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 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.

Home Learning

At 3:30pm on Friday 20th March 2020, schools across the UK closed their doors until further notice as the government stepped up its strategy in combating COVID-19. We’d been tracking pupil attendance for the week previously, watching increasing numbers of pupils and parents self-isolate with symptoms of possible coronavirus infection, with the school basically shutting itself: by the time Friday came, we only had a mere 10% of pupils coming into school anyway.

With children now at home for the coming months, what was our plan for learning to continue? Taking an article entitled ‘Preparing to Take School Online?‘ as a framework, we thought through our options. At the time, school closure only seemed like a remote possibility, but as the days a weeks progressed we realised how inevitable extended home learning was going to be. So what was our plan? And what did we actually do?

Days 1-3

The plan was to have the first few days of home learning already prepared before the school actually closed, to give us a few days to get ready for ongoing learning. Initially, the plan was to post work for each year group on our school website as this would give a low-barrier method to share learning with parents and students. However, as school closure looked more and more likely, we realised that we needed to leverage our existing learning platform to make this work longer-term: Showbie.

Showbie

We have been using Showbie since 2015 as way of managing learning on our iPads, initially with shared devices and then as the learning pipework for our 1:1 iPad programme.

Showbie is a bit of a strange beast, but one that is very focused on what it does and does not do and one that has evolved to meet the needs of educators over the years. There is a free and a paid ‘Pro’ version (with all limitations removed) and the basic idea is that a teacher sets up a classroom and then students join that class with a class code. Teachers can post comments, voice notes, files, images and web links to the class or to individuals and then students can post back with the same, as well as annotate PDFs/images/documents with a range of digital markup tools. It essentially provides a digital version of the tried-and-tested paper workflow of exercise books: giving our resources (aka photocopying resources), taking back work (aka handing in exercise books) and giving feedback (aka marking).

Initially, Showbie was just an iPad app. However, to keep up with the G-Suite juggernaut in the US, where whole districts were ditching iPads and buying glorified testing machines Chromebooks instead, Showbie has now ported all of their tools to a web version with full feature-parity.

Because all teachers and pupils were used to using Showbie every day and because it could also be accessed on any device with a web browser, we decided we would also post all learning on existing Showbie classes as well as the website. This would allow the following advantages:

  • Teachers would know which children are actually engaging with the learning, something you just wouldn’t be able to tell from a website.
  • Children would be able to complete digital worksheets and activities within Showbie itself without needing to print anything off.
  • Because all the completed work is immediately viewable by the teachers, teacher can then use that to give general feedback to their classes (or individuals where necessary), which can then also inform future planning.
  • Children who needed differentiated work, due to their ability levels, could have specific work posted to them on Showbie. Trying to do this on the website would have involved something like emailing work home to specific children.

Getting ready

So what did we need to do to get this all ready before the school shut?

  1. I needed to email home all of the children’s existing Showbie logins. Thanks to our often-wonderful MIS Pupil Asset, I was able to import a custom data field with the child’s username and password onto each child’s profile, and then use mail-merge tags on an email sent home to parents. Result!
  2. I needed to build the ‘Days 1-3’ assignments ready for once school had closed. As I am a ‘teacher’ on all of the Showbie classes in school, I was able to build it once for each year group and then copy this across to the rest of the classes.
  3. To avoid potential digital vandalism and possible confusion, I went through and made sure all previous Showbie assignments were ‘view only‘ and had a ‘due date’ to the last day that schools were open.
  4. As a means to find out which children had actually been able to log in at home, I made a ‘Hello!’ assignment for each class, inviting children to respond back with a comment to show us that they had logged in ok. I set this assignment as locked, scheduled to open at 4pm on the closure day.

How has it gone so far?

