We often hear that the best way to learn is to teach and that ‘if you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough’ (commonly attributed to Einstein) so involving students in teaching others through peer instruction has long been seen as having real benefits. Judith Good (Informatics) has taken this a stage further by working with the local community through Digital Education Brighton to set her students the task of working with young people at Blatchington Mill School, the Self Managed Learning College and Dorothy Stringer School to develop technology enhanced learning environments. RUSTLE caught up with Judith and two of the students involved, Seb Long and Emma Foley, to hear how it worked out and what the students gained from this sort of activity.
As Seb explained, there were ‘layers and layers of teaching’ going on ‘what Judith has done with us, what we have done with the kids and what we have asked the kids to do with their teacher’. The students on the Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments course had to devise something that young people could use on a computer to help them learn programming or related skills. It was, as Emma said, ‘a very open brief’ for what was a ‘multi-faceted and complicated’ assignment, but Seb was clear that ‘the openness was part of the fun for us, being told: okay now go and solve a problem, do it however you like’. The involvement of the young people, their teacher, Genevieve Smith-Nunes and Dorothy Stringer School against the backdrop of the current ICT curriculum review meant that there were ‘so many different facets and streams running into this it has been quite hard to get control …but it all came together in a really imaginative and open-ended way that led us to come up with something that we think is really different and exciting’.
The proposed changes to ICT teaching were part of what motivated Judith to set this assignment. Judith explained that she is ‘really against the idea of having students do things that end up in the virtual bin. It is a waste of talent and there are so many issues out there in terms of community engagement that we could get involved with so that’s what we should be doing, not just cutting ourselves off and asking students to write essays about technology enhanced learning … Programming is difficult, and even at university level people struggle and drop out. Most secondary school teachers are not programmers and have been used to teaching the use of IT, so I wondered how we could contribute something useful’. Although this is a particularly current and pressing problem in ICT and computer science, Judith believes that ‘in any discipline there must be issues like this where there are challenges in teaching particular content and students could be helping teachers by thinking about how to design learning materials that will make those fun, interesting and relevant’.
It seems like a win-win situation because in the process of helping the school Emma says ‘the project compounded all our knowledge that we had learned throughout our degree and we could bring it all in together and find a way to present it simply to other people – that’s a really useful skill’. The nine-week project began with Seb, Emma and Maria going to the school to find out what they wanted, hearing what Genevieve needed and working with the young people to find out what they wanted. The package which Seb, Emma and their team-mate Maria Sotiriou created contains lots of resources but is primarily an application to teach how to find out what users want; how to use questionnaires, focus groups, diary studies and interviews, through using a simulated user research environment based on a project to design a mobile app for a school’. There was just one hour a week for ICT and it was not appropriate for the young people to go out and collect data themselves but Seb, Emma and Maria were able to create a safe virtual environment where they could direct their own learning. Amongst the other graphically rich resources they provided pre-written parent questionnaires and responses, video interviews and instructions for the pupils to carry out focus groups amongst themselves.
As well as the online resources there are worksheets for the pupils and a teacher guide which provide everything necessary to run a lesson and this was an aspect of the project which went beyond Judith’s expectations as she had ‘envisaged students would design things for young people – design a game or design an app that could be used in a classroom, but this project and some others were on two levels, providing resources for young people and teachers with a dual teaching going on that was really interesting. Students were thinking about what young people need, what will motivate them and what will interest them but also what teachers need and how to design for them.’ Seb, Emma and Maria’s project, and others produced by the assignment that could be used more widely in schools will soon be available online and Judith expects a lot more teachers wanting to use the materials as there is a real need for this sort of programme on a national level.
For Seb and Emma the project is a ‘ready-made portfolio’ that should impress potential employers and they found the ‘real world experience’ that the assignment gave them was just the start. As Seb says ’there’s real world experience and then there’s real world change; being able to create something that makes a difference has made this the most rewarding task we have tackled at university’.