Using Slack in a pandemic

We have been using Slack at my school for about four years now. It has generally worked really well as way for our whole staff team to communicate together effectively beyond email, helped by the fact that we provide all staff with a device and because it works across a range of platforms (iPadOS, macOS and web etc).

But as I reflect on the last few months of pandemic school closure, Slack has definitely made remote working a lot easier for us an organisation. I can sit on my kitchen table and easily flow between a range of different tasks: solve an ICT problem for a teacher; glean valuable feedback from teachers on an aspect of home learning; schedule a Zoom meeting with senior leaders; stay in the loop about activities happening for critical worker children still in school. Each task might not seem hugely significant by itself, but the fact staff from across the school can get this sort of work done without getting buried in endless email threads helps make school life feel at least a bit more cohesive.

Here’s a few things that have helped us make it work:

  • The more channels the better. Sack works best when there are channels about a specific tasks or project. We had lots of existing channels that worked well for us during ‘normal’ school opening, but with the change to distanced working, we needed some new channels to reflect the new tasks at hand. For example, we set up #who-is-in-school for posting rota details, rather than them getting lost on our general channel. Having a dedicated channel means that people who want or need to know that information can find it quickly.
  • Pin important posts. Once you have made specific channels for the specific topic/project, it’s very helpful to ‘pin‘ key documents or information. As well as making the information stand out for those already in the channel, those joining can just scroll up and find it too.
  • Turn group discussions into private channels. Sometimes an existing channel doesn’t have quite the right people in it for the information you want to share, so you create a new new direct message to those people. But creating a private channel instead (or converting an existing message group into a private channel) clarifies the ongoing conversation topic and makes it simpler to return to the conversation.
  • Use ‘reacji’ to keep track of tasks. Slack allows you to react to a post with an emoji (e.g. 👍) something Slack cloyingly call a ‘reacji‘. This can be used as a great way of to both let people know that you’ve received a message and be a note to yourself that you’ve dealt with it.

How to make iCloud save the day

For various different reasons and entirely due to my own incompetence, on Monday I managed to accidentally and remotely remove all of the apps from all of our teachers iPads. Not a good way to start the day!

So, after fixing the problem and setting all the apps to reinstall again, I reflected on what does happen to all that app data should any app be accidentally deleted in future. Sure, you can restore from an iCloud backup, but that’s a pretty time-consuming process and it would be better if everything lived nice and safe in the cloud.

So, how did various different apps perform?

  • iWork: fine, so long as teachers had been saving to iCloud Drive (with the free 200GB of storage with Managed Apple IDs).
  • G-Suite: absolutely fine, as the very epitome of cloud storage.
  • Office365: more of a mixed story, depending if people were saving things to ‘On my iPad’ or to OneDrive. The Office apps don’t default to the cloud, which is not great.
  • Slack: requires the user to know the name of the workspace before signing in, but once you’re in it’s good as new.
  • Explain Everything: nothing is saved to the cloud, so any projects that weren’t already exported are lost.
  • Book Creator: not a problem, mainly because I had previously turned on iCloud storage via MDM. Once you open the app and wait a few moments, all of your previous books reappear…yay!

Making Book Creator save to iCloud

Now at this point I need to interject: how exactly did I got Book Creator to save everything to iCloud? It’s not the default setting, that’s for sure!

I stumbled upon the solution a few years ago when we introduced Shared iPad in Key Stage 1. Shared iPad mode heavily relies entirely on apps using iCloud to store all their data so that when a user logs out of one iPad and into another one, all of their app data magically follows them. Some apps support this out of the box, whereas others need to have a few settings turned on via MDM.

One cool thing about MDM is that you can use it to push out certain configurations to apps when they are installed. On Jamf Pro, there is an ‘App Configuration’ tab on apps and it’s in there that you can put in the extra settings. Such as…

<dict>
<key>enableCloudSync</dict>
<true/>
</dict>

If you enter this information, even if the iPad in question isn’t in Shared iPad mode, it will automatically save the user data to iCloud. Handy!