We’re two weeks in and we’ve hit over 80% of children logging in at home, which I think is pretty good! Here are some common problems that children and parents faced:

  • I need my child’s username and password! Despite having emailed all of these home, some parents did not receive these. Further emails and even text messages with credentials helped sort this.
  • I’ve logged in but my child can’t post anything! We had previously set up ‘Parent Access‘ on Showbie, which is a cool feature that allows parents to set up their own Showbie accounts and then see a read-only version of all their children’s learning. However, many parents were still logged in with this account and so had to be walked through how to log out of this account and into the child’s account.
  • It’s asking for a class code! This usually meant that the parent or child had signed up for a new account rather than using the preexisting one. Sometimes the child had also managed to block themselves from their class, which was a simple fix from our end. When a parent got stuck at this point, a phone call home usually got things sorted.
  • I don’t have a computer/a spare computer! Even though home internet access is nearly ubiquitous these days, lots of households just have their smartphones and that’s it. We started collating together households in this situation and have started to send home some more elderly loaner iPad Airs, which have been gratefully received!
  • Showbie is taking ages to load! With the whole of the Western world waking up to the efficacy of digital learning, Showbie have seen a HUGE spike in usage. What this means is that Norway wakes up and starts pounding Showbie’s servers at 8am, followed by the UK at 9am. Showbie support have been fantastic and they are adding more and more server capacity over time.

From a learning point of view, it’s been quite a journey as well. We’re used to using Showbie in a classroom setting where the teacher is physically there and can help out kids and tell them which apps to use. In a home learning setting, we’re having to assume that students can only really use the Showbie web app and possibly the wider internet. This means that task instructions have to be crystal clear and any PDF activities have to be do-able in Showbie, ie with plenty of whitespace to annotate!

On a day-to-day basis, a colleague and I are creating six Showbie assignments each day, with the work teachers from Years 1-6 have created. This has involved a bit of a sanity-check on the tasks, lots of PDF creation and the occasional YouTube upload. Once we’re happy with these, we then copy the assignment to the rest of the classes in each year group. Thanks to scheduling and the ability to lock access to assignments, we are able to build all this without pupils seeing the work in progress! After everything is set, we then upload the learning to the website too. Phew…

It’s been a very busy and tiring two weeks, but it’s been very gratifying to see the sheer number of kids eagerly logging in and gobbling up the learning!

Quicker and Easier on iPad

At the end of last year, we did some monitoring about how Showbie was being used in our school. One of the insights from that was all of the work that was done in Computing could be done quicker and easier on iPad rather than using an iMac.  In our school, children have a timetabled ‘Computing’ slot when they get to go and use the iMac suite.  The children do enjoy it, but in this increasingly mobile age, children are just not as familiar with using a mouse and keyboard, let alone using an arguably more complex desktop operating system that is OSX. Perhaps they just need the practice, but actually the iPad allows children to achieve remarkably complex things (visual programming, video creation and editing etc.) with relative ease.  If we add in the simple but powerful e-portfolio workflow that Showbie offers for iOS, iPad increasingly comes up tops when compared to Mac.

So, what apps do we use for Computing on Mac and how can iPad replace/improve them?  Is it possible to go ‘iPad Only’ with Computing?

Email

We use LGfL’s London Mail to provide safe and restricted access to email for students during certain Computing units. It’s hosted by Microsoft and is accessed via a web browser.  It works fine on Mac as well as iPad, but on iPad it’s super easy to screenshot learning and add it into Showbie.

Visual Programming

We already use Hopscotch, Kodable, A.L.E.X. and Daisy the Dinosaur on iPad to teach coding using pre-programmed blocks.  On the Mac, we use Scratch, a great coding environment created by MIT. There is a (literally) junior version of it called Scratch Jnr, which is suitable for younger children but unfortunately they haven’t released a full iPad version yet.  However, there are other alternatives out there, such as Tynker.

