Raising interest and enthusiasm for IT among youngsters, especially at primary school age, can be a challenge for their teachers, who often neither have the facilities nor the necessary time to brush up on their IT knowledge and teaching methods. Langley Grammar School’s Digital Schoolhouse has been designed to help primary school teachers introduce their pupils to the world of IT in secondary education, work and business.

The Digital Schoolhouse (DSH) originated in the US in the 1990s through the initiative of Computer Associates (CA), an IT management software provider. The idea was to give pupils a taster of ICT during a day of study in a working office environment.

The DSH was introduced in the UK in 2005 and Langley Grammar School, Slough, decided to get involved with the project. ‘They [CA] provided the classroom and the hardware at their site, and we supplied teachers and the curriculum,’ recounts Simon Cook, Assistant Headteacher at the school. ‘One of the big appeals then was that pupils could experience an office environment in addition to learning more about ICT. The only drawback was that the day wasn’t really very structured and in line with the curriculum.’

Taking on the Schoolhouse

When early in 2008 CA cut its links to the DSH for business reasons, Langley Grammar School decided to take the project on. With the support of CA trustees, the school refurbished one of their classrooms into the new DSH, installing 30 high-specification networked computers and an interactive whiteboard.

However, one of the big problems the school faced was to find a primary-trained ICT teacher to head up the project and take on the teaching. ‘It is very difficult to find primary school teachers with secondary education ICT teaching experience,’ Simon explains. ‘Generally there are few specialised ICT teachers at primary level.’ Therefore, finding Mark Dorling, a primary-trained teacher with extensive industry and secondary ICT teaching experience, was very unusual – and very fortunate.

Mark, who has been a member of BCS since 2002, took on the project in September 2008 and set to work to evaluate and develop the former CA programme. With only eight weeks to implement the new programme, he found that his industry experience helped him a lot in structuring and prioritising the programme and its implementation.

Much time was spent on going through feedback from teachers who had previously visited the programme with their pupils and from secondary ICT teachers and departments who explained the transitional challenges encountered by pupils moving from primary to secondary school.

The analysis led to several changes and also a considerable expansion of the programme. ‘The CA programme, for example, aimed for the pupils to design only one webpage during the day. Now they actually create three web pages in the same amount of time,’ Mark explains. ‘We also added a number of new software and hardware technologies to offer an inclusive learning environment, for example a larger keyboard and a rollerball mouse for pupils with physical disabilities and text-to-speech software with headphones for pupils struggling with literacy.’

Another important development was to tie in the DSH lessons with the primary school curriculum, covering topics as varied as the world of ancient Egypt, rivers, forces or ‘how we see things’, which makes the ICT lessons directly relevant to what the children are learning at their schools.

Bridging the gap

The DSH also seeks to help bridge the gap between primary and secondary ICT education. ‘Primary school ICT facilities are often limited, as the teaching is highly dependent on the interest and skill of the staff,’ Mark says. ‘One of the aims of the DSH is to help smooth over the gap and give primary pupils an introduction to ICT at secondary level.’

Apart from the simple fact that visiting the DSH at Langley Grammar School allows primary pupils to experience a secondary school in action, there are other factors that contribute to facilitating the transition.

For example, the day gives the pupils an opportunity to work on an ICT project based on a project brief - a method very similar to an end-of-module assessment in secondary school. Each child has their own PC (which is not always the case in primary schools), allowing them to experiment and work at their own pace.

Making learning fun

The Schoolhouse is set up to allow pupils of all ability levels to discover and create their multimedia projects independently. Some of the pupils follow step-by-step video tutorials while others follow written instructions at their own pace using text-to-speech software and headphones. Large tasks are broken into smaller units and the individual lessons are interspersed with games, mini starters and ‘brain-break activities’, helping the children to stay focused and motivated throughout the day.

‘Obviously a lot depends on what the teacher wants,’ Mark says. ‘Sometimes they prefer me to explain everything step-by-step and be quite prescriptive throughout the day. Others are quite happy for the children to try figure things out themselves and to allow them to learn by making mistakes.’

One such teacher is Carol Meredith, Year 6 Coordinator at The Echelford Primary School, who has been a regular visitor to the DSH since its introduction in the UK and has come back this year with her class to learn how to create their own web pages about rivers. Carol prefers Mark to challenge her pupils, allowing them to experiment and try out things, even if the result might not be as polished as it would be with constant supervision and direction.

So when the children have to choose the font size, colour and style for their web page, Mark only leads them through the process step-by-step the first time, and then asks them to do it themselves. ‘It is a good way to see what level the children are at and to consolidate what they have learned,’ says Mark.

Similarly, the involvement of the teachers in the lessons varies. Carol is quite happy to sit at the front of the class and be the ‘guinea pig’, for example following one of her pupil’s instructions on how to narrow the columns of her web page template on her screen, which is projected on the interactive whiteboard at the front of the class.

Not just for the children

While the Echelford Primary School offers ICT teaching, Carol still finds that a day at the DSH helps to introduce the pupils to a very different way of ‘doing IT’. ‘The children always find it a very rewarding experience and get an enormous amount of pleasure out of every visit,’ she says.

The visits also give her ideas to include in her own classroom, and she has already taken on board a number of the elements and ideas that Mark uses in the DSH. Fortunately, she says, Mark continues to develop the programme, which means every year there is something new for her to learn as well and bring back to her school.

As such, the DSH has also become a valuable resource for primary school teachers, helping to boost their confidence and creativity with new technologies and showing them how ICT can help to cater for all ability levels. Another asset is the virtual learning environment that Mark has put together for the pupils to use during their visit, and which has now also been made available to teachers and their class before and after their visit.

Future developments

At the moment, the DSH offers three multimedia-based lessons on web design, presentation and desktop publishing, but Mark is looking to expand the range of lessons to choose from. He’s trialling a series of lessons on databases. ‘This might sound a very boring topic to some, but it’s actually very interesting and easy to make accessible and interesting for the pupils,’ he says.

For example, helping the children to understand the effects of AND/OR commands can be easily demonstrated through real-life examples. ‘You can say, for example, that everyone who has brown hair OR blue eyes has to move to the front, and then you repeat this and say everyone who has brown hair AND blue eyes move to the front. This will show them in a very visible way that using AND means being a lot more specific and therefore tends to create a much smaller selection,’ Mark explains.

It is striking how many of the principles on which Mark bases his DSH lessons sound like best practice examples from any (IT) training course aimed at adults: from dividing the subject matter into bite-size chunks and learning through experimenting and making mistakes, to explaining new concepts through ‘real-life’ and ‘job’-relevant examples, enabling cooperation and creating a learning environment that is fun and accessible.

All these elements allow each pupil, independent of skill level, to take part in the learning process and experience the moment of ‘wow - I have actually done this myself’. ‘It was a brilliant day and I would love to go again,’ says Nicola Greenaway, a pupil at The Echelford Primary School, and her classmate Lewis Demmon agrees: ‘I enjoyed visiting the DS and learned more than I expected.’