Pioneers GEMS Wellington Academy in Dubai have adopted blended learning throughout classrooms in their school. Seb Murray speaks to Catherine Brandt, Blended Coordinator, about the benefits it's had.
Back in the day, classrooms were like time warps, dominated by blackboards, textbooks, pens and chalk. But today technology is transforming how children learn. Globally, schools now spend £19bn on educational technology (edtech) each year, according to analysts Gartner, from iPads and tablet devices to futuristic virtual and augmented reality technology. Evidence suggests it’s making a difference. In the UK where £900m is spent on edtech annually, for example, 97% of 15-24 year-olds now have basic digital skills — a 4% increase on 2015. In a global economy that is rapidly becoming digitised, these skills are now essential for employment. However, edtech has its detractors. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) claims there’s a detrimental effect to learning. A report found computers in classrooms, for instance, were linked with a decline in test results for maths, science and reading. Meanwhile, iPads and other tablets are being blamed for declines in handwriting ability — many kids these days learn to type and swipe before they can scribe with pen and paper. And there are persistent gripes that their attention spans are being eroded by constant smartphone use, curbing the ability to retain knowledge. Amid the debate over edtech, a novel idea has taken hold in international schools: “blended learning”. The approach combines digital instruction with face-to-face schooling, offering students the best of both worlds and preparing them well for the future. One of the pioneers is the GEMS Wellington Academy in Dubai, which follows the National Curriculum for England, International Baccalaureate and UAE Ministry of Education curricula.The school introduced a blended approach to learning in the early phases of the school, and it’s fully embedded in the classroom by Year 12. Many subjects are delivered in online, interactive sessions that include live screencasts from teachers and multimedia presentations. What’s more, an online platform hosts blogs, forums and web-based documents. This empowers students to reflect on their learning anywhere and at any time, while collaborating with peers and teachers, locally and globally. Catherine Brandt, Blended Coordinator at the school, says students gain a more global perspective, forming connections that will help them be successful in an increasingly globalised economy. They also develop important 21
st-century skills that have eased their entry to university and perhaps later to employment, she says. They will be utilising tech in the workplace; why have them wait until then? “Adopting a blended approach has proved to have significant benefits for students’ skill levels, including improvements in communication, enquiry, and critical reflection,” says Brandt. A core tenet of blended learning is a more personalised learning experience for each pupil, with students granted a high level of independence in structuring their week, as well as the pace, path and place of learning. Brandt says: “Students are able to address their own questions as they arise, rather than awaiting an answer as part of a group-wide discussion of a topic.” In addition, in the developing world where up to 57m children are unable to attend primary school, a way for learning to take place without much adult intervention is sorely needed. Blended learning may also help teachers cope with a heavy workload that is contributing to a recruitment and retention crisis at many schools in the UK. Edtech can be an invaluable resource for teachers. Often, students master some material ahead of class, with face-to-face time reserved for discussion and debate. Teachers also use data analytics to gain insight into how pupils learn, adjusting lessons retrospectively based on the feedback. But support with blended learning is essential for teachers, many of whom are adapting to a vastly different pedagogy. Hannah Senel-Walp, Principal of Online Courses at edtech company Pamoja, says: “Without a trained and supportive teacher community, blended learning can become an expensive and time-consuming enterprise.” She says planning is key: a blended learning strategy must align with wider school goals, otherwise it will seem divorced from the broader learning environment. “Tech for tech’s sake distracts schools, teachers and students, and can lead to disengagement and frustration,” says
Senel-Walp. “Without the groundwork and clear alignment to wider goals or purpose, that amazing piece of technology may simply languish at the back of the classroom, or be a distraction in an environment that didn’t need a tech solution.” Ideally, she says teachers should consider the needs of their school and pupils, then critically review how tech might support them in achieving this
.From here, providing training and support for teachers is key. At the GEMS Wellington Academy, teachers are assigned a “digital pedagogy coach” who provides one-on-one training and support, as well as a peer coach who acts as a sounding board for new ideas. “This personalised approach to CPD [Continuing Professional Development] has ensured that our teachers feel safe and supported in taking risks and trying new pedagogical approaches,” says Brandt. Technology can support teachers in other ways. The social network
Twitter, for instance is a great place to find innovative tech that is subject specific. “[The] sharing of best practice is essential to the development of [blended learning] to foster new ways of teaching and learning,” Brandt says. Novel approaches will only proliferate, as confidence in this way of learning grows, says
Richard Gaskell, Schools Director at ISC Research, which provides data on international schools. “We are seeing more international schools taking a strategic approach to blended learning. This will only increase as more providers develop a reputation that schools can trust, and offer solutions that meet a need,” he says.Senel-Walp at Pamoja agrees
. “I hope we will soon see a future for all young people where digital sits alongside face-to-face learning.”
About the author
Seb Murray is a freelance journalist and editor with several years’ experience in print and online media. He regularly writes for titles such as the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Evening Standard, as well as a plethora of education and corporate magazines.