Please see https://support.bookcreator.com/hc/en-us/articles/209212825-Configuration-for-Shared-iPads for full details from Book Creator.

Making Explain Everything save to iCloud

So, could I leverage this benefit to fix any of the other apps? The answer is yes!

Explain Everything supports Shared iPad mode, so I used the same trick to get it to save data to iCloud even if the device wasn’t in Shared iPad mode. The following configuration dictionary in the app configuration worked for me:

<dict>
<key>SharediPads</key>
<true/>
</dict>

Please see https://docs.google.com/document/d/1atOMVFtTh38dG6twc9EbCTjBrB78gsBAbmHMVXrzHUw/edit#heading=h.i0got4llqoyo for full documentation from Explain Everything.

Making it easier to sign into Slack

Now, Slack doesn’t use iCloud per say. But it would be handy if school devices knew the school Slack domain by default to make signing in much simpler. And it turns out that they can!

The following app configuration is what you need:

<dict>
<key>OrgDomain</key>
<string>yourslackteamnamehere</string>
</dict>

Please see https://storage.googleapis.com/appconfig-media/appconfig-content/uploads/2017/11/Slack-AppConfig-ISV-Capabilities-V2-.pdf for full details of what is possible with managing Slack.

Connecting and engaging learners with Showbie Class Discussion

It is the law in the UK that children have to go to school, unless they are being home schooled. Which means, barring attendance issues and the inevitable follow-up of penalty notices and court action, children generally come to school. A teacher has to put the work in to make their lessons engaging so that children pay attention and learn, but they don’t usually have to worry if kids will show up at school in the first place.

With home learning and COVID-19 school closures, things have changed: we can populate our virtual learning platform with as many learning activities as we like, but we can’t actually make children log in and do them every day. To counteract this, we’re doing the following:

  1. Phone calls home. We have asked teachers to make phone contact with each student in their class (it’s a primary school, so this is up to 30 children), to check up with their general wellbeing but also to encourage them to be logging into Showbie and doing the learning activities.
  2. Troubleshooting technical problems. Before the school closed, we emailed home children’s Showbie login accounts. The majority of children were then able to log in and start the learning, but not everyone. Through responding to support emails from parents, texting home login credentials and even phoning parents to talk through problems, we’ve seen 85%+ able to login at least once.
  3. Providing a device. Because we’re in phone contact with families, we’ve been able to identify those families who just don’t have enough computer access for their children to learn. We’ve been sending home some ageing iPad Airs and are now scraping together some 5th Generation iPads to go into homes too.
  4. Making tasks engaging and accessible. We are designing three 30-minute learning activities for children to do each day. These are mostly recapping existing topics in English and maths and then introducing new learning for the rest of the curriculum. If learning is accessible to children, they are more likely to want to come back and try it the next day.
  5. Feedback from teachers. Showbie has lots of great feedback options, such as voice notes, text comments and annotation tools, so we are encouraging our teachers to make good use of these. If a child has put in the work to log in and do their learning, it’s important that they know that someone has been looking at it as it will motivate them to try again the next day.

On top of all of this, we’ve been experimenting with using the Showbie ‘class discussion‘ feature. Within each Showbie class, a teacher can turn on class discussion to allow students to have real-time text conversation together. As the lockdown has continued, children are increasingly desperate for contact with their classmates and so class discussion will help them stay relationally connected in, but also provide a meaningful ‘pull’ mechanism to encourage children to keep on logging into Showbie.

