Anticipating the effects of lockdown and social distancing on his primary school’s education, Ben Cooper, Primary Principal of GEMS Wellington Academy, Al Khail in Dubai, wanted to implement technology that has a positive impact on teachers, students and parents collectively.
Having introduced CENTURY during lockdown in April, students at the primary school are now answering 75,000 questions every month on the platform. Almost 30,000 nuggets (micro-lessons) were completed over the recent half-term, a time where usage would have been expected to drop.
We spoke with Ben Cooper to learn how he is using education technology to enhance traditional learning structures and the ways his school will be using CENTURY in the future.
What is your approach to the use of education technology as a primary school?
Digital learning – using high quality software and hardware – has been a massive part of our school in the past few months, as it has for everyone. This has been particularly important to get right because of the high expectations that are set in Dubai for the accessibility of remote learning for those parents who do not feel comfortable bringing their children back to school yet. We also have access to lessons remotely through livestream webinars that mirror what is happening in the class. It was a learning curve to find ways for children at home to access the live lessons and, because of this, technology is certainly being utilised exceptionally well at the moment across the school.
How does the use of education technology fit in with your school’s wider educational philosophy?
In primary school, we focus a lot on project-based learning. For example, in Year Six, pupils design an immersive museum experience for their parents. They set up the journey and invite their parents in, the parents become part of the history, and are quizzed on what they have learned. It allows the children to be creative and design products and experiences that will engage parents and the community to demonstrate their learning. Technology plays a huge part in this process, whether it be through research and engagement or the actual products they are creating.
At the other end of the school, in Year One, a similar design process happens when the students learn about different cultures’ historical kings and queens. They design their own royal garments based on galas, culminating in using the green screen room and auditorium to create a fashion show. These examples show how technology doesn’t replace our hands-on learning but rather allows us to integrate and enhance the design process really well.
The other side is the technological assessment that is used in the school. It gives teachers real time data that links to the end of year assessments so that we can constantly keep track of learning. So, in terms of actual formal assessments and assessment for learning within class, using technology allows us to get the real time data and report back to parents. It is an extra dynamic that saves time, is much more child-led and enhances the experience of education. Teachers are able to tell children to spend half an hour on CENTURY and it will already be personalised. It is harder to differentiate between individuals on other software, as they provide one lesson for all students.
Has your approach to education technology changed since the pandemic began?
Technology has become a limiter, as well as a driver. It has limited some of the things that we have been able to do but it also allows us to problem solve at the same time. That is the two sides: in class you would have a more dynamic set up, but using more technology has allowed students to become familiar with a structure and routine.
For the younger students, using technology works well due to reverting to more structured lessons. This allows lessons to be structured in a way that is familiar to the children each day. Also, teachers are able to focus on their inputs and be more creative. Technology has helped teachers create immersive, engaging and interactive content for the students. Teachers are now more confident using technology because they have had to use it. Further, in general, they are actually more effective because they can combine their previous techniques to utilise movement learning.
How did you approach your teachers with the technological shift?
It was a very unsettling few weeks just before lockdown because rumours of what might happen were abound, but everyone was unsure what it was going to look like. There was a period before lockdown where we were trying to guess what was happening while authorities were trying to make the right decision. We were already using Seesaw in school, so I invited teachers to visit me and I walked each one through how to set up a basic Seesaw lesson. They were changing their lessons by simplifying them into two parts to deliver through Seesaw. This made me sure that if we went into lockdown, we could deliver consistent and familiar models of learning to the children.
Once lockdown began, it became a case of problem solving and choosing which difficulties to prioritise. I started sharing video blogs each day with parents underlining what was and was not working whilst highlighting how we were going to try fix it by the end of the week. Listening to teachers and parents supported the process as it highlighted our awareness of prioritising well-being. We also did a lot of professional development to share best practices in terms of keeping attention, encouraging responses, and enhancing online learning. This created a level playing field because the utilisation of similar strategies created consistency across year groups.
What was your process of choosing CENTURY?
