Thursday, 23 October 2014

Educating Yorkshire with Open School in a Box

Above: Open School in a Box – student engagement on school premises and on field trips

Viewers of Educating Yorkshire met Thornhill Community Academy head teacher Jonny Mitchell and his staff last year on Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall documentary that tells it how it really is in today’s state secondary schools. One year on, and the National Extension College (NEC) has just walked through those familiar front doors carrying one of the prototypes for Open School in a Box. The visit marks the culmination of discussions that began in the spring term about the school’s involvement in beta-testing the Nominet Trust-funded Open School in a Box.

The aim of the project is to demonstrate how innovative digital technology can improve educational chances and have social impact by providing access to high quality digital materials over a local wi-fi hot spot. Where better to look at the impact it could make on young people’s learning than a secondary school determined to make a difference to every one of its pupils?

Round the table with us on our first visit to the school were teaching and pastoral staff, including those with responsibility for setting up the school’s first internal exclusion unit and for making provision for pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Matthew Dalton, responsible for technology at Thornhill Academy, knows that the simplicity of the Open School in a Box concept will be a winner with teachers. So the first success indicator for the pilot will be how easy they find it to use in the classroom.

It became clear very quickly that free access to most (filters permitting) of what the web has to offer is often an impediment to learning for secondary school pupils. Regardless of their role in the school, the obvious appeal of Open School in a Box to all of them was its ability to focus students on specific learning content - and keep them away from the distraction provided by Instagram, Snapchat and current favourite, the video game Angry Birds.

The Open School in a Box prototype now at Thornhill Academy has been pre-loaded with Wikipedia for Schools, all 46,000 of the e-books available through Project Gutenberg and Khan Academy Lite (developed by Khan Academy intern Jamie Alexandre with the aim of bringing Khan Academy’s ‘free world class education for anyone anywhere’ to the 65% of the world that doesn’t have internet access). Units from NEC’s maths and English Language IGCSE courses are also on offer for pupils at Key Stage 4 who need structured learning at GCSE level to complement the school curriculum.

Including Thornhill Academy in the beta testing pilot will enable the project team to assess the impact on teaching and learning of delivering courses and related content through Open School in a Box and wi-fi-linked portable devices used by students. We are asking teachers to answer three questions. First, what can you do with Open School in a Box in the classroom? Next, how would you do it without Open School in a box? Lastly, what have you tried with pupils because you have Open School in a Box that you would not have done otherwise?

A question the project team is asking as a result of what we have learned from Thornhill Community Academy is whether we need a digital divide of a new kind for students for whom exam success is so critical. It would be one that points them in the direction of what they need to engage with on the school premises and on field trips - and steers them constructively away from where many of them would choose to go in the digital space, given a free hand. What we find out from Thornhill Community Academy over the next few months will tell us whether Open School in a Box is one way of achieving that far beyond West Yorkshire.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Celebrating Biology Week 2014

It’s a good autumn for spiders. Last month, The Guardian reported on a new free app for people who want to learn more about spiders and contribute to biologists’ study of the eight-legged invertebrate. Created by an entomologist and ecologist at the University of Gloucestershire, the Spider in da house app will help biologists gather data on the number of spiders in the UK, their gender, when they appear and how their behaviour is affected by the weather.

Anyone interested in the science behind all living things has a reason to study biology – including arachnophobes. Biology Week, organised by The Society of Biology, is taking place this week. Over 40 events have been taking place across the country in the Society’s annual festival of the biosciences, which aims to encourage more people to take a scientific interest in the world around them.

If you are at a loose end tomorrow and want to learn something new, Big Biology Day is taking place at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, and offers a whole day of hands-on biology fun for everyone. Lozenge Nature Area in Brightlingsea, Essex is hosting The British Naturalists Association’s Family Bug Hunt. All you have to take with you is a jam jar, dust-pan and brush. At various locations in Newcastle and the north east, The Amazing Brain is a series of events that look at what brain scanning technology can do for humans, science and animal welfare. The Mud Lab in Belfast will introduce primary school children to the life and intrigue below the surface of mud flats.

Perhaps you have always been interested in biology but don’t know if it’s for you. The Khan Academy offers free learning content in a vast range of subjects, including biology and is a good way to have a go before committing yourself to a more formal programme of study such as the IGCSE and A level courses offered by NEC. You can sign up and start learning whatever takes your fancy in a couple of minutes.

Khan Academy’s Crash Course: Biology is taught by Hank Green, whose direct style is apparent from the start of the course. ‘Everyone watching this should be interested in sex and not dying given that you are, I assume, a human being.’ Module titles are intriguing and give a good flavour of how accessible the science of biology can be: ‘Water – liquid awesome’, ‘Eukaryopolis – the city of animal cells’, ‘Mitosis – splitting up is complicated’ and ‘Genetics – when Darwin met Mendel’.

Another option is to have a look at this month’s free NEC Learning Challenge short course on Biology. It covers transport systems in plants and humans and the human circulatory system and includes practical activities that use everyday materials you will probably already have at at home, including food dye, paper and celery stems. This course forms an extract from NEC’s IGCSE in Combined Science, and is included in the resources for teachers that the Society of Biology has put together to support the teaching of biology in schools.

Can you really study biology through distance learning? It’s a question we are asked by potential students and by schools. Unsurprisingly, NEC’s response is that you certainly can. The evidence that the subject can be studied to A level just as successfully at home as in the formal environment of a school or college lies in the results of NEC students. The number of A level A* grades achieved by NEC students has increased this year, and in biology, the increase is particularly marked. One in seven A level biology students achieved the top A* grade against the national average of one in 10.

To learn more about this fascinating subject, or to find out more about NEC and the wide variety of flexible distance learning courses we offer, visit our website. You can keep up to date with all the latest NEC news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.