We trialled it initially with Year 6, adopting the same model as #AppleEDUchat Twitter chats with the class discussion open for an hour and the teacher posting a new a pre-prepared question every 10 minutes. It was generally a big success, with a good number of children logging in and participating. After getting feedback from teachers, we made the following adjustments:

  • 30 minute discussion, as an hour was too long
  • Starting and ending with 5 minutes for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, as children really wanted that space to just ‘chat’
  • Four questions posted at five minute intervals
  • Teachers to pause class discussion after posting the question, to give a chance for children to read and consider before responding

We also discovered that Showbie had helpfully released an update to their software, allowing teachers to pin posts in class discussion. This allowed teachers to keep their question at the top of the discussion, rather than it being lost in the flow of conversation. Handy!

This was my favourite unsolicited feedback from a child:

The EdTech Demonstrator School Programme

Back in October, I absent-mindedly posted a little Twitter flurry about the vital importance of professional learning with technology for teachers and how schools can support each other in this, but if schools don’t have enough money to even buy computers there definitely isn’t any to pay for such training.

Unbeknownst to me, the UK Department for Education — that very day — announced what they called the EdTech Demonstrator School Programme. The idea for this was that the government would identify schools who are doing effective things with educational technology and then provide funding for them to support other schools in developing their own EdTech strategy and approach.

As a school already both doing innovative things with technology and supporting other schools as well, we registered our interest and then formally applied for the programme. After a brief purdah hiatus (thank you Brexit!) we were then invited to interview for the programme where we had to present our plans for spending the funding. Our proposal was basically to run a 5-day course throughout the year for computing leads and senior leaders, helping them explore all the elements required to make EdTech work in a school. The majority of the funding was to go on paying release costs for schools for delegates to attend, plus providing a baseline of technology to use through the programme (hello iPad!). The course would culminate in a celebration event, where each school would present about what they had learnt over the year and how their vision and strategy for EdTech had developed.

Then coronavirus hit.

Suddenly schools up and down the land realised that maybe they did need EdTech after all, starting…right now!

In light of this, the DfE repurposed the EdTech Demonstrator Programme as a way of supporting schools with distanced learning. It turns out that my school was one of the successful 22 applicants and now join 20 schools in being part of this revised programme.

If your school is looking for some support at this time, please visit https://edtech-demonstrator.lgfl.net to register your interest!

The Lowest Common Denominator

We are fortunate to have a 1:1 iPad programme in my school. As a Primary school, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) wasn’t ever really an option, mainly because I am not sure how many parents would be willing or able to provide a computer/device for their child to use at school. But this is also to our advantage: because we provide the computers, every child in the school has the same device and so teachers can plan and teach with a confidence that all students will be running the same operating system (baring the odd iPadOS hold-out), with the same apps and hardware that supports all the same features. This is incredibly helpful because it reduces the potential friction/annoyances of technology not working as part of the learning process.

Joining schools across the globe, we have now moved to home learning in response to the current COVID-19 crisis. Our approach has been to leverage the existing experience and confidence of teachers and students in using Showbie by using it as our remote learning platform to deliver learning resources to students, provide tools for students to complete the work (i.e. through annotation tools, voice memos etc) and submit it back to the teacher who can then give some sort of feedback (either individually or as a class) and use it to inform future planning. This seems to be working well, with 82% of children logging in at home so far.

But because we are relying on whatever computer devices children have access to at home, Showbie to all intents and purposes becomes the lowest common denominator for learning. Some pupils are using ‘tablet’ devices, which might be a low-powered Kindle Fire or maybe an ageing iPad. Others are relying on negotiating a time slot on a laptop shared between several siblings and a working parent, or maybe even trying to complete tasks using an iPhone or an Android smartphone. Because Showbie offers both an iPad and a web app, this becomes possible. But it also becomes the ceiling as well – we can’t push the sorts of learning tasks beyond annotating PDFs, typing comments, recording a voice note or visiting web resources. When we’re used to designing learning using the range of apps and tools possible on iPad, this can be a bit frustrating!

Now one way around this could have been to have sent home all our iPads, like they have done in other 1:1 iPad schools. It was something we considered, but things moved very fast in the UK – from ‘we’re not closing schools!’ one day to total lockdown a week later.

