I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to iLearn2017 this year from Patrick McGrath and, as I hadn’t attended one before and knowing that my own skills and those of the school were in need of a refresh, I was more than happy to go down to the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, today.
I have known Patrick for a number of years now and he has always been an ardent supporter of the TeachMeets and Edcamps that I have been lucky enough to be involved in. As well as supporting them, he has always attended them – ensuring that he has his ear to the ground on all things ed-tech. We have been eternally grateful for this support as it has turned fledgling dreams of TeachMeets and EdCamps into a province-wide reality.
Wednesday 23rd February was the third of three days dedicated to the Primary sector and from the very beginning with the staging, Keynote delivery, professionalism of the team and general welcome – I could tell that this was going to be a ‘tight’ event. At the time of writing there is still one day to go – for the Post-Primary sector.
Having come from my ‘staunch’ Microsoft background, I had prepared myself for the plethora of ‘appy clappy’ iPad adulation with an admitted sense of cynicism… Although I had looked at using the iPad in the classroom in its earliest form (see post) and having developed a twin approach to technology in the school, I still hadn’t been ‘won over’ by the device.
Yes, I know it’s good, easy to use, reliable, closed, secure, intuitive (what’s not to like, then?) but I (thought) I knew it all. As well as being all those things above, I have felt that it is, ultimately, a consuming device and always reverts to being so… I am more than happy to say that I was so wrong – and not just wrong in a small way.
As the events of the day unfolded, it was obvious that the iTeach Primary team are made up of exceptional educators who, at the heart of their work, are wanting to put the device into the hands of educationalists for educational reasons; to unlock the potential of pupils and teachers with a range of materials and apps that are directly linked to the Northern Ireland curriculum; to make innovation easier for teachers; to make the curriculum exciting for the most important people – the pupils. These are excellent teachers being given the platform to share their expertise. By being out of the daily pressure of the classroom – they are being given the space to develop, expand, investigate, own and share a wealth of collective knowledge. The ability to be outside of the pressures makes good ideas a reality – and Patrick, through iTeach, has given them this opportunity. Full credit must be given to the team for what they are achieving and, from the evidence of today, the global ambitions to spread this creativity.
The team were slick, engaged, entertaining and interesting in the workshops that I got to see. I know of these guys and they know of me – through various reasons – and on a number of occasions there seemed to be genuine amusement that I might need to learn from them – and, learn from the team, I did. the enthusiasm was obvious but, also, so was the curriculum engagement and genuine desire to show how the use of the technology can improve the teaching and learning in the classroom. Make no mistake, time and effort has been given over to make sure that all of these demonstrations were tightly relevant to the NI Curriculum – that is attention to detail!
There are a plethora of resources and initiatives available on the iTeach website – many of them free and easily attainable. As Apple roles out its Teacher Programme, there are only going to be more people signing up. All of this shows a very joined up approach and I got the impression that it wasn’t all one way – it is obvious that Apple are sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on and how iTeach have managed to engage so many schools and teachers.
It sets up an interesting conundrum, though. Yes, I was wowed by many of the things I saw but could instantly see the link to the primary curriculum. What astonished me were the number of teachers who were there scrabbling round to take pictures of the slides so that they could take this back! As much as NI is at the forefront of Ed Tech – it is still obvious that there are teachers out there thirsting for someone to show them the links; to highlight how to use the technology to enhance the curriculum – and they received it in bucket-loads today. I just hope that those schools still using any device for ‘drills’ and ‘quiet activities’ are falling away into the minority.
For all the enthusiasm in the rooms, there is still the issue of getting buy-in from all teachers in school – especially the reluctant ‘I’ve been teaching this way for X years….’ brigade. This can still be seen as a valid argument – but it lets the children in the class down. This technological world is here to stay and we are doing the children a disservice if we are not engaging in activities that strengthen their understanding of it and future job prospects within it.
Personally, I would like to use a session of teachers’ directed time each week to participate in the relevant programmes – whether it is the Apple Teacher Programme or Microsoft’s own free Education Training (which I can’t recommend highly enough for what it offers). This way, as a leader, you can be assured that there is access to structured, high quality, self-paced learning for all staff.
Everyone Can Code – But does everyone want to?
I was particularly interested to see the Swift Playground Coding app in use and how it can be used in the classroom. It is well supported by Apple with a range of resources available. I have been drawn in recent years to trying to take coding off the screen and into the physical world. For years, we have had floor robots and devices available to us as teachers – but I always wondered how many children saw the connection between this early work and the later work in using Scratch, for example.
The Sphero is an ideal medium for this – where children can see the coding they do on screen manifest itself in physical movement. iTeach have launched an interesting floor mat to support this and I am sure that it will also be successful. There was a great demonstration of a Parrot drone being operated using the Swift coding language – and this enthused me enough to buy one on the way home (having ordered it online in an app that was probably built using the native Swift programming language!)
So, in answer to the question – No, not everyone wants to code. However, not everyone wants to be a mathematician yet mathematics is compulsory and not everyone who studies language and literature will write a novel – so the case for coding in schools holds up. It creates thinkers, collaborators, creatives, problem-solvers and triers. The tools on offer today more than give teachers the opportunity to develop these skills in an easy to navigate and manage environment.
Where to next?
I have that question to answer on so many fronts – more of this in the future – but, clearly, there is a vision and drive within the iTeach team that is pushing the boundaries. There is, also, an obvious thirst by teachers for this CPD – something that is tangible and can be brought into the classroom. If there is so much desire, over 1500 teachers in 4 days, that iTeach are fulfilling, does this mean that there are other holes in the provision? I think so and it is up to other ‘Big Players’ and leaders within the educational establishment to help teachers in this respect.
A big thank you to the team for their welcome today. I am delighted to have (i)learnt so much and feel rejuvenated again!