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.

What about Early Years Foundation Stage?

So, in my previous post, I outlined the approach we’ve been taking with Years 1-6 and utilising Showbie (and the school website) to encourage home learning during the school closure. But what have we re we doing for children in Nursery and Reception classes?

For many years now, we have been using Tapestry as an online tool for creating children’s profiles. Teachers and Early Years Practitioners take their observations of children’s learning using photos, videos and notes and then upload this to the site, either on the webpage or using the companion iPad app. When compared to the old regime of writing post-it notes, taking and printing off digital photos, followed by sticking them into individual paper profiles and highlighting off different ‘Development Matters‘ statements, the digital route has been a HUGE time-saver! Go digital!

Tapestry also offers parent access, which allows parents/carers to see all of the observations of their offspring, as well as giving them the ability to leave ‘likes’, comments and even upload photos/videos of learning that’s happening at home. Parents love it, as do teachers.

So, when it came to considering how to communicate about home learning tasks during school closure, Tapestry was already part of the thinking. The original plan was to post learning activities on the school website, and then invite parents to upload outcomes from the different tasks. For example:

Our topic is ‘Crazy about creatures’ so we would like you to design your own crazy creature! You could draw, make, build your creature. 

Can you add write some labels or tell an adult:

– What colour is your creature?

– How many arms, legs, eyes does it have?

– Where does it live?

– What does it eat?

Please take a picture or make a video describing your creature and upload to your Tapestry account for us to see.

We look forward to seeing your designs!

http://www.heronsgate.greenwich.sch.uk/school-closure/eyfs/eyfs-week-1-23-3-20/

Tapestry closes that feedback loop, giving teachers/EYPs an insight into what’s actually happening at home that can then inform future planning, as well as giving the opportunity for feedback to parents. So far, so good – particularly as many parents were already signed up to Tapestry and using it regularly.

One question remained: was there a way we could share the learning activities within Tapestry itself, rather than directing parents to the school website? Well, it turns out there was, in the form of ‘Memos‘.

Memos is a new feature in Tapestry, which allows staff to post text (including web links), documents and media directly to parents within the website. Initially I used this to post the daily learning activities, mirroring what was on the school website. However, it also seemed like a great way for teachers to share a bespoke greeting every day to their individual classes, helping keep that connection with children and sense of the school community going.

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!