Time is a rare commodity in schools, and any new tip or initiative that squanders it and does not add real value to a teacher’s working day will inevitably fail. That is because the first priority for all teachers is to teach and to improve the prospects of the students they teach.
Whenever a new programme, piece of kit, initiative or idea is put forward to teachers, we ask ourselves: how does it improve learning? How does it save me time? And, crucially, how does it improve on what I already have?
There will always be a place for pen and paper in schools: the handwritten note to a student or colleague congratulating and thanking them for something is more personal than an email; the annotating of a text, or the working out of an equation, such things have a particular intimacy for students (and let’s not forget that most of the examinations taken are done on paper). But, increasingly, the work we do, both in the classroom and outside, will be done collaboratively and stored in the cloud.
Cloud-based learning tools for the classroom
It is exactly this collaborative nature of cloud-based learning programs that has transformed how I provide feedback on my students’ work. As an English teacher, much of my teaching is conducted using a shared text such as a play, novel, poem or newspaper article. From these sources I set individual tasks (such as essays), and promote class discussion in order to develop knowledge and understanding – but I also use pair and group work to explore different texts in different ways.
For example, my Year 12 class recently had to write their own essay titles on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In preparation for this, I created a web-based document, put the marking criteria in it and gave some ideas about what would be the most rewarding areas to explore. I then shared this doc with the whole class. First, I put the students into pairs to critique each other’s work; when they were finished, I put them into fours. For homework, I tasked them with asking tough questions of each other’s arguments. And because all this was visible throughout (to me and to them), there was little duplication and the work was carefully considered.
This saved me time because I could monitor my students’ work through the online document, and was able to mark it as it was developing. So instead of them completing a task only for me to tell them to rewrite it, I could intervene at key moments – creating, if you like, an online conversation with my class in real time.
The result was a decrease in my marking but an increase in learning. And I couldn’t have done that without an online collaborative platform.
Online answers for professional development
As deputy head, much of my time is taken up with all the “stuff” beyond teaching that is necessary for a school to run effectively. I have recently been involved in redeveloping our appraisal system so that it is much more focused on teaching and learning.
Again, cloud-based software which allows conversation to flow amongst different stakeholders has proven invaluable in helping to save time. The school has used a cloud-based forms tool to create questionnaires for students and colleagues to provide feedback on a teacher’s lessons. Teachers in turn can see the feedback, and provide comments in real time.
The planning of the appraisal system is complex – and vitally important. Part of a teacher’s professional development has taken much of the academic year, and has involved many colleagues debating and discussing every sentence used, and every question asked. This could only have been possible using a platform that is cloud-based, editable in real time, has the design functionality that makes the document easy to use and read and, crucially, is secure (with sharing options that are easy to understand).
Again, this has saved me lots of time in meetings but has also ensured that we now have an appraisal system that has been shaped, understood and bought into by all staff. The result is that it will undoubtedly work more smoothly and be more meaningful to those involved.
It is possible that all of these examples could have been accomplished on paper or face to face, but each would have taken longer, and I would not have been able to manage the results as easily if I hadn’t been able to guide the participants along the way.
Dr David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School in Dorset