The Educational Potential of VR

Virtual reality (VR) has been around for a long time now, but undoubtedly Google’s cheap cardboard viewers that work with any modern smartphone have made this technology more available than ever.  This is a huge development for education, as it has opened the market up and content in both 360 and VR is being added daily.  Youtube has a 360 channel, and new content is making it possible to go anywhere, experience anything whenever you desire.  For a geography teacher, this is an amazing development… from the comfort of your classroom you can transport students to the Amazon, to the Favelas in Rio or even experience life in a refugee camp through this excellent immersive film:

Clouds over Sidra

The whole world is now available to not just see, but to experience too. So why use VR and 360 films instead of the usual video?  Put simply, the ability to look for yourself and not be shown where to look creates the feeling of being there.  This immersive experience is incredibly powerful for students, and has the potential, when used well, to create long term memories and they are therefore good learning experiences.  This is not confined to the humanities, the sciences are also set to benefit from VR – Curioscope’s Virtuali-Tee shirt is going to transform ways in which we can learn about the human body.

The starting point for the use of VR in Bolton School Boys’ Division was the excellent Google Expeditions day, which we were luck enough to be chosen for.  Every student in years 7-9 had the opportunity to experience an aspect of either the Geography, Classics or Biology curriculum using the excellent expeditions app and the Cardboard viewers (Google brought everything – viewers, phones and their own network). The process works in a simple way, the teacher uses a tablet to ‘guide’ students around the virtual world.  By pressing the screen on their device teachers can show students where to look and therefore teach them as though they are there.  If we were to refer this back to the TEEP pedagogical model, this would be used as part of the ‘Present New Information’ phase.  But my question was, as it always is: How much can this actually help students learn?  And is it really helping them learn?

The year 8 boys experienced a virtual expedition to the Amazon Rainforest, but prior to this I tested their existing knowledge.  The majority 90% had never studied rainforests before so the content was going to be completely new.   After they had experienced the VR simulation, they were surveyed to assess how much they felt they learnt and how much they enjoyed the experience.  Unsurprisingly, because it is new, the questions about engagement were very positive (Ave 4.3 with 5 being a strongly agree response and a SD of only 0.7).  However, engagement is a poor proxy for actual learning so it was important to see how much they felt they had learnt.  Again the scores came out positive, with a low SD and a mean of just under 4 (3.96).  A quick run through of Cronbach’s Alpha shows that positive response to all questions was reliable (strong correlation of 0.94) with little variation in response across all questions.

One of the more interesting responses was about VR helping students to co-construct knowledge together.  You would think that being in your own headset, basically on your own, would create an isolated experience.  However, observations of the actual experience showed that students would guide each other where to look, therefore creating that feeling of being there together which was reflected in their response to that question.  However, none of these questions alone demonstrate actual learning.  As I said earlier, in order to assess learning students were tested for prior knowledge and I then run the test again two weeks after the session to see if any of the new knowledge had stayed in.  The questions that were asked specifically referred to the Rio Negro area of the Amazon, looking at low level responses of description and then higher level  responses focussing on explanation.  I was pleased to see that the same sample of boys who took the first test could all answer the lower level response where previously they couldn’t.  Even more pleasing was that 88% could explain about nutrient leaching in the higher level responses.  Clear evidence that students had learnt new information form the process, although admittedly, from a small sample size.

So what next?  I can see VR being a really useful addition to a teachers’ toolbox, a really powerful way of presenting new information to students.  But for us at Bolton School, we also want to create our own content… more of that in another blog!


Getting Boys to Write

The National Literacy trust has revealed that, based on its own research, boys are half as likely to enjoy writing as girls and almost a third never or rarely write outside of class.  So working in a boys’ school, it’s a fair assumption that there are more than a couple of reluctant writers in my classes.  Which, given the importance of extended case study writing in geography exams, can become a problem.  The challenge is thus twofold, getting students to memorise the case study information and then getting them to practise writing the information concisely.

Several years ago, two of my students decided to make songs of all their A level case studies and publish them to youtube.  Whilst never troubling the charts with their work, they did manage to achieve good A-level results.  This got me thinking, could music be used to help memorisation and also encourage writing in boys.  Before the i-Pad, this kind of activity would have been difficult, but the built-in recording and editing in Garageband makes this a relatively simple process.

