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.