Why building the digital classroom starts with good feedback

The Microsoft Innovation Educator (MIE) Expert program connects high-potential teachers across Australia – and from around the world – to share their vision and expertise in applying technology to the classroom. We had a chat with Steve Crapnell, e-Learning Coordinator and Maths Teacher at All Hallows’ School, to hear why his team focused their digital strategy solely on classroom feedback – and how the e-Learning team managed to get 144 other teachers on board with the move.

Steve, can you explain why All Hallows School decided to focus its digital strategy on classroom feedback?

About three years ago, we decided that we had to focus on one main priority if we were to really refine and get value out of our technology. We chose student feedback because…well, because all the research and literature out there suggests that if you want to impact student learning in the most powerful way possible, improving feedback – particularly formative feedback – is the way to go. Formative feedback involves providing feedback, ideally in real-time, throughout the student’s learning journey. We wanted to see how technology could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of that feedback – in other words, ensuring that students received feedback promptly and paid attention to it!

Our initial plan was simple: see how we could use different modes of feedback beyond just text-based annotations. OneNote supports audio, video, and inking as well as typed inputs, which meant we already had the technology platform to work with. The biggest step was getting the entire teaching staff – 145 teachers all up – to try out these various modes of feedback and push the envelope in terms of how they were interacting with their students.

It only took All Hallows’ two and a half years to get almost all teachers on-board with OneNote’s feedback mechanisms. What’s the secret to driving that sort of school-wide support?

I think it comes down to focusing on a single point of change, one where you can clearly convey the value to teachers of changing. Trying to engineer a whole raft of digital initiatives just leaves everyone confused and fatigued. As teachers, we already face so much change that we won’t invest in something new if we don’t see a demonstrable benefit compared to the status quo. By going from “here are the top 20 apps for us to use” to “here’s the one key initiative we want to adopt”, we could emphasise exactly why teachers should make that investment. And when certain departments started to champion OneNote for feedback, things quickly snowballed throughout the entire school.

Certain departments?

The English department is the largest in our school, and they immediately grasped the value of more engaged and real-time feedback for their classes. If you’re providing formative feedback all throughout a particular assignment, students can keep iterating their drafts – and teachers can also see how their feedback’s being incorporated into the finished product. The English department pioneered the practice of using audio feedback – something which students loved. Audio feedback gives them a more expressive, personalised sense of what they could improve on, rather than your cookie-cutter one-liner feedback that students often struggle to interpret.

From there, they’ve pushed into other areas like “meta-cognition”, which deals with how students react to feedback. Several English teachers now prompt their students to respond to the feedback they give – in audio, video, or dot points – whether to show they’ve understood it or even contest its validity. Doing that has made the process much more active and engaged – in a sense, your students are learning how to learn, how to own that learning process with far greater autonomy.

All of this is obviously possible without a digital workflow, but a platform like Office365 and OneNote Class Notebook just makes the feedback loop incredibly efficient and effective. The technology’s almost invisible after a relatively short time – you can simply get on with learning, sharing critical input, and improving.

What about other departments, like your own?

For us in Maths, the biggest lesson at the start was that good feedback is not giving the students the immediate solution. In the humanities, there’s quite an obvious delineation between feedback and marking, but in more empirical subjects we had to learn how to differentiate between giving the correct response and guiding students to work it out on their own.

In my classroom, I’ve  introduced “flipped learning”, where I use a OneNote template embedded with a video, Cornell-style note-taking  and several questions in Microsoft Forms to give students their “homework”. They watch the video and fill their answers into Forms – but they also have a space to take notes with their stylus, and write questions that they have even after watching the video! Those questions do two things: they show me how well students are responding to my lessons, and they direct the course of our classes the next day. And if a student misses a concept – or they don’t do their homework for some reason – they can rewind or replay and catch up as soon as possible.

That sounds like a far more pleasant homework experience than most of us grew up with.

Not only that, but it’s far more effective for learning! You know the standard method of giving homework in Maths: “do the odd-numbered questions”? I did that for almost thirty years! And I thought it was effective…until I tried this. It’s so much easier to check completion of homework, to follow up with students if they do miss homework, and to take that negative perception away from homework. Most students will miss homework at some stage because of a legitimate reason; you want them to catch up, not to feel like they’re being persecuted for it.

Have there been any negatives at all from using OneNote for feedback?

One student once told me, “it’s a bit of a pain having to get feedback this way…I’ve got to listen to you, then understand what you’re saying, and then change my work.” To which I said: “well, that’s exactly the point of feedback.” So I think it’s going pretty well!

How has the MIE Expert community helped give you the critical input to keep All Hallows’ on track with its digital journey?

The networking is invaluable. If you’ve got a problem, you throw it on the forum, and within an hour or two someone’s bounced back an idea. Last year at Microsoft E2 in Toronto, we had around 300 teachers from all over the world get together and spend 4 days talking about how we could use technology more effectively for our students. I just got back from a “Showcase Schools” tour in Seattle where we got to see the latest tech from the Surface Labs, hear from Microsoft’s education leaders – all that is great. But it’s really the networking and, dare I say it, feedback that’s given me the most value.

Lastly, you’re the e-learning coordinator at a school of 1500 girls – many of whom go into university studying STEM subjects with a passion. What’s your secret to getting female students so involved with STEM?

We have some of the strongest STEM candidatures in Queensland – think multiple classes for Physics, Chemistry, and Unit 4 (the highest unit of) Maths in Year 12. I know of other schools where Unit 4 classes don’t even exist anymore. So we’re very fortunate.

I think we’ve gotten to that stage because we have a combination of strong role models and a “can-do” ethic from the earliest years. Many of our senior Maths, Physics, and Chemistry teachers are female, providing excellent role models. We constantly encourage them to just do whatever interests them, and do their best. We try to quash the notion that being good at a certain subject – whether it’s Maths or Music – defines their intelligence. I think they’ve just never really known that they’re not supposed to do STEM subjects – and we certainly hope to keep it that way.


Connect with Steve Crapnell on Twitter

For more information on All Hallows’ School, visit https://www.ahs.qld.edu.au/ 




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