Learning in the hands of students

This post is a copy of a paper I wrote for the iNet Educator Online Conference – the original is available here.  Comments on the paper are available here.

This essay will describe how Devonport High School for Boys (DHSB) has undertaken a project with its students to develop an app for use on ipods, iphones, ipads and Android devices.  The app, which is now available in the iTunes store, provides students and parents with a wealth of information about their learning including rewards, sanctions, revision materials, attendance and a homework organiser.

DHSB has a school development plan that highlights the importance of enterprise and creativity; this applies equally to staff and students.


The school’s virtual learning environment (VLE) is supplied by Frog and each night students and parents are able to access updated information about that day’s rewards, sanctions and attendance which enable conversations about learning and school to take place at home (see screenshot below).  This supports our belief in the key tripartite relationship of school, students and parents. 

VLE parent view

In investigating ways of making the information more readily accessible to parents and students.  I conducted some research with both groups to find out how we could make it easier to access the information: the resounding answer was a mobile friendly site.

Following my research a Year 10 student, James, came to speak to me because he wanted to get involved in developing a mobile vle for the school.  He had some previous programming experience, but he hadn’t worked on a mobile site or an Apple app.  Another student, Ben (Year 11) who enjoyed graphic design, approached me about helping with the design of the site. 

Together, using the feedback from the vle’s users, we planned what the new mobile site should contain.  James and Ben felt that an app that could be distributed on the Apple Store would be a brilliant solution for many of our users – the only problem was nobody had any coding experience on Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS)!

James was determined to look further into how to program apps and within a couple of weeks he had mastered the basics and produced an app with limited features that linked to some pages on the school’s vle.  James had achieved this learning independently with the support of online materials, videos and forums.  Ben then went to work designing graphics to give the site a professional look.

In order to allow James to create the required pages for the app I’ve had to give him administrator access to our vle.  This required a leap of faith on our behalf as James could have caused irreparable damage to our vle, but without access this project could not have continued.

Since the first version of the app James and Ben have spent countless hours developing it into one that contains numerous innovative features and is genuinely unique.  The app has been downloaded 1,000 times and reached 21st in Apple’s education charts.

Since the app’s release the boys have been receiving a great deal of interest from other schools who would like an app developed for their community.  This has prompted the boys to set up a limited company, PixelBit Apps.  To do this they have met and received support from local accountants Francis Clark: Martin Atkins, their Business Services Director, commented that “not only have these boys shown great technical expertise in creating this outstanding app, they have gained the skills and knowledge that will enable them to set up and run a limited company”.  James and Ben are now developing apps for other schools who are delighted with the results.

There has been a lot written in the education press in recent months about the advantage students with a private education have in terms of confidence and self-belief.  My experience of this project is that the boys involved have not only had a significant improvement in their computing skills and understanding of business, but their soft skills have also developed tremendously.  They have undertaken meetings with accountants, bank managers and school leaders with great confidence; witnessing this growth has given great pleasure.

When Rob Salkowitz stated in Young World Rising that three forces are reshaping the world of the 21st century: youth, ICT and entrepreneurship, I believe he had in mind students such as James and Ben developing themselves and their ideas in this fashion.  They have already equipped themselves for entering the jobs market in a post-globalisation era.  Their website, pixelbitapps.com, has already led to them writing an app for the BBC’s Apprentice’s contestant, Leon Doyle, that allows iPhone users to save money on their phone calls to 0800, 0808 and 0500 numbers. Ben has developed his own graphic design site, benbate.com, and he has undertaken work for clients from around the world – including a multi million dollar US firm.

This app exemplifies how our school is fostering a creative approach to learning and placing it into the hands of students.  DHSB has an Assistant Headteacher responsible for Enterprise; he works tirelessly to encourage enterprising and creative approaches to learning and problem solving.  Many other students have been supported to develop their own ideas and take responsibility for their learning, but doing it within the supportive framework of the school.

The challenge for the school is how we can further embed these principles into the learning across the school.

Below is a copy of a video created by the students to promote the app during an assembly.


