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Andrew Howard: Changing Student Engagement in Technology

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by Andrew Howard
Expert Educator Columnist, UK

When preparing my talk for the Microsoft Education Leaders’ Briefing at BETT, London, I was reflecting further on the issue of student engagement. As I said in my last blog, students are, in fact, resistant to adopting technological solutions and educational experiences. Yes, they will do something with glee if it is presented via technology, but only in fact because it is a gimmick and something different. When you try to instil long term change and technology adoption in a student body, you quickly come against resistance.

We call our young people digital natives and ourselves the immigrants; we have done so for so long that it has become the accepted norm. And I don’t disagree with this (although there are young educators coming into schools now who also qualify as digital natives … ). What I disagree with is that this is then the end of the discussion. They are the natives, so we don’t need to guide them or teach them how to use it.

Also, it is very much their space! They defend it with the passion of a lion protecting its territory from a rival, especially the social spaces they live in and populate. Why on earth would they want us treading into their territory, pushing our education into their offline world?

Beyond that, however, is another barrier; when technology is used effectively to redefine education (the SAMR model), it makes education much more collaborative, more effective. But it also forces our young people to work harder – they are suddenly active participants in their learning, responsible for action, rather than being passive recipients of knowledge delivery. It’s hard work for them. . .

So all that results in a formidable barrier to effective, long term, systemic introduction of technology into learning.

But the battle is well worth engaging in, because where it does work, the evidence is clear that when students do use technology, their outcomes are so much greater and growth is more sustained. The only question is how do we do it?

At Sandymoor, we have developed the following strategies to support student engagement:

First of all, we don’t ‘baby-fy’ their experience. They are the natives in this community, so why on earth do we continually provide child-like (deliberately child-friendly) environments? It would be like trying to use Dr Seuss primers to help an adult understand some new element of their native language. It is demeaning and puts them off. Instead, we treat them like adults, giving them the same level of access to Office 365 as the staff. And we expect them to use it the same too. Email is our primary communication channel with students as well as colleagues. Our students don’t have homework planners or school diaries. Instead, homework, projects and deadlines are shared with them via calendar invites. (This also has the advantage of providing a monitoring solution to see how much homework is being set, too). Files are shared via OneDrive &/or Sites. To all intent and purpose, our students are fully using Office 365 in the same way that they would in a modern office environment. And there’s no ‘skin’ on it for them, no cute characters showing them where to go or soft fonts to make it friendlier. . .

Then we make access as simple as possible. A full commercial-strength wifi network is at the heart of our school – with a capacity for 900 students, we have a wifi structure capable of handling over 3,000 simultaneous connections, with three discrete networks. Students can connect any device they bring in to school onto a dedicated ‘Student’ wifi network. They do not have to surrender their devices to the network team for a ‘health check’ (with teenage daughters of my own, I know that I would have to prise their devices from their cold, dead hands!). We protect our networks through sophisticated firewalls, and by having the vast majority of our systems in the cloud. Most physical machines on site are in fact virtual machines too, so if a virus was to get onto something, it could easily be removed…

And finally, we make sure there is a need to engage regularly. Competitions and potential rewards are only broadcast via email, so students have to check regularly. Homework not completed is chased up & students are punished if they did not do it because they did not check their calendar (I am still looking for the modern equivalent of the dog ate my homework …).

And with all this, we are now getting student engagement, with more and more students wandering around school with devices. We are getting there, slowly, but there is change happening.

Next, we just need to ensure that the staff are also all fully engaged with the change. In the brilliant paper, Enabling Transformation with Strategic Planning, Organizational Capacity, and Sustainability, written by Ben Jensen, Ben refers to the fact that true change in education has to be behavioural change, written into the way we do things. This is my next major task, to change the way we do things at Sandymoor, so that we are all using technology to make true transformational changes to young people’s lives…

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