Like most teachers, I’ve got used to the idea that my students are walking around with smartphones in their pockets more powerful than the computers we had in IT labs just a few years back. Our students are growing up in a sea of information and I prioritise the best of what technology has to offer in the classroom and incorporate those new developments that can really support our students to ensure that they are ready for work and life.
And while schools have different policies on whether students can use mobiles in school – most can’t – the vast majority of us know that technology has huge potential to support our teaching and learning. An initiative that is increasingly attracting attention is ‘blended learning’, combining classroom teaching with online digital learning, where students have some freedom to decide how/where/when this happens. Students currently use a similar method through our academy’s own bespoke VLE called the iLearn platform, a central resource that can be revisited independently throughout the year. Here they can access links which promote deeper thinking and have the flexibility to access their own teacher’s work whenever they wish. This was particularly useful for current Year 11 students who found it invaluable when preparing for examinations.
When we heard that the Aldridge Foundation were in discussion with Pearson about trials of blended learning in the UK, we were very interested to work with them to see what benefits it might have for our own students and teachers at DACA. The Foundation’s CEO had been over to visit Pearson’s Connections Academy in the States and we knew that they were doing interesting work in online learning, offering flexible ways for students to take some or all of their lessons online. This approach is clearly proving popular with many pupils and parents, and the Foundation is committed to exploring it further in the interests of improving outcomes for more young people – which is what makes our academy tick – so we were delighted to be asked to take a closer look for ourselves.
We worked with Pearson to try to incorporate a tailored version of this online schooling alongside our own teaching at DACA. For a whole school year, I had responsibility for 26 of our Year 8 pupils who continued their maths studies through a mixture of face to face teaching and online study, and did their geography course entirely through an online platform, working at their own pace through the modules. Another Year 8 class continued with their traditional lessons for these subjects during this time, so the results of each group could be compared.
While it wasn’t always plain sailing, the project threw up some interesting results. The blended learning approach really did seem to help some lower achieving students, but it didn’t necessarily stretch our smartest. Students with mid to low initial academic achievement improved more (measured in NC sublevels) than those with higher initial levels of achievement. Effectiveness also differed between subjects – in geography, the achievement levels of students taking the blended approach was significantly higher than those in the control group, whereas in maths it was significantly lower.
There was the odd logistical challenge, as you’d expect, such as accessing some of the online video content through our school firewall, and finding a way to quickly convert the online marks into National Curriculum levels.
There were also some big adjustments in mindset for students and teachers alike. Teachers noted that they felt their role had changed from that of a director at the front of the room, to that of a facilitator or coach, responding to individual student requests. They also said that students were concerned about whether or not they were doing their work correctly, wanting teacher feedback before they submitted it. Eventually however, our teachers felt students were encouraged to work on their independent learning skills.
They also found that students were often worried about having incomplete online lessons, rushing through them and going straight to the assessment without having fully learned the skills and concepts they needed to. Our experience suggests that blended learning needs fewer large assessments, with smaller, more regular assessments that test students’ understanding as they work through the curriculum – which is exactly what good teachers have always done.
All of our teachers provided additional activities and materials to supplement the blended course, with one using an online notice board within the learning platform to do so. They liked the range of activities on offer but also felt that students would have benefited from having time away from the computers to engage in whole class, group and paired work, especially in geography. Finally, they would have liked the system to differentiate automatically and set work at the right level of difficulty for individual students.
In only 7 years of teaching I have seen technology change the classroom in numerous ways and it will continue to do so. As we all try to stay on top of these changes, we need to be selective about what we use with our own students and ensure that teachers are properly supported to make the most of it. Our younger teachers are already “digital natives”, but it’s fair to say that schools and the policies we have to follow are probably lagging behind the realities of how technology could help improve learning. Digital platforms will never replace good teachers, but – if we use blended learning approaches smartly they can help teachers to improve learning. I look forward to continuing to discover new ways of using this approach most effectively with our staff.
Leader of Learning in Mathematics at Darwen Aldridge Community Academy