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Hannah Watkins looks at next generation learning

Debates on the social and educational impact Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has on the developing brain continue to rage around us. In one corner, we have critics arguing that prolonged use of computers and tv screens causes, amongst other things, attention deficit, social isolation and obesity. In the other corner are the supporters who recognise that technology is here to stay and we'd better get up to speed with it if we want to succeed in years to come. It seems then that, whether we like it or not, in order to be prepared for the realities of the 21st Century, children now have to be technologically savvy so that they are equipped with the right tools.


The government proclaims that all UK primary and secondary schools now have a broadband connection to the internet and have charged Becta, a government agency, with ensuring the effective and innovative use of technology in learning. Becta believes that: “Technology has the potential to transform learning” and that children find it both motivational and fun. Becta has also commissioned research which found that:

  • 95% of parents think it can help their child learn 
  • 78% of parents think it can bring subjects to life
  • 77% of parents think it can help with difficult subjects
  • 68% of parents think it can help exam results
  • 95% of teachers believe that the use of technology is having a positive impact on standards in schools and colleges
  • Pupils studying Key Stage 2 Maths, Science and English using ICT improve at twice the rate of the national average
  • When young people use technology to support their learning at home, they do better in national tests

These seem to be very positive stats and there are many forward thinking schools that have already taken up the challenge to assert their position at the forefront of ICT integration into school life and beyond. These schools have also seen, at first hand, the effect this has had on children.

I recently met the ICT Co-ordinator of one such school, Victoria Jordan, who explained to me the fascinating and exciting new uses of ICT in schools.

“Technology has the potential to transform learning”

Through her commitment to the inspiring use of technology, her school, Prospect House School, an independent prep school based in Putney, has won the title of Best School in London in Becta’s Excellence in ICT awards for the last two years running. Her key message is that: “It is vital that children have the same core skills in ICT as they have in literacy and numeracy but it is very much seen now as a tool like a pencil or pen. Rather than taking away from the skills of reading and writing, it is seen as an addition to these basics and should be integrated as a normal part of school life.”

Sharing Tool

A growing number of schools in both the independent and state sectors now offer what are known as ‘learning platforms’. A learning platform brings together different resources, games, worksheets, websites and other tools for communication all in one safe place. Access to the learning platform can be from both school and home for children, teachers and parents alike.

Using the Apple Mac system throughout the school, with computers and wireless laptops in every classroom, along with interactive whiteboards, Prospect House has a learning platform (externally provided by Studywiz) that is set up for the school.

For the younger children, the learning platform can be used “very much as a sharing tool between pupil, parent and teacher.” The teacher can log on and create a page for their class with a welcoming message, an index of features and activities and perhaps a feature page, for example, what’s happening in the Autumn Term. Pictures and text can be added by the teacher as the term goes on and as the children’s skills develop.

A number of games are often embedded in learning platforms that the teacher can adapt and edit so that the game is not the same over and over again and features like a Gallery section, similar to YouTube, allow children to add artwork, photos, movies and audio. Using these tools, teachers can set tasks,for example: “upload a picture from your holiday and get one of your parents to help you.”

Learning platforms are a place for children to showcase their work and share it with teachers, parents and friends

This has the added bonus of enabling the parent and the child to enhance their ICT skills together and work as a partnership. It helps children question and learn things for themselves and enables them to gather and share information and experiences as it is an interactive activity. Comments, discussions, evaluations and ratings can be added by the children, other pupils and teachers. This gives a place for children to showcase their work and share it with teachers, parents and friends.

Victoria notes: “We make a big point of saying that this is a positive area and we do not accept negative comments. We tell the children if they have nothing positive to say then don’t post.” Teachers can also delete anything inappropriate and posters are easily recognisable.

Going Live and Online

Schools can also subscribe to external websites that children can log on to both at school and at home that can help in core skills like maths and literacy.

Mathletics, for example, is used by schools and children worldwide. Each child has their own individual log on details and can create their character, choosing the hair colour, clothes, hat, etc of their online persona. Once they are members, they can play live maths games against other children from around the world, from the UK to Australia, the US, and even China. The levels stretch from basic subtraction and addition in Level 1 to challenging maths questions at Level 5: “The children really like playing against other children from around the world as they are able to see how they are progressing against others – it really adds a level of fun competitiveness.”

