Schools across Southampton are using interactive hand-held technology to ensure pupils are engaging in classroom activities and meeting learning objectives.
In the summer of 2009, the city council supplied two-thirds of its schools with learner-response technology in the form of hand-held devices, which provide an instant assessment of how much of the lesson the children have understood.
During the past year, teachers in 54 primary, secondary and special schools have been using the 90 classroom sets of the Promethean ActivExpression system. Each set contains 32 handsets.
"We wanted to support teaching, learning and assessment, and raise pupil engagement," says Sian Mills, e-learning manager at the city council. "The important thing is that you don't just send out the devices - the key to success is training."
Sarah Roughton, a class teacher and ICT leader at Moorlands Primary, has been using the handsets with her Year 1 and 2 pupils. She says the system has been surprisingly easy to operate. The handsets are registered and assigned to individual pupils, so information can be exchanged with the school's database. "It really is a case of plug-and-go," she says.
The pupils had few problems getting to grips with the system, too. "They were enthusiastic and excited with the idea of using them," Ms Roughton says. "The handsets can turn the driest activity into something pupils want to do."
Children can respond to lesson plans by pushing buttons on the devices to register yes or no, or true or false, answers. They can also select answers from a list, match pictures and text, and write short messages. "You can use the system with any subject," Ms Roughton adds. "I've used it in literacy lessons for spelling and phonics, in science to study the life cycle of a frog, and in history for putting dates in the right order."
One useful tool on the device allows children to register, on a scale of one to five, how confident they feel starting a new activity. After they have completed the activity, the tool can be accessed again to see if their confidence has increased.
Using the handsets has helped remove anxiety about being shown up in front of the rest of the class, says Ms Roughton, who exports data from the devices on to a graph to see how each student has performed.
"The great thing is that the pupils' answers are anonymous, as far as the class is concerned," she says. "It has encouraged more pupils to participate, including the quiet ones who almost never put their hands up in class."
The handsets can operate up to a range of 100 metres, so students are not confined to the classroom when using them. Data can be exported automatically to Excel, allowing the teacher to work out the percentage of pupils who got an answer right or wrong, or how long it took them to answer a question.
Woodlands Community College has been using the handsets with all its students, from Year 7 to Year 11. Science teacher Claire Mott says one advantage of using the system is that it encourages instant feedback from children.
"Pupils who would not pick up a pen because of lack of confidence will just do it," she says. "In one Year 10 class, I had a few students who were disengaged from learning. When I handed the devices out, they did everything."
This enabled her to plan lessons more effectively, she says: "If I don't know what students know because they will not answer questions or refuse to write anything down, it's much harder to plan."
But it is not just children who are reluctant to get involved in class who benefit from the technology. It has also been used to accommodate higher-ability pupils. "Students in the gifted and talented group have been able to design their own questions, and we have then used them with the whole class," she adds.
The devices provide teachers with pre-prepared resources and templates but they can also draw up questions themselves. "I designed questions linked to the learning outcomes of the course specification and then planned the lessons according to the results," Ms Mott says.
Responses from her Year 7 science class have been positive. "I like it because it makes answering questions more private and less intimidating," says one pupil, while another states: "I like using it because it's easy, different and fun." Little wonder then that Ms Mott is a convert. "The students love it," she says, "and it's made learning more enjoyable."
FINDING THE RIGHT LEARNER-RESPONSE SYSTEM FOR YOUR SCHOOL
1. Check how flexible it is. For example, can questions be answered in a variety of ways?
2. Is training provided?
3. Is it easy to use and set up in class?
4. Although it can be used independently of other technology, make sure your system is compatible with existing equipment.
5. Find out how many handsets come with a class set. The best systems offer at least 30.
6. Consider whether the handsets will be able to withstand regular classroom use.
7. Does it allow you to create your own questions and activities?
8. Look at what support materials and resources are available.
9. Can you exchange data with your existing management information system?
10. Check how results can be displayed, for example in graphs or charts, and whether data can be exported to other programs.