The task that was set was to either produce a rap about the Haiti or Japanese Earthquake, or one that compares them.  They had to write 3 verses and a chorus, and record it over a Creative Commons approved backing track.  The written aspects of this are challenging for 13-year-olds, as they have to consider not only the geographical details, but also write using rhyming couplets and rhythm.  Effectively they were writing poetry in disguise, and they were enjoying doing so.  Here is an example of the finished work:

People often ask whether using technology can help develop writing skills, and I would argue that it can, but it needs to be planned carefully.  In this example, the technology has been the catalyst, a motivating influence that helped the boys consider rhythm in writing as well as creating a device that enable students to remember the crucial details needed for the case study answers. I mean, who doesn’t remember the words from songs they listened to when they were young!

The role of technology in the classroom

There has been a lot of sensationalist headlines in the UK press recently regarding the role of technology in the classroom, which has once again brought the topic of tablets back to the public’s attention.  Articles such as this, from the Sunday Times, have very sensationalist headlines:

Ban Tablets says ‘Tsar’

However, Tom Bennett, the government advisor on behaviour has clarified his position in his blog (Tom Bennett), which has a more balanced view where he recognises that technology can have a positive educational impact when used in the right way.   I don’t disagree with Tom, technology can be distracting, but so can many other things.  In the 20+ years that I have been teaching I have seen students distracted by paper (who doesn’t remember making paper aeroplanes?), pens (graffitti anyone?), open windows and most recently books being read under the table in another lesson.  We obviously don’t advocate banning all those things!  The truth is, students are easily distracted, but technology, used the right way can have the opposite effect.  When students are busy making film, or demonstrating learning via animation they are more focussed, more engaged and most importantly,  learning.

At Pleckgate we banned personal mobile devices in the classroom, but gave students an iPad that the school owned and controlled.  These devices were filtered, in and out of school; all social media was blocked and the app store removed so that students could not download games.  We also gave teachers the control needed to lock devices, control what websites they can go on, and monitored their use.  The MDM (mobile device management) profiles on devices gave us that control, and basically made it impossible for students to personalise the devices with their own apps.  A tough policy on use of devices also made it clear that any mis-use, or deleting profiles (not an issue now DEP is in UK) and they would lose their device.  However, the key for the success at Pleckgate was not about the devices at all.  We always said the device was there as a tool to aid teachers, we did not advocate everything had to be done on them.  The school embraced the TEEP model for improving teaching and learning, and the iPad development plan was matched into this to ensure the focus was on pedagogy not technology.  We always maintained that the technology was an enabler for improving/diversifying pedagogical practices proven to work (Meta-cognition, feedback, collaboration, homework etc.) all proven to improve outcomes by the EEF.

Here is an example of how the iPad programme was mapped into the plan to improve learning and teaching and the TEEP (which is now also being researched as a successful intervention by the EEF).  Ipad Development Plan.  An example of a lesson where technology really made a difference to learning was in geography.  In this lesson, students made stop motion animation videos to demonstrate how physical landforms were made.  Without the technology, students would have drawn some diagrams and added labels, but this is easy to copy and do without thinking. By re-creating the physical steps students  had to really understand the processes and they were therefore able to re-call this information much more clearly, as was evidenced by written exam answers ( and yes, the students did still answer an exam question, essay style, with a pen).

The introduction of iPads, combined with all the other interventions, helped our last year 11s achieve the highest results in the school’s history.  Did the iPads do that on their own, of course not.  So if you are planning a 1:1 roll out, do not do so without careful planning, and do not rush deployment.  You must make decisions on many things, including levels of control, but most importantly how the iPads fit into a wider plan to improve learning and teaching.

RTC reflections and TPCK Tips

I was recently fortunate enough to attend the UK RTC Summer conference, where teachers and educators  come together to share ideas and lessons where technology can ‘redefine’ the learning experience  (see earlier post on SAMR for more details).  The sessions were run by fellow ADEs, and were all based around the theme of closing the gap, an area of growing importance and scrutiny in UK schools.

The first session was essentially a treasure hunt that challenged our literacy and numeracy skills and allowed us to reflect on different learning styles, as well as thinking about how we can meet the needs of different types of learner such as EAL students.  Our teamwork and communication skills were further tested by the second activity where we had to as a team build some flat pack shelves with no instructions and no speaking.  We only had sign language and our Ipads to help us.  This was actually very difficult (not least because I do like to talk!), but it really made me reflect on my own classes and how technology can help overcome some barriers to learning, such as text to speech and language translation.  It didn’t help that only one screwdriver was actually the right size for the screws!

