A cut above
"It's a happy school, a very happy school." If cabbies truly are the fountainhead of all wisdom then Walsall Academy is set for a bright future.
The driver setting me down at the new school could not have been more complimentary. And he should know; he'd been a student at TPRiley School, the academy's forerunner. There, he stressed, he was "not happy".
Walk past the airy, bright reception area and you're in the domain of Jonathan Boyle - formerly senior manager for technology and art and design and now a deputy head. This morning he's taking a mixed-ability Year 7 group: "Today, class, we're going to make a rotary pattern maker." (For those who did little design at school that's a Spirograph-like device which can be used to create complex, curved patterns using interlocking cogs and toothed rings.) Year 9 students will follow Jonathan's design on ProDesktop cad-Cam (computer-aided design computer-aided manufacturing) software on the school network and then machine the parts on a laser cutter. The lesson runs, with a break for breakfast, from 8.15 till noon.
Enough time, says Jonathan, to complete the module.
Jonathan, headteacher Jean Hickman, and other senior staff, moved across from nearby Thomas Telford School, one of the academy's sponsors, bringing with them many of Thomas Telford's timetabling and teaching practices.
In the design technology suite, Jonathan lays out aims and objectives for the 20 or so students who are sitting in groups of six at clusters (they call them pods) of computers. The lesson has a traditional format: exposition, activity and plenary session; it's the learning environment that is innovatory.
"We've got access to such resources here," he says, "that it's important to make sure the students can work as autonomously as possible. We get them into this new way of thinking where they can work at their own pace and there are tasks for everyone because all the groups are mixed ability."
Jonathan provides audio and visual stimuli that support and encourage his students. All the tutorials of practical tasks to be undertaken in the classroom are recorded on video and put on to the school network. He pioneered this system at Thomas Telford with his cad-CamCookies series of CD-Roms, which led to him winning the BECTA Secondary ICT in Practice award in 2002.
Additionally, Jonathan uses Camtasia software to capture his on-screen activities and verbal annotations as he works through the design sequence.
This is saved as a Windows video (.avi) file and converted into Macromedia Flash before being loaded on to the school network. Today, for example, he has recorded four learning tutorials that students will use as they re-create the Spirograph-like design. One student, he points out, might be watching a video and another working through an online tutorial, but they all know where they're headed because at the end of the module there's a result to be achieved.
Now for the fun part, which is new to Jonathan too - the laser cutter. The students gather round the laser machine and Jonathan describes how it's used in the car industry to burn patterns on to upholstery. "You could put your fleece in and it could put wonderful designs on it." I never did design technology at school, and I'm fascinated.
As the machine fires a fine red beam on to the plastic, the class learns that the laser cuts and then polishes the edges, giving it the professional finish that is indistinguishable from something you'd buy in a shop. The students, says Jonathan, "go home running with these things". Clearly, Walsall Academy is the place to be for making those special Christmas and birthday presents.
"Some people will say that this technology takes all the practical element out of design technology," he continues. "But I think there's a balance, and that can be achieved by generating design projects that you can do in the workshop. The practical experience is still very important."
ICT provides one further support level, as Jonathan demonstrates when the students return to their computers. Ranger is network software that allows those with administrator rights access to other designated computers. Used primarily by network managers, it also enables Jonathan to commandeer anyone's machine - as he gleefully demonstrates, followed, moments later, by an indignant, "Sir, what's going on?" Using Ranger, he can intervene, correct or send messages and observations. He can celebrate individual achievement by screening good work on the whiteboard. And if they have a problem? "Rather than leaning over their shoulder, I'll use Ranger."
There's no forest of waving arms or plaintive choruses of "Please sir" in this class. It's clear that the support of digital avatar Jonathan in its many guises gives the real Jonathan more time for one-to-one tutoring.
Positive, individual discrimination, if you will. There's no doubting that these working practices are replicable - fellow Scouser and recent Becta ICT in Practice award winner Steve Ungi is doing similar work at Harrow Way Community School in Hampshire, inspired, he admits, by Jonathan's trailblazing.
To create such a stimulating environment, however, demands commitment from both teacher and school and presupposes a certain level of technical awareness. At Walsall Academy, the combination of a well-managed network with a school-wide protocol and carefully chosen software tools makes it easy for Jonathan and his colleagues to upload support material. The big difference here, Jonathan points out, "is that we're using Contribute (Macromedia software for updating webnetwork pages). It's so simple to use, it's incredible."
Whether Jonathan is replicable is another matter. Former colleague Mark Hudson, who taught with him at Thomas Telford for six years, describes his friend as, "at heart, just a big kid who loves new toys and is able to learn to use them quickly and to great effect. His love of the subject enables him to enthuse others."
Jonathan's mixture of enthusiasm, innovation, dedication and clarity of purpose is very special. "One day," he muses, "all Cad lessons will be video and tutorial-based. I just wonder what the next step will be." One thing's for sure, and you don't need to be Nostradamus to predict it.
Whatever and wherever the next development in Cad-Cam is going to be, both Jonathan Boyle, virtual and human, will be in the vanguard.
"Camtasia has changed my life," is Jonathan's endorsement.
"Instead of producing detailed booklets that a lot of students would have difficulty with, they can respond to on-screen video."
Camtasia can record every move Jonathan makes to create a project, then he can share it on the network.
Ranger is network software specifically written for education.
It enables Jonathan to remotely scan all the class computers and display them in single or multiple configurations on the class whiteboard.
Macromedia Contribute and Flash
Contribute makes it easy for teachers to add content to the Academy's website but protects the site's "look and feel" from accidental damage.
Flash Paper is, says Jonathan, " a very high-quality, low-memory resource, better than any Word document could be."
Instantly scalable, Flash Paper can be printed in seconds.
Versatile and powerful modelling design CadCam software that has been the staple of much of Jonathan's work at both Thomas Telford and Walsall Academy.