My advice for other teachers: “Learn to play, and play to learn”

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 sat down with Marianne Grasso, Assistant Principal of Bonnyrigg Public School, to find out how she’s driven digital learning and IT adoption in one of Sydney’s lower socioeconomic areas.

Marianne, you initially encountered Microsoft OneNote a couple of years ago. What potential did you see in it at the time?

When I first came across OneNote, I was working as both a Teacher Librarian and ICT Coordinator at Bonnyrigg Public School, and I immediately thought, “this is so efficient!” Teachers generally don’t collaborate very well on program development: everyone writes their own lesson plan every term without really seeing what their colleagues are doing. With a common platform like OneNote to work in and share ideas, you’d save yourselves huge amounts of time and effort – neither of which we have much to spare in the first place!

How did you get buy-in to that vision?

I decided the best way to demonstrate OneNote’s worth was to be my own guinea pig: I was running library programs across K-6, after all, which gave me a wide sample-size with which to test the software. I used my own laptop – at the time, our school had predominantly outdated desktop computers – and, after that on, an old Surface Pro which I got my hands on. When I showed my supervisor the results and capabilities of OneNote, particularly the ability to annotate lesson plans and student work in real time, she immediately said to me, “what can we do to take this further?”.

We went on to pilot OneNote with a small tech-savvy team of teachers in the school, covering Years 3-4. A lot of the process came down to trial and error. I’d learnt a lot from Microsoft’s community and training modules, but we just had to get in there and play with OneNote to work out what it could do for each individual classroom. Unless you play around with it, you’ll never learn what it can really do for you and your students.

What benefits have your teachers and students seen since adopting OneNote?

Collaboration has become so much simpler! We work by placing skeleton programs in our shared OneNote notebooks, which our teachers can then copy into their personal folders and annotate during their lessons. That also gives us far more visibility into how our teachers are doing: as a teaching supervisor, I can easily view teachers’ notes, check on their personal development goals, and give them feedback far more efficiently based on what they experience in the classroom. It’s great not having to deal with reams of paper!

For the kids, it’s all about feedback. They love seeing our thoughts and suggestions appear in real-time on their screens, and it allows them to edit and improve their work much faster as well. In fact, OneNote has been so effective that it served as the justification for investing much more in IT hardware that the kids otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

Your school is in one of NSW’s lower socioeconomic areas. Did you face any difficulties because of the lack of IT resources that you mentioned before?

Not after we’d demonstrated that OneNote could seriously improve learning and collaboration. That initial pilot prompted us to purchase five Surface Pro 4 devices to really quantify the benefits of OneNote’s annotation and collaboration capabilities – and when our school’s executives saw the results, they wanted Surface Pros as well! Now, the entire school uses OneNote and every classroom teacher’s been equipped with a Surface Pro device.

Being in a low socioeconomic area does mean we need to be sensitive about the costs of technology. For example, a BYOD policy for students would put undue pressure on parents to fork out for devices that they can’t easily afford. Instead, we’ve equipped each of our Year 5 and 6 students with their own laptop that stays at school, so they can use OneNote to work together on various projects. That gives them the access and exposure to technology that we hope will prove useful in high school, without placing too heavy a financial burden on either their parents or Bonnyrigg Public School’s resources.

I wouldn’t say the economics of the area have hindered us: there’s always a solution if you and your leaders are aligned in what you want to achieve for your students.

How have you countered resistance to digital adoption amongst teaching staff?

I find that resistance usually comes from teachers who don’t like to play. With OneNote and the Surface Pro rollout, the naysayers were the ones who didn’t want to explore the software, but expected everything to be handed to them in a neat and orderly form.

I think you just need to be patient and engage in dialogue. Every week, I run a “Brekkie with a Techie” session where I and other early adopters take questions from, and do demos for, any interested teachers. This year, we have a fair few new teachers entering the school, so we’ll be ramping up and diversifying how we train them so that everyone’s gaining ground, regardless of their familiarity level with OneNote and other software. But as long as you also keep pushing the boundaries, you’ll be in a good position to educate the educators and come up with new, more innovative ways to use tech in the classroom.

Has the MIE Expert program helped with that?

Absolutely. The modules and resources on MIE (Microsoft Educator Community) support a lot of the professional development that I run with other teachers. And the community of educators has really inspired and encouraged me – being able to go on Facebook or Twitter and see the best-practices that other Experts are developing. I remember at one MIE meetup, one of the teachers was talking about how he used Minecraft with his students; now, we’ll be involved in the Department of Education’s Early Access Program for Minecraft Education Edition so that our Year 3-6 teachers can trial it in their classrooms.

That sounds like a lot of fun – do you have specific goals for it just yet?

Not specific, but that’s okay. A lot of how we use Minecraft and other technologies will come from playing around and experimenting – just like how we found the value in OneNote. Our school is an Early Action for Success school and our aim is to improve students’ performance through a targeted approach in the early years. OneNote allows us to create responsive programs that focuses on the needs of the individual student and allows us to easily monitor and document student progress. I think all teachers need to have a sense of play when using new technology – both to inspire their students and to further their own learning. Technology changes and moves so fast that you just have to give it a go!

Connect with Marianne Grasso on Twitter.
For more information on Bonnyrigg Public School, visit http://www.bonnyrigg-p.schools.nsw.edu.au/.

 

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