Resources like Mathletics can also be used by teachers to set specific activities that are linked to the classroom. These online tools may perhaps be used for the last 5 minutes of a lesson or as part of their homework.

Key benefits are engagement and motivation. It is especially effective for children who are not very confident in Maths

The use of computers and, in particular, resources such as Mathletics, makes learning more individual. It becomes much more a case of ‘personalised’ learning. Levels of learning can be set so that those who are struggling can work at their own pace whilst those who pick it up quicker can advance quicker. Children can see immediately how they are getting on as can the teachers as reports are generated for the teacher including the levels that have been reached and the number of hours spent on the exercises. Gold bars can be achieved which count towards points. The more points that are racked up, the more access children are given to different activities or to the website shop to buy glasses, hairstyles and clothes for their online character. Points also go towards certificates – gold, silver and bronze – which, at Prospect House, are presented at assembly every Friday.

Victoria has noted that the key differences have been in engagement and motivation: “This motivates the children. It seems to have been especially effective for children who are not very confident in Maths. They have really grasped it as, for them, it doesn’t seem like work, it is much more like fun games.”

Personalised Learning

One of the great successes that the school has found in ICT is the use of revision podcasts for Year 6 children. Many of the children sit 11+ exams in January. The space of time to prepare them is relatively short and is disrupted by the Christmas break. So, the school looked into the question of how to support the children more at home during this period. They wanted to make sure that the children were kept up to speed with revision without it becoming an onerous task with numerous test papers.

“What the children really like is to download the podcasts onto their ipods and revise wherever they are – on the bus, on the tube – looking cool with their ipods but really they are actually revising!”

The staff came up with the idea of filming teachers in a normal class, teaching basic concepts. So, they set up the video camera, recorded the teacher, edited it and made it into an imovie for ipods. The children can download the podcast from the learning platform. They can also sync it to itunes and subscribe to the podcasts so that they can automatically download podcasts on to their ipods as and when they want to: “The system works really well as they can listen to their own teacher from a lesson that they actually sat in. This triggers an automatic recollection of their lesson and what they learnt.”

The revision podcasts are short, ranging from one minute to five minutes long and currently cover maths and literacy: “What the children really like is to download the podcasts onto their ipods and revise wherever they are – on the bus, on the tube – looking cool with their ipods but really they are actually revising!”

The learning platform and podcasts are not only used for revision purposes. Children can use music media like Apple’s Garageband to create music stories with sound effects and narration, record their times tables to rap and drum beats and can upload these.They have also been a very useful tool for children with special needs. The teachers have listened to what the children find difficult or want help with and have created podcasts for them.

Savvy Parents

On her arrival at the school five years ago, Victoria Jordan noted that there was ICT equipment already in place. However, it was seriously underused through lack of understanding of how to get the best out of it. Part of her role has been to train the staff and to get them to understand how integration of the technology can enhance teaching and learning: “The staff have picked it up amazingly and are really keen as they see how it inspires the children.”

On seeing all this technology in action, the learning platform, the educational quizzes the podcasts (so cool…), I found it really exciting that we, as parents, can also reap the benefits of this new generation learning. For example, if we are not able to go into school much during the week, or if, as many dads experience, weekends are the only proper time we have with the kids, this sort of technology will allow us to interact and share our children’s work.

Says Victoria: “We have found extra benefits from the podcasts that we had not fully considered initially. Parents have found them fantastic as often children will say to their parents that they are learning, for example, long division and parents try to help them. This often ends in confusion of methods or parents can’t recall the concepts. Now parents can log on, watch the podcast and help their children as they can ‘work off the same songsheet’ as the teachers.”

The benefits of easy access to online resources also goes someway to helping schools continue teaching uninterrupted should such things as swine flu cause children to be kept away from school. So parents don’t need to worry about what to do to occupy the kids!

My fears that reliance on computers can lead to children living in total isolation are now starting to diminish slightly if ICT can be used innovatively and creatively and we, as parents, can share the experience with our kids. Perhaps it could also hail the end of homework tantrums and the “Oh, nothing much” response we get when we ask: “So, what did you do at school today?” We can hope!

USEFUL LINKS Becta – for school and home ideas