It shows no great insight to remark that we are living in an increasingly digitally-connected world that is changing the nature of our personal and working lives. It’s now commonplace for widely distributed families to use ‘Facetime’ or ‘Skype’ to keep in touch – or for employees to use their home broadband to work from home. In education, academies have similar opportunities to take advantage of these new paradigms for communication and collaboration. The improved (and improving) resilience and speed of network connections now make it a realistic and value-for-money possibility for academies to work together more effectively together, for example in enabling students to work with their peers in other trust academies, and in providing courses and content across a trust.
Many schools and academies are exploiting the potential of services such as Google for students to work together in school. For example students in AET academies use Gmail, Google Apps for Education and Google Classroom to communicate and collaborate on a variety of tasks and projects, while teachers use it to deliver personalised learning, allocate tasks and provide tailored feedback on homework. Using Google Drive, a web-hosted storage service, students and staff can access files online from wherever they are and on any device with an internet connection, allowing teaching and learning to extend far beyond the traditional school gates.
These services offer scalability. They enable the principles of school-centred communication and collaboration to be extended across academies i.e. for collaboration to become trust-centred. In this way, students can work together and learn from each other, sharing documents and ideas, even if they are in different academies many miles apart in the country. For example, academies within a trust might choose to partner on research project using Google tools to build a shared Google Site, meet online with Google Hangouts and collaborate on Google Docs via a shared Google Drive. Such projects might even be eligible for grant support such as the Royal Society’s “Partnership Grants” available to schools to enable students, aged 5 – 18, to carry out science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) projects. 2
Of course, this collaboration extends to teachers too. Google reports that AET academies are now “working together more effectively to share knowledge and best practice through using Google’s social networking service, Google+, which is also embedded in the Google Apps suite. The academies’ “eLearning Leaders” post to Google Groups, encouraging discussion about winning techniques and sharing their ideas on digital learning to benefit other teachers.” 3
These principles of trust-centred collaboration extend to curriculum and course content. High-achieving academies can bring their expertise to create their own online e-text books and courses and make these freely (or commercially) available to partner academies in the trust or, indeed, any other school. One means to provide this is provided by Apple’s iBooks Author, a free Mac OS app to create e-books with pictures, videos, interactive diagrams, 3D objects, and mathematical expressions. As an example of what is possible, the independent Stephen Perse Foundation has recently published twelve such multimedia textbooks for IGCSE biology, all of which are free for schools and students to take advantage of.4
While there is strength in independence, there can be limitations. Often an academy is not able to offer a specialist course, or provide extra courses to meet the needs of smaller groups of students. In shortage subjects or where subject teaching needs strengthening, the academy might also wish to benefit from a teacher in other academy who is a teacher of excellence in that field. Communications technology is now reaching a point where a single academy can join up with trust partners in providing curriculum resources or specialist teaching. It is even increasingly feasible for students to access GCSE and A Level courses run by another academy from the one they’re sitting in.
One example of this has been piloted by the United Learning Trust’s GCSE Astronomy course. This “proof of concept project” tested the hypothesis that it is “possible to teach and to learn using a predominantly online model, to the required standard in the latter years of Secondary schooling” as “a necessary pre-cursor to scaling up the approach to offer KS5 courses to pupils around the Group and hence broaden the curricular offer our schools are able to make as well as increasing the quality of specialist teaching these children can access.” Using a variety of Google tools and a proprietary video recording service, the trust was able to provide weekly live lessons, course materials, written and shared tasks, teacher feedback, and student access to recorded videos of lessons . The project report makes for interesting reading and is recommended should this type of course provision be of interest to you.
In their pursuit of engagement with education, the big three technology companies of Apple, Google and Microsoft each offer high value-for-money services that enable student communication and collaboration across the wider-trust. There are now some wonderful tools available but bringing schools together will present both technical and non-technical challenges. So, as a final thought, do take the time to seek advice from trusted partners before scaling up to the larger level.
Google’s collaboration and communications suite is centred on Google Apps for Education, comprising Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Sites.
- For an example lesson see: http://unitedlearning.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=2006b1f0-c36a-49a2-9cbd-d9fa98be0922
First published November 2015 at RM Education