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.

SDP

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.

iDHSB
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