Digital Strategy – Digital Learning Spaces Taming the internet to support teaching and learning in schools

Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people – George Bernard Shaw

Most of you stumbling your way into this blog post will be assiduous blog readers. Some of you will probably have blogs of your own. Whether you are a prolific blog writer or a prolific blog reader, you understand how a blog can be a powerful tool for reflection and sharing of practice.

Most of you will probably be teachers too, but, despite your understanding of how useful a tool a blog can be, only a minority of you will use blogs with your students. And even fewer of you will encourage your students to blog for you.

Earlier this year, in Valencia, I asked a 400 strong audience of Spanish teachers of English (as a foreign language) to put their hands up if they used the internet daily. Unsurprisingly, all hands – as far as I could tell – went up. I then asked them to keep their hands up if they thought their students used the internet daily. The same hands stayed up. Finally I asked them to keep their hands up if they used the internet with their students. Most hands went down and only a handful of teachers kept their hands up, nervously looking around for the like-minded few and far between.

For many reasons, we find that using the internet to its full, social potential does not fit in well with our model of education. We teach students in particular places at particular times. We may actively seek to find resources on the internet but we then tend to print them out and photocopy them, effectively stripping out the technology so that they can be used in our classrooms. If you think about it, it’s much like yoking a horse on to a car.

As I say, it’s not that we don’t understand that blogs can foster independent learning; provide both extension and support; be a showcase pupils’ work; be a reflection and peer assessment tool; bridge the gap between formal and informal learning; develop a  greater understanding of digital citizenship; disassociate learning from a particular time at a particular place; encourage collaborative practices; raise the profile of subjects and departments; and even serve to gather and record evidence of learning and progress over a period of time.

No, it’s not that. It’s just that we’d much rather these technologies adapted themselves to us.

The rise of the tablets

As the internet makes its way relentlessly into our lives and, whether you approve or not, into our classrooms, there might come a point when you realise that what was previously inconceivable is now not only possible, but beginning to become the new normal.

Mobiles devices have been clandestine presences in our classrooms for years now. As we get round to accepting, albeit reluctantly in many cases, that there might be some potential and benefit in exploring the use of tablets to support teaching and learning, we have begun to grudgingly acknowledge that some of the fears were unfounded and that some of the other fears had nothing to do with technology and all to do with behaviour management and high expectations. But that’s another story.

Tablets in the classroom are already becoming as standard as an exercise book. In fact, the most remarkable thing I come away with from visiting schools who have already embraced mobile devices is just how normal having one is. I come away thinking: what is the fuss all about? Increasingly, those teachers who distastefully and unprofessionally joke that the only tablets their students need are “those their psychiatrists prescribe” are beginning to find their audience is shrinking and it is they who are beginning to sound ridiculous.

How we react to the realisation that tablets are normal will define the path we follow as teachers and schools. If you think you need not change anything because you get fantastic results with the sole aid of some old photocopies then, fine, carry on as you are. No major works required. However, if you think that fantastic results is only a portion of what means to be educated, then you have the work cut out.

Digital Learning Spaces

So what if blogs weren’t just blogs any more? What if blogs had grown up into a fully fledged, device-agnostic, tablet friendly and responsive content management system? What if they became digital Learning Spaces?

When your students have tablets they are given access to resources they didn’t have before. Some this see this as a problem to be tackled. I view it as an opportunity: iBooks and e-books are all well and good, apps are great and some are truly brilliant, but online resources that can be curated, updated and accessed easily and conveniently by both teachers and learners are key to the successful adoption of tablets as a means to support teaching and learning.

Take WordPress, my blogging platform of choice: it’s free, it’s easy to install (our IT support team installed it and got it operational the same afternoon I mentioned in passing in a meeting), intuitive to use and it allows for unlimited multiple blogs, giving schools the opportunity to give a voice – a digital Learning Space – not only to individual teachers, subjects and departments, but also to year groups, forms, interest groups, clubs and, of course, individual students.

This has been an option for a long time. Nothing new there. But now, as WordPress has become a responsive and tablet friendly platform, it has essentially began to behave like a mobile app that provides access to content and resources of your making and/or choice to your students, regardless of what the device being used is.

This is what we are trying to do at Surbiton High School. As the Science Department  encourages independent and super-curricular learning; as the Languages department shares support and extension resources and encourages peer-assessment; as the English department showcases students’ work; as the Geography department begins to experiment with the flipped classroom concept; and as our Student Laureates and the Surbiton High Times find an audience for their creativity, these digital Learning Spaces are quickly becoming the cornerstone of our Digital Strategy.

We don’t plan to begin to bring in tablets until 2014. But when we do, we’ll have put the means in place to make sure they are successfully implemented in support of teaching, learning and a damn fine education.

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  1. Terrific post Jose! I am in agreement with you regarding blogs as digital portfolios, not only for our young students, but for our adult learners, as well. As the analog world becomes increasingly digitized, we will all need digital spaces to tell our learning stories. Blogs offer a flexible and viable solution. Here is my recent post on this topic; I hope that conversation grows from the insights you are sharing. Thanks again, Bob

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