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The digital classroom


This article first appeared in “The IB Review” No. 3, February 1,2015. London: Hodder Education

The development of the internet, pioneered by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, heralded the emergence of a new information revolution which has transformed the political-economic landscape and acted as a catalyst for the emergence of a global knowledge economy. In this new e-poch, international companies will only employ individuals with the requisite skills and competencies, and have more flexibility to base teams in whichever global region they deem most attractive. With an increasingly mobile workforce, graduates and school leavers find themselves in a global skills race to succeed in the knowledge wars of the future. Amidst this changing backdrop in the free market, in which firms such as BMW use technology to digitally taylor over 80% of their cars to precise customer requirements, is your school managing to evolve sufficiently to ensure your peers are also able to take advantage of such digital taylorism with a more personalised approach to learning? With some students still finding themselves in lessons being lectured at by a teacher and completing questions from a physical textbook, has there really been a commensurate digital revolution in education, or do you still feel trapped in the Victorian era? As you look ahead to forthcoming exams, what additional resources are there online for you to personalise your learning experience and transform the effectiveness of your independent study and revision in order to put you in the best position to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities in the global knowledge economy?

One of the biggest developments, in terms of making technology integral to student learning, has been through the advent of what is termed ‘flipped learning’. In contrast to the traditional educational model, whereby a teacher spends the first part of a lesson introducing a new topic which students then practice for the rest of the lesson, in the flipped classroom model students actually study pre-recorded instructional videos in advance of the lesson. The benefits of this approach are twofold and resonate with the principles of Digital Taylorism seen in business. Firstly, pupils can follow explanations and work through examples at their own pace, replaying key sections as appropriate, and, secondly, it enables students to spend more time during lessons applying these new skills, addressing misconceptions, and developing their understanding further by working collaboratively with their peers to complete more complex questions, or project work which requires them to apply these skills in consort with other techniques. Whilst many teachers take advantage of existing resources such as the Khan Academy, some find the idiosyncrasies of American terminology, for instance radicals as opposed to square roots, distracting and generate their own. One of the best examples of teacher generated instructional videos are from Colin Hegarty whose videos have been viewed over a million times. Whilst these resources are geared towards the A-level curriculum, specific topics are readily identifiable and, in addition, there are live sessions which are free to view and participate in. You can also find instructional videos grouped according to the IB maths curriculum at IB Maths resources thus enabling you to take advantage of the learning principles behind flipped learning, irrespective of your teacher’s approach.

Whilst the standard of professional instructional videos is high, it is fairly straightforward to actually produce your own tutorials. Research from influential Education Professor John Hattie has shown that when students themselves generate and share this content, as a form of peer tutoring, there is a significant impact on learning so, even though it may take longer than watching someone else’s, it will deepen your understanding. At the most basic level, you could simply video yourself working through a problem on paper and upload this to Youtube, but such an approach can be difficult for others to follow on screen, so consider using an application on an iPad such as ‘Explain Everything’ or ‘educreations’ which enables you to create something like Jonathan and Ryan’s tutorial on the Quotient Rule. If you do not have access to an iPad you can create a screencast of your work on a laptop using either the screen capture option from an application such as Quicktime Player or using an online application such as Screenr. Whatever mechanism you use to produce your tutorial, once you have taken the time to create it consider helping your peers benefit from your explanations an maximise exposure to it by promoting it through twitter. There is a huge mathematics community on twitter, and besides sharing your tutorials, you can also find people to answer your questions or just follow interesting mathematical articles and discussions. The best hashtags to follow are #math #mathchat #IBmath #AlevelMaths #mathhelp #STEM.

Mathematics is a subject that, especially, lends itself to myriad digital applications and programs. There are several platforms which effectively serve as online classrooms providing both instruction, through lesson slides and activities, but also enable students to develop their understanding further through applying principles to additional questions. The most relevant for International Baccalaureate Mathematicians is IB Maths, run by Adrian Sparrow, which, if your school does not already have a subscription, will cost you $50 for a year’s access. Others such as My iMaths also have excellent resources, but these are aligned to the A level curriculum and you may need to decipher the different terminology to locate your particular IB topic. A more comprehensive stock of past papers and exam questions can be acquired from the IB itself through its question bank and IB prepared resources available through its online store. Other useful software to consider, alongside your graphic display calculator, is the powerful free graphing website Desmos which may well be a more user-friendly complement to your school’s subscription to Autograph.


Desmos graphing website: Are you a maths superhero?

Another avenue through which to digitally tailor your learning in mathematics is concerned with the uniquely challenging IB requirement of the exploration. An essential piece of advice to remember when embarking upon this mathematical magnum opus is to choose a topic that genuinely interests you. Whilst you may already have visions of exploring number theory Prof. Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, it can be hard to know where to look for inspiration. If you are interested in science the University of Cambridge’s NRICH site has a page dedicated to STEM with an array of topics and investigation that may appeal and catalyse your imagination. Similarly, if you are interested in the (very much) bigger picture, NASA has a site dedicated to Space Mathematics with an array of resources, data and investigations such as a problem involving how to ship cargo to the International Space Station. Other useful sites worth research include plus magazine from the University of Cambridge and Johnny Griffith’s Rich Starting Points for A-level Core Mathematics.

Perhaps the greatest marginal gains from subscribing to this digitally tailored learning approach can be realised in the frantic last minute panic revision that fills the vacuum between the end of classes and the IB exams. Having practised all the questions in text book so much that you can remember the answers off by heart, and not being able to access your teacher as regularly as you might like, it can feel like an isolating existence in which new challenges and discussions could prove fruitful. But what if your teacher was able to hold a half hour google hangout for a small group of your class who, say, needed some support on integration but did not want to lose 2 hours of valuable revision time travelling in to school and back? Similarly, if you are struggling with how to plot a regression line using your calculator, why not view an online tutorial and then try to produce your own version and share it with your peers through social media. Allied to the myriad sites that have already been highlighted, with their plethora of additional question banks, past-papers, tutorials and live question and answer sessions, the ability to personalise your learning and recognise the “unknown unknowns” through online interaction should help you transform the effectiveness of this pre-exam hiatus!

Whether your teacher is on old-school advocate of ‘chalk and talk’ or you are completing interactive quizzes on your wi-fi enabled graphic display calculator, there have never been more opportunities for students to take charge of their own learning and embrace all that technology has to offer. As students of the International Baccalaureate, itself designed to provide global citizens with the skills they need to succeed, capitalising on this digital educational infrasture to help tailor your learning in this way may just confer on you a competitive advantage in the global skills race, and prepare you for the changing face of Higher Education. Although the education sector as a whole may be somewhat pedestrian in its response to the digital revolution, as Digital Taylorism proliferates at the macro-level driven by multinational companies, and the number of Private-Public initiatives in Higher Education increases, its effects can be expected to filter down enabling you to demand a personalised and modularised university course more closely aligned with the needs of your prospective employers.

Richard Davies is Head of Personal and Social Education at the United World College of South East Asia.

Download The digital classroom


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