We then went onto model mathematical concepts using stop motion animation and lego, a technique that I personally use a lot in my lessons as Geography has so many processes and landforms that can be explained using stop-motion animation.  I always get the students to then record their explanation over the top of the animation in Imovie before answering an exam question to demonstrate their learning. For the students at Pleckgate, being able to demonstrate a process and develop their oral explanations first really helps develop final exam technique. Our adventures in film continued with the excellent 5,4,3,2,1 idea from Simon Pile.  The idea is simple, 5 shots, 4 people, 3 props, 2 minutes and only one take… no editing.  This ensures more time spent planning, writing and preparing and prevents the students from being bogged down in an editing process.  Other excellent ideas from day 1 included adding revison material to create songs, and using the SparkVUE app and PASCO sensors to model scientific processes.  We cleverly combined the two by rapping about the contaminated fountain, and I can still remember what we wrote and sang/rapped a week later.   Students are always  able to remember words of songs perfectly, so this is a really effective technique, one that I remember 2 A level students employing years ago to aid their revision to good effect.

The first day ended with a keynote from Dr Ruben Puentadura, who created the SAMR model and he introduced the TPCK model (Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge? Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1), 60-70.).

TPCK color logo

The idea of this model, summarised, is that effective technology integration for teaching specific content or subject matter requires understanding and negotiating the relationships between these three components: Technology, Pedagogy, and Content (TPC). If a  teacher is capable of negotiating these relationships, then it represents a form of expertise different from, and  broader than, the knowledge of a disciplinary expert (say a scientist or a musician or sociologist), a technology expert (a computer engineer) or an expert at teaching/pedagogy (an experienced educator) (Archambault & Crippen, 2009).  So a content expert who lacks pedagogical knowledge will struggle to get students to learn effectively, and similarly a teacher who has the subject knowledge and understands how to teach and the role of technology to facilitate this, will be able to create immersive, redefining learning experiences.

So how might this look in practice in the classroom?

An example was given to us on day 2 that I thought was absolutely brilliant, and captured this well.  The idea was using De Bono’s thinking hats (Pedagogy) to facilitate a group discussion on a topic (content) but delivered through ItunesU (Technological).  An  ItunesU course was quickly set up in front of us, which had one post, and a series of discussions set up; one for each ‘colour’ hat.  Each student then gives as many responses as they can to the topic with their ‘hat’ on, and then we moved into mixed hat groups to debate the central question.  The beauty of this was that the technology allowed each student to draw on a wider pool of opinions related to their hat than they would’ve thought of on their own, and the use of the thinking hats strategy ensured the effective delivery of the content.  I hope to get this idea filmed in one of my colleagues lessons next week to demonstrate how effective this is for learning and progress.  Watch this space…

“Good learning starts with questions, not answers.” Guy Claxton

Did you know?

  • Teachers ask up to two questions every minute, up to 400 in a day, around 70,000 a year, or two to three million in the course of a career
  • Questioning accounts for up to a third of all teaching time, second only to the time devoted to explanation

Questions serve many purposes. They can help pupils to reflect, develop thinking skills, encourage discussion and stimulate new ideas. Questions allow teachers to determine how much a class understands and enable them to pitch lessons at an appropriate level, and plan the next stages in learning.

But, when observing lessons, I often see questions rushed, and on average teachers’ questions are answered in a second or less (not my observations, research completed by London G&T).  I often use the pose – pause – pounce – bounce method for questions, and have done so for many years now, but the issue is still that once the first student is ‘pounced’ on, they have altered the thinking of their classmates, and the subsequent ‘bounces’ don’t always create the debate I would hope for.

So when we went 1:1, it was with great excitement that we made our first core app – Socrative.  For those that don’t know, Socrative is a questioning app that enables teachers to get responses from the whole class.  It works as 2 different apps – the teacher version where questions are planned and posed, and the student one where they receive and answer the questions.

soc teachersoc student

Each teacher has an online classroom where questions are either pre-planned or where they can be run as and when the teacher feels alongside other resources such as a Keynote or Powerpoint presentation.  Students simply enter the code for their teachers classroom, and then the teacher decides when to ask questions.  A good tip here is to get students to write your class code/name in the front cover of their books so that they can log in quickly each time you want to use it.