Typed Coding

When we developed our Computing curriculum a few years ago, we included a strand which focused on getting children to type in computer code, starting with learning to type, then moving onto languages such as LOGO and Python. You can get typing apps for iPad, and even ones for LOGO and Python. Fun as it has been to introduce these to children, I think that they might be just a bit too tricky for Primary aged kids, so instead we’re going to introduce some more fun iPad coding apps.  Like Floors (which allows you to design your own platform games…)!

iWork

Pages, Numbers and Keynote are as fully-featured on iOS as a Primary school kid would need, so no contest there.  And are arguably easier to use.

iLife

iMovie on OSX is powerful, but it does add so many steps to the movie-making process: capture video on another camera, then import into Mac, then edit. iMovie for iPad is so simple and easy to use to use, with the advantage of being able to do everything on one device.

LEGO WeDo

The only sticking point was LEGO WeDo, a simple programmable LEGO kit.  WeDo 1.0 runs of a wired USB hub to connect the motor/tilt sensor/motion sensor.  However, LEGO have recently announced WeDo 2.0, which connects via Bluetooth to an iPad…yay!  I recently had a play with it at BETT and it was really great.

So, I think that going all-in on iPad for Computing can work!

Introducing Showbie

We’ve started using Showbie in my school.  Which feels a bit like saying, “Hey, guys, did you know that they’ve invented colour TV?” Or, “I finally had a ride on one of those new-fangled horseless carriages…wasn’t so bad.”

I’m not sure when Showbie was first launched, but it’s definitely been vaguely on my radar as a paperless classroom solution for iPad ever since the magical tablet first appeared in 2010. Since then it’s become a de-facto app solution for managing digital workflows in iPad schools, even appearing as number 4 in a Top 10 list of apps as votes by ADEs in the Summer. However, I’ve always dismissed it as being useful in a Primary school that wasn’t 1:1 with iPads, so haven’t given it much consideration up until now.

However, last year a brilliant Apple Distinguished Educator Julian Coultas came to visit our school to suggest ways that we could take our iPad journey further, and he mentioned about Showbie. We were increasingly hitting the problem of how to evidence, record and generally deal with the digital content that was being made in lessons using iPad. Lots of interesting learning was happening in classrooms using technology, but it was often hard to tell this looking in children’s books.  Some teachers were willing to go through the laborious process of printing off children’s work and then sticking it in books, but most were not: why make a lively, engaging iPad lesson into a laborious bureaucratic chore? Plus, how exactly does one go about printing a video?

Instead, Showbie offers a solution to three interrelated but distinct problems:

  1. Digital portfolio – keeping a record of children’s learning. With Showbie, each pupil has their own account where iPad learning can be handed into. This then creates a record of the learning process on iPad, complete with comments and dialogue between the child and the teacher.  And with the latest version of Showbie, there is even the ability to create ‘proper’ student portfolios!
  2. Managing ongoing projects with shared iPads. Once work-in-progress has been saved to Showbie, a child can then log into Showbie on any iPad, re-download it and then continue.  With shared iPads across year groups, then avoids the issue of children having to remember the iPad they used the lesson before.
  3. Distributing resources/documents. Showbie makes it easy for teachers to distribute documents/images/instructions to children for a given lesson.  We’ve already got a generic email account setup for each class set of iPads which currently offers a lo-fi version of this – teachers can email images and web links to a set of iPads – but Showbie adds more power and flexibility.

We launched all this a week or so ago, complete with some class demos and a staff meeting from Julian, which unfortunately coincided with a horrendous Showbie outage. Despite being entirely unable to even log into Showbie to show them, teachers seemed really up for the solution Showbie offered to the problem of a student e-portfolio/continuing work on a shared iPad/distributing content.

Since then I have been working my way around classes to give brief Showbie demos so that both children and teachers feel confident in the workflow (which, after enrolling into a class, is basically: log into Showbie, do you work, ‘Open In’ Showbie and hand work in at the end of the lesson, and then log out of Showbie).

In order to make the creation of student accounts manageable in a large school, we’ve gone for the paid ‘Pro School’ account. The guys at Showbie have been incredibly helpful and supportive and have ironed out any issues we’ve run into.