Champion of digital learningJanuary 14, 2018, 4:25 pm GMT
I think in the next 3–4 years, we'll become paperless throughout our stage 3 and 4 curricula," Mark Steed envisions as he explains how technology is transforming teaching and learning at JESS.
"We've always seen ourselves at the forefront of digital education in Dubai. Technology can enable better learning outcomes, beyond exam performance. To accomplish such broader goals, we have a great team of teachers, administrators, and developers, who create and manage the systems, training, and processes to drive our digital education strategy," says Steed.
At the core of the school's strategy is digital teaching and learning, to equip its students with the technological skills required for future workplaces. JESS is well known for its application and early adoption of new technologies and gadgets. The school endorses both Apple and Microsoft tablets; Apple iPads are used in primary school, and Microsoft Surface tablets are used in secondary school. Students in the FS1 and FS2 stages are allowed to use Apple iPad tablets. From Year 3, they are allowed to use their own devices.
"We encourage the use of tablets and styluses for taking notes. We've observed that app-based education is more effective at the primary level because of its exam structure and the need to take notes. Microsoft Surface tablets are used primarily by Year 7 and 8 students because they work in a paperless environment taking all their notes on Microsoft OneNote. These tools have enabled our students to record lessons and work collaboratively in ways not possible with traditional methods of learning. They've also changed the way teachers teach, evaluate and interact with students," says Steed.
"Our aim of introducing tablets and smart devices in secondary school is about getting young students to embrace technology so that they will be well equipped to handle or adjust to any advancement or leap in technology later in their lives, and particularly, the technological skills demanded in future workplaces," adds Steed.
JESS is also incorporating business intelligence technologies to track student progress. The school uses Microsoft's Power BI analytics, which provides dashboards to give teachers real-time information and alerts about the progress and performance of its pupils.
"We're moving all our teaching resources onto Microsoft SharePoint which also aligns with our OneNote usage. We're also trying to improve our data analytics systems to generate more actionable insights for our teachers," he says.
With regard to teacher recruitment and training, JESS looks for tech savvy applicants. The school also organises the JESS Digital Innovation Summit, a professional development event for educators in the UAE and an opportunity for them to explore digital teaching and learning strategies.
"We expect our teachers to be highly skilled with new technologies and smart devices. To help our staff upgrade their skills, we devote a lot of resources and regular training sessions to introduce them to the products and processes that can offer the best possible learning opportunities for our students. We also have staff that go into classes to assist teachers while they try out new technologies with them and demonstrate it to them," he says.
Betting on virtual reality
Virtual reality (VR) will be the most disruptive technology for teaching and learning, according to Steed, because it gives the feel of a classroom, and it is possible to share educational experiences with students around the world.
"We use virtual reality to teach every age group. One of the popular application of VR is field trips in primary school. Through VR systems, we are able to take our students to places such as the Amazon Rainforest, the Great Wall of China, or back in time to the Colosseum. Recently, we used VR to provide a World War 2 Blitz experience. For secondary school students, we using the Tilt Brush application which lets them paint in 3D space with virtual reality. It's a quite extraordinary technology which enables to challenge students to enhance their education through creativity," says Steed.
JESS' staff are no strangers to VR experimentation in classrooms. "We experiment with VR systems and 360-degree cameras in classrooms and stream the content to other rooms. We observe that students who wear VR headsets feel as if they are in the classroom, moving around and interacting with their environment. They also raise their hands when the teacher asks questions. Such experiments show that virtual reality has the potential to disrupt education over the next few years and create high levels of student engagement," says Steed.
Steed feels VR technology offers another exciting opportunity for JESS, to share its resources with students around the world who have no access to schools.
"Virtual reality can bring together people from all over the world through their avatars and collaborate in a learning environment that feels like a real classroom. One of the challenges related to education around the world is that there are over 260 million children in the world who don't have access to schools. We'll not be able to educate all of them in small groups of 30 or more. What we need is a form of education that is scalable. Virtual reality teaching with headsets is one of the best ways to achieve that because it gives the feeling and engagement of being in a classroom," he says.
Steed also explains why other educational models such as e-learning have not yet been able to deliver its intended results, and how their limitations could be overcome using VR learning.
"Research indicates that completion rates for e-learning are as low as 2–3%. That's why blended learning programmes with accreditation are more effective because they create higher levels of motivation for learners. University students who adopt e-learning alone are in charge of their own pace of learning, and they get good or bad grades depending on how much they choose to work. A blended or distance learning model can work for them because they are mature and self-motivated learners. Secondary level students don't have the self-discipline and skills required to keep pace with curriculum demands without classroom engagement. VR headsets can keep them engaged and do not allow them to be distracted, which is why I believe VR teaching will be more suitable for them," he says.
Priorities and expansion
In the business of education, operating as a not-for-profit entity is about pursuing the highest standards, according to Steed.
"The quality of education is our biggest driving force. All our income is used within the organisation to improve the standards of teaching, and the best possible way to achieve that is by recruiting excellent teachers," says Steed.
Elaborating on the school's expansion plans, Steed says: "We're looking to expand our Sixth Form provision. At the moment, we have about a 100 students in each year group, and we want to increase that to about 120. We're are also expanding our IB Diploma and BTEC programmes. Currently, we offer three BTEC programmes, in business studies, art, and sport, and we hope to add more subjects. The big development we're looking for in our primary schools is to add more specialist teachers and facilities such as science labs and art departments, to improve the quality of STEM learning and arts," he says.
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