The immediate beauty of this is that you are finding out responses from all students, rather than one student at a time.  It allows you to really understand the learning and progress that has happened during that lesson, and to then plan next steps accordingly. One lesson I observed, the teacher ran a quiz as a plenary and they observed the responses coming in live.  It was obvious that 90% class all had misunderstood one point, and the teacher was able to plan and re-shape the lesson accordingly.  In another lesson, I actually observed the teacher export the quiz results at the end, and than use that as a discussion point with the class, helping them to understand mistakes and develop that all important meta-cognition.  The other beauty is that quizzes can be pre -made with the answers built in, and shared to other staff to save teacher time and effort.  Some good examples of quizzes for Science and Maths can be found here: – Science – Maths and Others

However, in my previous post, I discussed the SAMR model, and in some cases I have seen the Socrative quizzes simply being used as a substitute for a worksheet.  Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it does have the danger of switching students off if overused in this way.

The real power of Socrative for me however, is when staff use it as an exit ticket to tell the teacher what, and how much they have learnt and progressed in that lesson.  Socrative has its own pre-made exit ticket:

1) How well did you understand today’s material? (Multiple Choice)
2)What did you learn today? (Open Response)
3) Please answer your teacher’s question (Your opportunity to ask and capture any question you’d like)

But it is easy to make your own, some of my favourites are Tweet it (Students summarise learning as a tweet of 140 characters) or Keep-Grow-Change.  Dead easy to do, quick to set up, and fantastic ways of reviewing learning.

The other advantage of Socrative is that it works on any Internet enabled device, laptops, mobile phones, so it can be easily used in any classroom. Why not give it a try!

Starting with the why…

The central message that we tried to get across at Pleckgate was that the 1:1 scheme was about pedagogy and not technology.  It was always about the learning and teaching process and helping students to become better, more independent learners.  The starting point for training was centred around Dr Puentadura’s SAMR model, which is neatly summed up here:


The Redefinition of learning is part of a bigger 5 year plan, but whenever I work with teachers, I try to pull them back to why…why are you using the iPads, is there any functional improvement by using the technology?  If not, how can you gain that functional improvement?  Some teachers are straight in with task redesign, other need convincing that the iPads will do anything to improve the learning process.  Thats the challenge of leadership though, getting people to buy into that vision. For us, one of the easiest ways in was through an App called Showbie:


Showbie, at its most basic is the workflow app.  The one that enables students to submit work, and for the teacher to set work to the students.  The majority of our teachers are confident in using this app, and like to do so.  At it’s most basic, Showbie is used by our teachers as a substitute for existing resources.  Teachers can see the advantage of sharing a file to all their students as it saves them the trip to the photocopier, it saves lesson time giving out resources, and students get the resource even if they are absent.  It also saves money too.  Some of our teachers are also now combing apps, so using keynote to produce ‘cards’ for card sorts.  Students open the resource from Showbie into keynote, and than sort the cards on the iPads rather than on the table.  The teacher is sold as it saves him/her the time cutting out the cards.  The task can also than hit the augmentation phase of SAMR as the students can colour code the cards in Keynote, add images from the web, or anything else to enhance their understanding in relation to those ‘cards’.  The redefinition of learning than comes with what happens next… if students than take their finished card sort and open in Explain Everything, they can than record not only what the answers might be, but also how they have completed the task.  This allows the development of metacognition, which EEF research suggests is the most effective way of enhancing learning (progress gains of 8 months-EEF Toolkit).  Furthermore, teachers than collect the finished work, and  Showbie allows verbal feedback to be recorded and shared with the students, which in turn gives students the next steps to improve their work, which is completed in lessons or for homework.  The quality of verbal feedback is much better, richer and more detailed and the student doesn’t skip ahead to the grade and ignore the ‘how to do better’ guidance.  All in, Showbie is the gateway app into hitting the modification and redesign areas of SAMR, and also for accessing higher order thinking skills.  It comes highly recommended from us, even as a time and money saver.  For more ideas on apps, and the SAMR model, the model below gives some good ideas to start with.


Hello world!

I have been meaning to start this blog for the last year or so, and work commitments have largely robbed of the time to indulge in blogging.  However, here we are, and I am starting out on my blogging journey… the journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step, or blog in my case.

So what am I going to blog about… well, my passion is for learning and teaching, and also the use of technology, so that seems a good place to start.  So, my next few blogs will be a look at educational apps on Ipads which can transform outcomes in the classroom.

Hopefully, some people will take something from my posts that will help them in the classroom.