TES and statistics

I love my weekly read, but there is the occasional story that make me think it really must have been a slow news week…

This week’s headline, calls for academy arbitration rise four-fold, informs us:

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas)… has said it has been called in to mediate over employee disputes in 38 academies during the last school year, up from just 10 the year before.”

The article then indicates that there have been a significant increase in the number of academies

with more than 1,400 now open, up from just over 200 two years ago.”

A degree is statistics probably isn’t required to stop the link here.  Thankfully the TES points out that:

the sharp rise in disputes has been linked by heads and unionists to the vast expansion of the academies programme.”



Improving performance and school improvement


The above diagram has been produced by the National College for its short course, Managing and Improving Performance.  The following is a copy of a blog post I placed on the National College’s website.

The elements in this diagram will no doubt support school improvement; it links Performance Management (PM), Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and the Professional Standards (PS) with school improvement feeding into each of the areas.  Having school improvement at the heart of the diagram leaves no ambiguity as to the rationale for PM taking place; it is the vehicle by which staff contribute to improvement of the whole school.  I also like the relationship between PM, CPD and PS as these three elements will assist individual staff improvement.

My concern is that there could be a degree of disconnect between colleagues and school improvement.  Whilst it is important for all staff to have a full understanding of the goals for whole school improvement it is far more likely they will be able to connect better with areas directly associated with their day to day role.

This has prompted me to think about the relationship between school improvement and PM in my own school, DHSB.  Having just completed a PM cycle, this is an opportune moment to evaluate the process.

In a post-SEF era we looked to our whole staff (teaching and support) to evaluate the present position to enable us to identify our developmental needs.  Staff worked in groups to identify tasks that different groups would need to undertake throughout the year to achieve whole school improvement in a number of different key areas.  Below is a summary of comments of the first term under the theme of Learning Relationships (LG – Leadership Group).

Brown paper planning

This then enabled LG and our ASTs who ran the session to come up with a summary of our development priorities for the school using the words of the collective staff; our SDP is shown below.


Departments then worked on their Department SEFs (DSEF) and were able to draw up their own Department Development Plans (DDP); these would be underpinned by the SDP.

PM conversations could then take place with staff entirely connected to the SDP as well as their own DSEF and DDP to set objectives that would support school improvement.  PM objectives for all staff could then be checked with the SDP in mind; this led to a few objectives being tweaked to ensure the drive was towards our agreed goals for the year.

To return to the original National College diagram: I like the acknowledgement that PM, CPD and PS are all intertwined and an essential part of school improvement, but I believe there should be a greater emphasis on the SDP and, in my school’s case, the DDP and DSEF.  I have tried to reflect this in the diagram below.

PM cycle


VLE: a worthwhile investment?

I wrote about the value of a VLE prior to joining my present school, DHSB, and I was at that point unsure of its long term value.  Now, just over two years into my new role it is time for me to question the value of the VLE again.  We invested in Frog prior to my arrival; this had involved a significant investment in time and money.  The VLE had two login profiles: students and staff.  Neither group used the VLE extensively, it was primarily used by staff for booking ICT rooms and students studying ICT used it to submit work.

We undertook a major rewrite of the VLE two years ago and created separate sites for parents and governors in addition to the student and staff areas. 

I will discuss what information we have available on each of these areas in a future post.

At Frog’s conference earlier this year I remember Dai Barnes asking a developer about pedagogy and the impact of the VLE upon teaching and learning, that is an area I don’t think we have cracked yet.  Google Apps, in my opinion, does this better.

What it has enabled us to do is take great leaps forwards in our parental engagement.  We invested in the parental portal module which Frog states was “designed to engage parents first and foremost”. 

After some quite significant teething problems with the SIMS extractor (we have SIMS hosted remotely and that seemed to cause no end of problems) parents are now able to login after 6pm and see rewards, sanctions and attendance data for that day.

VLE parent view

I read a great post by Scott on his new blog, where he looked at using Google Apps to create a free vle. We introduced Google Apps this year and I have to agree with many of Scott’s points, however the parental engagement aspect of our VLE means that I’m not ready to call time on Frog anytime yet.