Articles Articles

Aelsa Carroll“The only thing to drive the future development of ICT in the school is the students themselves”

Interview with teacher Aelsa Carroll of St. Fintan’s High School, Dublin, Ireland 

St. Fintan’s is of of the Advanced Practitioner Schools (AP) involved in the Living Schools Lab project. In this interview, Aelsa Carroll reflects on how being involved in the Living School Lab project helped her to bring about changes in the teaching and learning taking place in her classrooms. LSL also led to whole-school change as an e-Learning Team has been formed to help plan for the on-going integration of ICT across the curriculum and the school.

Tell us a little about your school and why the project appealed to you.

St. Fintan’s High School is an all-boys secondary school in Sutton, Dublin. We have over 650 students and about 40 staff members. The school building is limited in terms of space and the students stay in their rooms while the teachers move from class to class. This makes for a fairly ‘traditional’ learning environment, but this altered somewhat when we received the Department of Education and Skills Infrastructure Grant in 2010. Now we have a computer room with 30 PCs and a desktop and overhead projector in every classroom and lab.

I teach Science, Biology and Geography and the LSL project appealed to me for two reasons. Firstly, I have found that the daily integration of ICT makes my classes much more enjoyable and varied. Secondly, I thought it would be a good impetus for our school community to really focus on sharing e-learning experiences in a structured manner.

What did you choose as your theme and why did you decide upon it?

I selected the theme of Virtual Learning Environments, and I chose Google Apps as a platform for this. My reasons were very simple – Shane, a colleague of mine, had introduced staff and student Gmail addresses in 2011 with our ICT advisor Brian. So the foundations were in place, and I was using Google Apps already, so I had a little bit of experience to share. My sister happens to work for YouTube, and she had been showing me how to use some of the more ‘advanced’ features like Forms and Groups, which were actually very easy to pick up. Straight away I saw endless possibilities for an easier life for me and a better learning experience for my students!

St Fintan school students

How did you begin to implement changes in your classroom and in the school?

Shane and I set up a shared Google Presentation in August and put together an hour long training session for the staff. We made a couple of short Screenrs to help them with things like adding contacts and sharing files. We held this session in the computer room so that staff could be hands-on with the material. Then we devised the Acceptable Use Policy with our Principal, and that was passed by the Board of Management. All students were given Safety Guidelines to follow that they signed with their parents. Class tutors collected them and we put them on file. Once the student emails were set up, teachers started to use Google Apps in a variety of ways, slowly but surely. In February we set up an e-Learning Committee to filter out knowledge among staff members and trial some new ICT ideas.

How would you describe your school's progress so far? What has the biggest success been to date?

Feedback has been very positive, both from staff and student users. Certainly the biggest challenge has been finding time. It is a lot to ask teachers to upload and organise their resources into Drive, share them with students and within their departments, assess student learning, receive work from students... and the list goes on! So I consider the fact that the staff have advanced so quickly in only a few months to be a resounding success. Word is spreading quite organically within the school community, and we’re trying to mimic that in the e-Learning Committee for the future development of ICT. Students are absolutely delighted to have a school email address, and seem to find it quite novel that they can now receive and share information with their teachers and with each other. Five months in to moving from broadening out the project to the staff, about one third of staff members are using Apps frequently in the classroom.

How did your work move beyond your classroom to having an impact on the wider staff and school?

As I said, there was a great deal of ground work already done, and there is fantastic innovation happening in classrooms all over the school. The Living Schools Lab project provided me with a support network, a framework, and a reason to prioritise e-learning at a whole school level. Once the dialogue was opened up in the staffroom, people were very keen to learn more about Google Apps. 

What did you learn from the training you gave to staff? Do you have any advice for other teachers offering in-school training to colleagues?

Having presented to the staff in September, there are one or two changes I would make. Firstly, I think small groups – such as subject departments in a secondary school – are key, as well as hands-on access to computers during the training. As we know, it is difficult to learn anything if you’re just watching somebody else do it on a screen. When Shane and I presented, we were very keen to show the scope of Google Apps so we demonstrated Gmail, uploading folders, file-sharing, and Forms. In retrospect, this was probably too much in such a short time. The last thing we wanted to do was overwhelm people and I do feel that happened a bit, especially because it was the first day of school!

I would advise any new Advanced Practitioners to keep things beyond simple – for example; how to log in to Gmail, and how to set up a contact group for a class. E-confident teachers will pick this up immediately and those less familiar won’t be alienated and can be helped by others.

Have any new change management methods or systems in regard to ICT integration come about in the school because of your LSL project?

Living Schools Lab has directly led to the creation of the e-Learning Committee in our school, and the formulation of an Acceptable Use Policy and Internet Safety Guidelines for students.

What's been the reaction of the students to the changes brought about by your work?

As time goes on, it is becoming clear that the only thing that is really going to drive the future development of ICT in the school is the students themselves. Technology is such an inherent part of their lives and they are more than willing to become more independent learners. Having a communications platform or VLE in St. Fintan’s makes learning much more interactive and takes it beyond the 40 minute lesson. I have been told by a few teachers yet to really embrace Google Drive in their classrooms that the lads have been asking them when they are going to start using Drive – positive pressure in my opinion!

Are the students being involved in the change process? How?

I have already used Forms to gather feedback from students about teaching and learning in my own classroom, and I plan to survey all students in May. By then I hope that all students will have had some experience with Apps, and their responses will help the e-Learning Committee to plan for the future. We have also organised for Transition Year students to help First Years log in to their accounts and change their passwords. I would like to see this type of peer tutoring develop in the future also.

What's next for St Fintan's? What are your school’s next plans and objectives?

Next year the e-Learning Committee are going to trial Edmodo as a VLE and hopefully introduce that to a wider network of teachers. At a whole-school level, our goal is to develop the school culture towards e-maturity, based on the NCTE e-Learning Roadmap. This will incorporate peer training among staff, sharing of resources and creating opportunities for dialogue around e-learning.

After your experience of LSL what would you say to any teacher interested in joining the project as an Advanced Practitioner?

I have been so inspired and encouraged by the other teachers in Ireland and across Europe, LSL has given me the chance to witness some amazing teaching and learning. This project will help your school to organise, assess and develop technology-based learning. It opens up a world of knowledge and support that I didn’t even know existed! I am by no means a ‘techie’, but I am learning so much as I go, and ultimately this will create a better classroom for my students and for myself.