbiton. Equally, the development of internal ‘champions’ seems to have been an important part of the spread of technology-enhanced teaching from isolated islands to the pedagogic mainland.

These changes do not occur organically – strong leadership both from the Head teacher (who has invested significant financial and political capital in the project) and from José as digital strategist is a pivotal success factor.

A focus on enhancing the processes of learning, not other, more weakly evidenced theorised benefits of technology has enabled staff to engage positively. That the core of this approach is a defined strategy of a common toolset and workflow which every student and member of staff can understand and rely on has been an important plank of the strategy’s success.

An aspect of this ‘technology as an enhancement’ mind-set is seen in the practices of the Psychology department, which has used Showbie to strengthen a pre-existing assessment process which had previously been frustratingly easy for students to subvert or avoid.

José has also simplified wherever possible, employing whatever tool is best suited for a specific task rather than attempting to use complex/ compromised all-in-one platforms. A good example of this is the simplicity of the school’s ‘Learning Spaces’ website, which serves as the knowledge and content distribution hub for students. It is organised by subject and then year and thus easily navigated by students, linked to by staff and accessible by both current parents and potential customers.

Ongoing challenges and next steps

Whilst the benefits are clearly understood by those staff and students observed/ interviewed, SHS will need continue to exemplify these and support all teachers in adapting current practices. Dogmatism is unlikely to be helpful here and the school’s leaders will need to show continuing flexibility to specialist subjects’ requirements, as well as challenging simple resistance to change. The school should continue to support a healthy culture of ‘what works’, combining the best of traditional with emerging methods where they support learning most effectively.

Inspectors’ requirements to see evidence of marking is sometimes perceived as a barrier to more widespread adoption, which is an illogical fear (evidence is actually much more easily accessed by inspectors and can demonstrate greater effectiveness, as described above). A linked worry is that absence of marking in books will be negatively perceived by inspectors/ parents. To counter this, the school should clearly define the role of digital methods within its marking policy and publicise its successes to stakeholders. This will also relieve teachers from the perceived threat of internal and external criticism.

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