Using OneNote has utterly transformed the way we teach at Myddelton College

Myddelton College opened its doors to students at the start of September 2016 with a particular aim in mind: to truly prepare young people for life and work in the 21st century. Our vision was for a child’s educational experience to resemble a modern workflow, a much more collaborative exercise than a traditional education delivers, between pupils themselves and between pupils and their teachers.

We chose Microsoft OneNote as the principle tool for this approach. At its core, OneNote is a connected digital notebook that lets students organize their notes in much the same way as they might do with paper. They can make folders and store pages of notes in them, like a digital Filofax (if you remember those – they were all the rage when I left school). These notes are then available on any connected device, anywhere in the world. For a student in the 21st century, a system like this has obvious benefits. Paired with a tablet device and a digital pen, the software is even more compelling. Students can augment their notes with links, video, photos, audio, handwritten annotations, and more.

But all those wonderful things are not the killer feature for teaching. The killer feature comes in the form of a special addition made by Microsoft, just for the education market: OneNote Class Notebook. Using Class Notebook and OneNote in our lessons has utterly transformed our teaching and how our students learn, and catapulted our lessons right into the 21st century. Now we push lesson notes out to students’ files before each class and we mark digitally, shortening the feedback cycle enormously. Now we are seeing truly collaborative working, in real time, between teachers and their students, in every lesson. Admittedly, we didn’t reach this point overnight, even though we intended to. Let’s go back to the beginning.

I am Senior Deputy Head now, but when we started the school in 2016 I was Head of 21st Century Technology. We had acquired a site that had been a school since 1859 but had been closed for three years prior to our arrival. I was given the challenge of equipping every student with a tablet device and updating the school’s ageing wireless and network connection. I have long appreciated that quality technical support is critical. We made sure ours was a Microsoft Gold partner. We needed them to really understand our vision and the technology we intended to use, upgrading our wireless with an intelligent 5G system and helping us install a 300Mbps fiber optic line with 100Mbps backup.

We had decided very early on to use Microsoft OneNote for all our lesson planning and delivery. This was mainly because we, in the senior leadership team, were attracted to the concept of 21st Century Learning Design (21CLD) and Microsoft had produced some fantastic resources on the subject (https://education.microsoft.com).

Back at the start, I don’t think we realized quite how powerful a tool OneNote would become in our hands, but we made a key decision that stood us in good stead, which was to standardize the layout of the page for every lesson. That way every child could navigate their notes the same way, in every class. We favour the 4-phase lesson plan and we used this as a basis for our template.

Each lesson starts with an enquiry question, which students should be able to answer by the end, and a Prior Learning Activity (PLA), a 10-minute task that students complete before the lesson. This way they are fully prepared for class and we avoid time spent introducing concepts which are easily introduced in students’ prep time. Because all of our notes were produced on OneNote, students began to preview the work which has since lead to faster engagement in lesson time.

Every lesson in Myddelton College begins with students sitting down, quietly opening their OneNote on their device and completing a Do Now activity, designed to check that they have done their PLA. Lessons get underway quickly and quietly and, with the introduction out of the way, we can get into deeper discussions much faster than in a more traditional approach. Students enter the classroom with an opinion on the lesson topic already in mind.

This consistent approach is key and we have spent plenty of time training staff, although you really can’t spend too much time on this. We dedicate regular training time to OneNote and tech issues in general. When we choose staff now, we carefully check their attitude to technology. OneNote is very intuitive, most staff get to grips with it very quickly and are very good at sharing information and supporting one another. I direct all new staff to the tutorials and guides at https://education.microsoft.com before they join us, so they can begin to familiarize themselves with our approach.

The students grasp the technology very quickly, of course. I teach Computer Science but in the lower years the first few lessons are all about how to use the basic features of OneNote, as well as the Collaboration Space and tools like Immersive Reader (which is amazing and a real boon to students with additional learning needs).

Where are we now?

We have grown significantly up until now, our third year. We opened with 83 students and currently have over 220, with 20 different nationalities represented at the College. Our OneNote approach has scaled seamlessly.

We have learned to structure our students’ working notes for them. In the early days we allowed them to copy our notes from the Content Library into files of their own. We don’t do that anymore! We use Class Notebook’s Distribute New Section function to push new ‘subject dividers’ out to all students in a class, and then use Distribute Page to push new notes out to all students so they end up in the right section. Now and again I take the time to go through students working areas to tidy up a little – this helps them maintain a a high-quality, logical set of notes.

Once they have been pushed out to all students in the same folder, we can use the Review Student Work function to mark. This is super-efficient and has been transformative for me and my colleagues. It allows me to rapidly skip from student to student, arriving on the same page with each one. We all mark work using a red pen and students can review our annotations and respond in green, allowing us to check that they have considered our feedback. Handwritten feedback doesn’t suit everyone, however, so I can also insert audio feedback. I can insert links to other OneNote pages if a student needs to revisit a concept, or I can insert links to online materials, YouTube clips, TED talks, you name it. In some lessons extended writing must take place using paper and pen. This is fine as long as students then insert a photograph of their work into the relevant lesson’s OneNote page. Students’ notes have become dynamic and connected, leveraging the power of technology to accelerate learning.

We also, of course,  have two years’ worth of OneNote notes in hand. Most of us are now augmenting and improving our lesson plans from previous years. I used to create new lesson plans directly in the Content Library. Now I prefer to enable the Teacher Only section and put all new content in there, which saves the students from seeing notes which I still want to improve or change somehow. It is common to students to want to look ahead. I like this as it helps to improve their self-study skills, so I usually try to distribute a couple of lessons ahead.

It’s safe to say that using OneNote has utterly transformed the way we teach at Myddelton College.

We knew it would and we intended it to, but I still marvel at the scale of the change. I sometimes tell students that I believe the way their children will be educated will be more like the way they’re being educated today, compared to the way I was! I honestly cannot imagine returning to a more traditional approach to teaching now. This sentiment is echoed by all of my colleagues. Having used a tool with such power, there is just no going back. We can’t wait to see what features will appear in the next update!

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