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25th July 2016 at 16:15

When Devonport High School for Boys wanted to overhaul its web based teaching and learning, it didn’t turn to expensive outside consultants. Instead, the Plymouth school enlisted the help of its digital leaders: a group of students who are adept at using technology and have been recruited to provide additional IT support.

Each digital leader worked with a different department to create websites tailored to the needs of each subject, replacing the school’s virtual learning environment (VLE). “We had a web based

VLE, which was becoming outdated because no one knew how to change it,” said Alfie Carlisle, a Year 10 pupil and digital leader. “We developed a template to make it easier for staff to update stuff and made sure it was compatible with mobile.”

And that wasn’t all. The team also created a series of video tutorials to help teachers use the new sites.

Project management

The school used a formal recruitment process to set up its team of digital leaders in 2014, inviting applications and interviewing hopefuls before selecting around a dozen successful candidates.

With just two fulltime IT staff in a school of 1,500 pupils, the need for extra technical support was clear, but the primary motivation for the scheme was to give students experience of leading projects and taking responsibility.

“They didn’t necessarily have to be the best computer programmers in the world, but they had to have a passion to help others,” says Ben Forte, the school’s director of the learning commons. “We wanted creative people who had bright ideas and were passionate about technology.”

The team’s bread-and-butter role is manning an online help desk and responding to problems reported by staff, as well as running training sessions for staff and students alike, such as on how to embed video links to avoid having to wait for videos to load.

The students also provide IT support, from setting up presentations for external speakers to designing posters for the homework club.

Above and beyond

But their contribution goes much further than that. Members of the team seek out apps that can improve teaching and learning, and proactively tackle problems. For example, digital leaders have introduced teachers to Flubaroo, an app that allows them to mark quizzes automatically, and Kaizena, so they can give verbal feedback. Both apps are now widely used throughout the school.

And after some staff fell victim to a phishing email, the team put together a video on the use of two factor authentication: two factor verification adds an extra layer of security to Google Apps accounts by requiring users to enter a verification code in addition to their username and password when they login. This can greatly reduce the risk of unauthorized access if a user's password is compromised.

All this is done in the students’ own time.

In addition, they share expertise with local schools and present at conferences including the South West Academic Trust partnership of grammar schools and BETT.

“I really enjoy managing teams and working with a group of likeminded individuals, and it has really helped me improve as a speaker,” says Alfie. “Generally people who are into IT aren’t overly confident at speaking in front of large groups, but our digital leaders amaze us every time,” Forte adds. “It also means we have got students working on new technology all the time and they’re always bringing new products to the table. It has helped inspire innovation in the school.

These skills, plus the experience of being interviewed for the scheme in the first place, will also come in useful in later life,” Forte says.

Whizz kids

But it’s not just secondary school students who are helping to shape the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning. Compton Church of England Primary, also in Plymouth, runs a digital leaders scheme where pupils demonstrate proficiency in using technology to progress through bronze, silver, gold and platinum awards, before becoming ambassadors and providing support to both teachers and other students.

“Children are more likely to listen to their peers, and it frees up the teacher to spend more time on teaching,” says Vicky Lambert, a Year 3/4 teacher.

One direct benefit of the scheme is that the ambassadors can now help teachers prepare for IT lessons by making sure the school’s Chromebooks are up and running and pupils are logged in.

This means teachers can spend more time on teaching, Lambert says.

“It allows the teachers to focus on the learning, while the ambassadors help with the basics, like logging on and getting going,” she adds.

As well as IT support, the ambassadors – who can be anything from Year 3 upwards – have designed, planned and taught IT lessons to Year 1 and 2 children, says Year 5/6 teacher Matthew Stace.

And, similarly to Devonport High, the pupils seek out apps that can be used to support teaching and learning. Stace gives a recent example whereby the ambassadors came up with four maths apps following a call for help from infant teachers.

“I now regularly use add-ons and extensions myself that I’d never heard of before,” he says. “It has really improved the pupils’ level of understanding and they’re pushing themselves and working independently.”

Becoming an ambassador has become a real aspiration for pupils, and also provides recognition for children who may not excel academically or in sports.

“It gives them a real responsibility and that helps to build their confidence,” Lambert says. “Sometimes children struggle with the academic side but really succeed in computing, and it does wonders for their self-esteem.”

Luke Morris is an education writer