I picked up on CENTURY in January. I was very interested in what CENTURY did and how it looked and felt. The way that CENTURY operates certainly feels ‘premium’, as the platform and its AI are complemented by important ideas about how people learn from neuroscience and pedagogical research. We began by utilising CENTURY’s free offer at the time. We soon realised that CENTURY reduces teacher workload and highlights when students jump ahead, and when they need more support. The feedback was brilliant: children were on board and parents liked it because it was simple to use. Another benefit of CENTURY is that it is all in one place – many other subscriptions only focus on one subject, which creates difficulty for both parents and children because it involves switching between different apps throughout the day.
How does it integrate with other education technology you use?
Seesaw allows you to share links, so we are able to assign students CENTURY activities through this. Further, because of the link functionality, we can add these into live sessions, share screens and use the pre-set slides.
It works very well with our model of using Microsoft Teams. Remote learning can become repetitive in terms of the type of lessons that are being delivered so, for live sessions, Seesaw is a synchronous type of learning and CENTURY allows us to keep these sessions fresh.
How does the adaptive side of CENTURY’s AI help your students learn when they can’t be in the same room as a teacher?
Right now, we are heavily utilising the personalised pathways offered by CENTURY. Normally, when you set home learning it is a one-size-fits-all; it is very difficult to have different pathways through the lesson and monitor different challenges. CENTURY plays the role of a teacher by picking out what you’re doing well in and what you need to do next, and then it sets the next steps for you. Now that teachers are back in school, they are familiar with this AI and can use it to enhance what they’re doing to personalise pathways on a weekly basis.
CENTURY definitely helps with our students' motivation. It feels special to the children and they like going through the nuggets, so they’re motivated to utilise it. At the same time, there is enthusiasm from parents because it provides a single place to go for home learning. The simplicity of using CENTURY helps motivation because it is not confusing for the students or parents to learn to utilise it.
How have your staff responded to CENTURY?
Our staff were the ones who really pushed for CENTURY; they saw the impact it could have. In Primary, again, they particularly liked the idea of having all three subjects in one app. Moving to CENTURY eliminates the need to try to use five or six different resources. For us, it is about streamlining what we offer online. For Key Stage Two, we feel that CENTURY really stood out as the go-to app for teachers. Primary teachers are really enjoying utilising CENTURY and focusing on one tool rather than trying to balance everything across multiple platforms and resources.
Our teachers are under great stress at the moment because, due to splitting up our classes, they are working across two classrooms. It was really important to me that we found a way to make sure teachers can focus on what is really important. CENTURY automatically sets the home learning but allows teachers to drop nuggets in. This is great because the majority of the labour is done for them, but they can personalise it. Equally, as it all gets turned into one platform, they know where to go for assessments and where to find children’s learning. I notice that the feedback from teachers is that they feel it is a valuable tool that is supporting what they are currently trying to manage. I’m certain that using CENTURY is having a positive impact on staff well-being.
What does the future hold for CENTURY at GEMS? Where do you see education technology going?
I think teachers sometimes find themselves being content creators rather than teachers. They spend a lot of time creating content for children to access because the content isn't there already. When we talk about teachers going home and planning, what we should be talking about is how they’re going home to plan the experience for the children. But currently, what you see more is that a teacher is going home and creating the content to teach. CENTURY definitely helps to rectify this.
I hope that education technology moves in a more integrated direction, like in many other sectors. In an ideal world, you would want one platform to do most of what is on offer across multiple platforms. Budgets, especially across the UK, are stretched as it is; people need to look at how they work together. Technologies talking to one another and having that 360° view of things is something I foresee for the future. CENTURY is certainly an important step in this direction as it combines AI-recommended learning pathways with well-designed content in different formats.
What advice would you have for other schools looking to learn about education technology?
I think the most important way of learning about what works and sharing best practice is by word of mouth. Schools want to know what is already working in other schools. It is really important for leaders to talk to other leaders about what they're doing. It is about getting out there and networking with people to share ideas. Twitter is also a great way to find passionate educators. You want to get in a loop and surround yourself with people that are just as passionate about education. This is how you get up to date with the best innovations both within Dubai and back in the UK.
How would you summarise your experience with CENTURY in one sentence?
Ultimately, utilising CENTURY gives another dimension to teaching our students, and it is certainly being utilised exceptionally well across our school at the moment.
To find out more about how CENTURY can help your school, book a demo with our team.