Lessons from lockdown

So, schools will begin to reopen in England from June 1st 2020, starting with primary schools and — more specifically — Years 1, 6 and Reception. There is controversy out there about how safe this is for children and teachers, whether it’s the right time to do this, and indeed how many parents will be confident in sending in their offspring to school at all. Whatever your position on that, this reopening still marks a watershed moment where we move from schools only being open for vulnerable children/critical worker kids to schools welcoming an increasing number of children and distanced home learning drawing to a close.

As we begin to move towards this ‘new normal’, I think it’s worth reflecting on the last two months of school closure and home learning to identify if there are some useful lessons we can draw from it. It’s difficult to know what lasting changes we might see in the education sector following coronavirus, but here are my main takeaways.

1. Technology can help with learning

I’ve believed this for a long time, but it’s been encouraging to see many other schools come to this conclusion too (in practice if not in articulated thought). It’s not necessarily been in all the snazzy ways that the EdTech proponents sometimes promote, but rather in the mundane but vital things like distributing learning resources via your learning platform, or providing digital tools to complete tasks, or allowing interactive communication between students and teachers via video conferencing or text chat. I wonder what kind of correlation there is between the amount of learning that has happened during lockdown and to what extent schools have made use of technology in their approach.

2. Kids need computers

With all of the benefits that technology can offer with home learning, it’s only possible if children actually have access to computers and the internet. That the UK government has put in place a scheme to provide these devices to families in need betrays the reality of a digital divide. At my school we have sought to provide loaner iPads for families who need them, which has definitely helped.

Once children are back in schools, the problem still stands though: if you’re going to use technology as a learning tool, it works best when there is ubiquitous access to it. We are incredibly fortunate to have a 1:1 iPad programme at my school, but it saddens me that this still is so rare in the state sector. I dream of the day when giving every child a computer is as obvious as giving every child their own pencil and exercise book.

3. Teachers need decent computers too

Our teachers are all assigned a modern iPad with a keyboard and Apple Pencil. This could have been considered excessive, but was has been so helpful during lockdown. Need to write your end of year reports? No problem – type away on that Smart Keyboard. Need to create PDF worksheets for your learning platform? Just use the PDF creation features built into the share sheet. Need to add the answers on top of a digital work sheet? Simply use markup tools and the Apple Pencil. Need to screen record an explanation to help students? There’s the built-in feature or something like Explain Everything.

4. There’s lots of options out there

A recent study in the US showed that 52% of students were using Google Classroom as the platform for home learning. Which means that Google must be doing something right (although not everything). But that means that nearly half of the students were using something else! We use Showbie, but I know that Seesaw, Microsoft Teams, Tapestry and Purple Mash are widely used. This is heartening in many ways, showing that there is still lots of innovation in the area of learning platforms and that schools are willing to find the best solution for their context.

5. But choose your technology carefully

Not all technology is created equally. If you’re in a position to evaluate and implement a technology solution, you need to have a clear idea of the problem you’re trying to solve, a vision of how technology can help and then a plan of you’re going to make that happen. You can then evaluate a potential technology stack with that in mind.

6. Technology can help with learning once we’re all back at school

My hope is that schools, having been plunged into the deep end of implementing a learning strategy with technology during school closures, will not file away the experience under ‘crazy things we did during lockdown’ but will actually implement some of it in the ‘normal’ classroom (i.e. the one where teachers and children can share a room unhindered…perish the thought!).

Sure, there’s probably no need for Zoom lessons once the teacher is standing in front of the class, but could video conferencing come in handy in any other ways? Maybe to link up with another classroom from across the globe? Or record explanations for children to refer back to?

And whilst printing, photocopying and physically handing a paper resource out to a class has many benefits, perhaps digital workflows and PDF annotating has a place? As a school, we’ve basically gone to zero photocopying whilst the school has closed , saving time, money and paper. Could much of this usefully continue?

I am sure that teachers at my school are looking forward to the option of using a wider range of apps with students – Book Creator, Clips, Keynote etc etc – rather than just Showbie. But you can sure do a lot with ‘just’ a combination of PDFs, voice memos, text annotation tools and the pen tool. I am hoping these competencies and confidences will not be lost but rather built upon in time.

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: