Saint Joseph school in Gap has round fifty teachers and just over 820 students. And what makes it different from other schools? Since 2009, both staff and students have had digital tools. No more paper exercise books and textbooks: everyone has a digital schoolbag. And neither students nor staff want to go back to the traditional teaching material! We spoke to Didier Siran, the school’s Head.
DIGITAL: BOOSTING THE THIRST FOR LEARNING
How did this digital schoolbag project come about?
In 2009, we started supplying our students with computers. A bit later, we moved to touch tablets. Now all our students and teaching staff have tablets, as well as interactive whiteboards in each classroom.
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Every evening, the students take their equipment home. They have it with them over the weekends and holidays too, except for the summer holidays when they give them back to us for maintenance.
“There’s a real educational purpose behind this project. We want to get students enthusiastic about learning and speed up the learning process. We also wanted the school to move with the times and not miss out on a tool that could be a real asset”
How do you finance the tablets?
The laptops and tablets are paid for by parents. The school pays for the Wi-Fi infrastructure, the interactive whiteboards in each classroom, the teachers’ tablets and all the apps that go on them. Every year, the teachers make a list of teaching tools that we can then put on their tablets: textbooks, applications to make organisation charts or manage their lessons, subscriptions to collaborative websites and exercise databanks. Then whenever a teacher finds something interesting, he or she submits the idea to the IT coordinator who decides whether or not it’s viable before buying it.
NO MORE PAPER: WITH TABLETS, OUR STUDENTS HAVE GONE 100% DIGITAL
What have the tablets changed at school?
We no longer have paper textbooks. In class, either the teacher projects the book onto the interactive whiteboard, or the students look at it on their tablet. We’ve bought some apps that enable us to create exercise books that students can write on with a stylus pen. So a lot of our students no longer have paper exercise books and just take notes on their tablet.
We’ve also put in place a system of servers where students can send their work and teachers can send documents in PDF format. Communication between teachers and students has changed and is now all done using documents that can be used on the tablets.
But whilst we don’t have any problems finding digital textbooks, it’s difficult rolling them out: each software vendor has its own deployment and protection protocols. This causes us major difficulties on a daily basis. Also, they hardly ever bring out their textbooks in time for the beginning of the academic year: they’re often three or four months later. This happens a lot.
How have the teachers and students accepted the tablets?
“All our teachers say they wouldn’t go back to the old system.”
The main problems are everyday technical hitches. There are always issues with Wi-Fi and sharing the connection. But when it works, people are 100% on board!
Students are also thrilled to have the tablets and use them intelligently. The form teacher is in charge of training his/her class, but we also have three full-time IT staff. All in all, the project involved hiring three extra people. The IT team also provides training for students in the first years of junior and senior secondary school.
We also had to train our teachers, and this is where Apple and Econocom’s help was valuable. All our teachers had three full days’ training: how to use the tablet, the digital tools and Author iBooks, an application whereby they can write their own textbooks.
And what about the parents?
We put their minds at rest by getting our IT technicians to install various firewalls.
“Parents’ biggest worries were about Internet use: they’re very concerned about their children going onto “forbidden” websites. But once we guaranteed security and reassured the parents, they were fine with it.”
Everything is screened, even the keywords the students enter on their tablets. We have a software program that tracks connection in real time and an alert system that tells us if a student is doing anything non-schoolwork-related. We have a very sophisticated monitoring system, which parents find reassuring.
In terms of the educational value, what’s the verdict?
In terms of learning, it’s very difficult to see whether the students learn more or get better results with digital technology.
“What we do know is that a lot of our students enjoy coming to class and that can only be a good thing for learning. Digital engages the students as the tools are modern, familiar and fun. So in that respect, they’re definitely an asset.”
The teachers believe that digital helps speed up the learning process: they can progress more quickly and they can do more differentiated instruction than with traditional lessons. They particularly like the group working and collaborative aspect.
TEACHERS CAN EASILY WRITE PERSONALISED TEXTBOOKS
For the past two years, a number of our teachers have been working on their own textbooks using the Apple tools. Three of the books written at the school have already completely superseded the commercial e-textbooks. For example, one of our history teachers wrote a book for Year 11 and then shared it with two other colleagues: all our Year 11 students now have their own “customised” textbook.
All the teachers are now gradually trying their hand at writing their own textbooks, because it’s a way of having their own customised tool.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING? TRAINING TEACHERS
What advice would you give to a school planning on rolling out digital tools?
You need to start by training up the teachers. If you start by supplying the teachers they can familiarise themselves with the tool. You can’t give students tablets without getting the staff on board first.
The second piece of advice I’d give is to go and visit schools that have already rolled out digital tools. You also need to have the resources to recruit one or two new staff members as having the tablets requires constant technical support. When something doesn’t work for a student or teacher, you need a fast response and specialist staff. That’s really the key to a successful tablet deployment.
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