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Earn buy-in by sharing what digital age learning looks like

By Amelia Archer
December 19, 2018
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Previous experience routinely colors our expectations, and that was certainly the case for us when 60 iPads arrived in our small village school in Purley on Thames, United Kingdom. These wonderful devices were presented to us by the JDO Foundation in response to our application to engage in its global collaboration program.

Having previously taught computing skills using three lethargic PCs in the corner of the classroom, I felt as though a fairy godmother had waved her wand. Now I was equipped to resource my students with 1:1 tech to teach coding skills, communication options, website building, collaborative mind-mapping and digital citizenship. In short, I could begin to teach 21st century students today’s curriculum using 21st century technology embedded within our learning opportunities.  

At least, that’s what I saw when the iPads arrived.

It hadn’t occurred to me that our 21st century students have 20th century parents who remember their own school experiences of “computer time” as a reward for completing “real” work or behaving well. In other words, a holding activity or even entertainment for break times. 

I hadn’t considered the alarm experienced by excellent parents fighting to regulate their children’s screen time at home, only to witness their efforts seeming to be undermined by the school carting devices into the classroom and encouraging children to have routine access. I didn’t stop to consider our parents’ perceptions of iPads and the wider world of technology.

And so it wasn’t long before concerns began to filter through: from parents and caregivers, from other members of the community and even, to a degree, from within school itself. I rapidly became aware that for many, the concept of teaching with tech was oxymoronic, two completely incompatible notions. My shiny new power tools were likely to be relegated to a locked storage unit with strictly time-tabled access if I didn’t bring my community on board.

In order to infuse vision and excitement, I needed to offer both reassurance and inspiration.

This process started with a tech evening, which I now run annually. Parents and supporters are invited to school for a three-part evening: explanation, exploration and inspiration.  
Recognizing parents’ concerns is hugely important, so I open the evening by agreeing with parents that the internet is not always safe, but, I reason, neither are roads. I share with parents that the way to help children navigate roads safely is to ensure they are taught properly and have the opportunity to practice under guidance. And I suggest the same principle should be applied to learning to navigate the web.

In the same way that keeping children away from roads would severely constrict their freedom, keeping them from internet access would also be to confine them. I explain the need to resource our students for an exponentially evolving digital world where the jobs of tomorrow don’t even exist yet, where students who are digitally literate will have a huge head start. A world in which the international marketplace can be reached by a single computer programmer. A future that demands global collaboration facilitated by the digital skills taught today. A world where classroom tech is morphing from a simple teaching tool into a mechanism for mutuality.  

The second part of the evening is very practical, and I encourage everyone present to engage in challenges that have been prepared beforehand: simple coding activities, collaborating on a Google document, creating a group Padlet, competing in a math challenge, to name a few.

This section is hugely important as it’s very hard to win over minds that haven’t had the opportunity to connect with the skills taught and honed using digital devices.

The evening finishes with a grand finale showcase demonstrating some of the children’s work – often still in progress.  
For those who attend, the evening is hugely motivating, and parents become some of my most effective advocates. However, there are many who don’t attend such evenings, so I always reach out further.

To this end, we began conducting iPad 101 workshops for elderly people in our community – delivered by the children. My students had honed important skills and wanted to be able to share them. To prepare, they ran surveys and discovered that elderly people value the photographic, video and communication potential stored within their devices, but often don’t know how to use them fully.
The workshops offer lonely people an opportunity to meet with our school youngsters, facilitate genuinely useful learning for both parties and help to rectify the misconception that digital devices are solely for gaming and entertainment purposes.

To further promote the creative learning opportunities afforded by our devices, my students created audio-visual versions of their favorite picture books. QR codes linked to these videos were then stuck inside the picture books so that when younger children scanned the book, one of their favorite role models would pop up on screen and read to them.

These audio-visual story videos were published to a website so children could also access them from home, inadvertently continuing to promote our collaborative learning.

In fact, we began to publish much of our work: websites with book recommendations or topic research, Padlets promoting punctuation pedantry, online book anthologies with our best writing, a collaborative advent calendar using ThingLink, Adobe Spark posters and, via Google Classroom, aspects of every part of our classroom learning. 

This level of transparency offered parents a sneak peek into their children’s learning and most were overwhelmingly impressed by their children’s intelligence and creativity.

The icing on the cake for me has been parents reporting back about the revolution in their children’s engagement with devices at home as a result of positive interaction with them in school. Instead of zoning out on games, our students are tuning in with one another as they collaborate on projects, and our learners are becoming socially literate in a world swamped by social media.

Rather than being consumers, our children are creators, writing their own apps, games and puzzles. Far from neglecting their intelligence, students are stretching their brains as they encounter problems to be solved and programs to be debugged.

Although the arrival of digital devices in our school conjured up images of games and distractions for some of our parents, recognizing this concern, addressing it and offering a transparent view of our learning within the classroom has transformed these first impressions.

Amelia Archer is a globally connected educator and a senior teacher at Purley Church of England Primary School.