And if we were a Chromebook school, maybe all this would be totally normal and fine, with teachers used to learning and creating just in a web browser. Maybe.

But I guess the main takeaway is that, with EdTech, you need to make sure your lowest common denominator is as high as possible: work to have a common technology platform that gives teachers and students the most leeway for learning.

Why we still need schools

With schools across the world getting their heads around home learning (with varying levels of technology and success), I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that we get rid of schools in the long term. But the fact that they are, for the most part, physically closed at the moment does help bring into focus some of the reasons why they exist in the first place.

  • Children need the important socialisation process of mixing their peers. Parents are vital for those first few years, but after that children learn how to relate properly with the rest of the world by learning how to get along with other children their age.
  • School provides an external institutional structure for kids, bringing an order to children’s lives. As children learn how to play by the rules of school, they then can become responsible adult citizens who know how to play and keep on playing the game that is civilised society (see Piaget).
  • Teachers provide the external motivational impetus to direct learning. Of course we want learning to be intrinsically motivating and engaging, but the reality is that reading, writing and maths is hard! Training your hand to write, your eyes to read and your brain to think might not be fun at the time but it pays off over a lifetime, and often requires an adult to direct a child to learn it.
  • It takes a village to raise a child. Schools provide much of that ‘village’ experience in our modern crowded and urban life. Kids get a range of input from a variety of people, both academically but also pastorally. This can be done remotely, to a degree, but is so much easier if everyone is the same room or building!
  • People who become teachers are generally the sort of people who are good at teaching (one hopes)! Not everyone has those skills or aptitude, nor indeed the depth or breadth of subject and pedagogical knowledge to introduce learners to a domain of knowledge. You generally need a piano teacher for a child to learn pianoforte…
  • Parents have to go to work. In Days of Yore, children were very useful to help their parents with agricultural jobs, such as bringing in the harvest (which is partly why we ended up with a 6 week summer holiday in the UK). It certainly is a challenge for parents to carry on doing remote working from home whilst juggling children and their learning as well.

It looks like schools in Demark are reopening, and I look forward to this happening in the UK too (at the appropriate time!).

Remote Apple Teacher

In order for us to become an Apple Distinguished School, one requirement was for at least 75% of teachers to gain their Apple Teacher status. Apple Teacher is an online learning tool from Apple that celebrates the skills and knowledge educators have in using Apple technology for learning inside and outside the classroom. As the Greenwich Apple Regional Training Centre, we put on courses after school throughout the year, covering all the different badges needed to get the Apple Teacher status (intro to iPad, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie and GarageBand). Because the after school training was onsite (and included lovely biscuits and tea!), teachers were happy to come along and get any support they needed in learning more about the different apps and then passing the quizzes. That, and some friendly competition between year groups, meant we hit our target by the end of the school year in 2019.

Support staff in school had been asking about whether they could do Apple Teacher too, but there never seemed to be the right opportunity to provide the training. So when the schools closed at the end of March due to COVID-19, we decided to set our Teaching Assistants (TAs), Early Years Practitioners (EYFPs) and Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTAs) the challenge of completing their Apple Teacher status whilst on lockdown and now working from home.

It was quite a tall challenge in many ways as they would have to work through the materials on the Apple Teacher Learning Centre by themselves rather than attend any specific training. At the same time, we had been assigning our support staff an iPad ever since we went 1:1 iPad and so they were used to using Apple technology to support children with their learning in the classroom.

We posted some instructions on how to navigate through the Apple Teacher website to start learning and earning the badges, and quite quickly we had support staff coming back to say that they had finished! I normally celebrate with a certificate in staff meeting everyone who get their Apple Teacher status, but this will have to wait until lockdown finishes and we return to school. 14 so far and counting…

I think it’s a good way to help our support staff learn that bit more about the educational technology they are already using every day, but also to recognise and celebrate their successes.