Inside the Classroom of the Future

Inside the Classrooms of the Future

Virtual reality experiences and 3D printing lead a digital revolution that is transforming classrooms – helping both teachers and pupils maximise their potential

by Kim Thomas – The Guardian Labs

Who remembers universal indicator? Comparing that little strip of paper to a colour chart to determine the precise acidity of the solution you’d dunked it into? That’s a thing of the past at the Bohunt academy chain of schools. There, students use an electronic sensor, plugged into a tablet computer, to record the data. Add another ingredient to make the liquid more acid or alkaline, and the difference is automatically plotted in a graph on the tablet screen.

It’s an example of the continuing technology transformation in schools. For hundreds of years, teaching mostly involved standing in front of a class of students and talking. But the past 20 years has seen an unparalleled degree of innovation, enabling teachers to experiment with new models of learning. Progress first took the form of an ICT suite for almost every school, plus interactive whiteboards in each classroom. More recently, many schools have adopted virtual learning environments (VLEs), in which teachers can provide resources, and students can submit assignments. This has been helped by the availability of free cloud-based services for schools.

Some of those early advances did little more than offer technological support for traditional ways of teaching. But these days, teachers are discovering that technology can enable them to do so much more: provide imaginative new learning experiences for students; inspire students to study independently; and enable teachers to work together and learn from each other.

At the five Bohunt schools (in Liphook, Portsmouth, Petersfield, Wokingham and Worthing), teachers and students are using technology to collaborate more easily: language students, for example, can record themselves speaking a language and share that file instantly with their teacher through Google Drive.

But the technology is also used to fire imaginations, opening students up to sights and sounds that they might never experience in the real world. Geography students at the Worthing school, for example, use virtual reality apps to visit landscapes beyond the reach of any field trip, such as Rio de Janeiro. The school is also experimenting with green screen technology that enables students to imagine they’re visiting the Berlin Wall or conducting a full orchestra – an experience that will be introduced to music lessons in the near future.

Tablets have multiple uses at the Bohunt schools: in maths, for example, students use an app called Desmos to plot graphs; and on geography field trips, they use them to take photos and record data. Students at the Liphook school in Hampshire even created an iPad band, shelving “real” instruments in favour of the GarageBand app. This led to a musical collaboration with a primary school, in which pupils learned to play six different pieces over the course of a week. “It was amazing to see people who had never seen each other before, totally different age ranges, collaborating, producing something very impressive,” says Nigel Wright, the trust’s lead for data and associate head at the Liphook school.

At secondary schools throughout the country, classrooms are ditching the traditional. Alongside the increased adoption of cloud-based sharing technology, the big change is a shift away from ICT suites towards mobile devices. Research in 2015 found that 76% of secondary schools were using tablets in class.

While students are reaping the benefits of new technology, it’s also having a transformative effect on teachers’ workload. Using the environment of the TeachMeet website, for example, teachers can share best practice and find out what other teachers are doing in a way that was never possible in the past.

This increasing use of online resources, mobile devices and free cloud technology is precipitating a shift away from a classroom model that has prevailed for 200 years.

Photography by Simon J Evans – Bohunt school;