A visit to the worlds leading iPad school – Essa Academy in England

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  • April 05, 2014

Recently I got the chance to visit ESSA Academy in Bolton, England which is undoubtedly one of the worlds leading schools in using technology to enhance teaching and learning. When I received an e-mail from the school inviting me to visit I didn’t think twice and booked the plane ticket immediately.

I spent a whole day learning from great educators, curriculum designers, technology experts and educationalists on the school model and how they have transformed the school. You can read more about the transformation on Apple’s website (http://www.apple.com/education/real-stories/essa/).

When you enter the building it feels more like entering a Forbes 500 business than a rural school in the outskirts of Manchester. Everything is formal, both staff and students are dressed in suits and everything has a very corporate feel to it. I sit down in a shared space near the enterance of the school which serves as a work environment and cafeteria for both staff and students. Something I have never seen before but is something that they call single entrance – shared space to signify collaboration, democracy and modelling the behaviour they want to see in their students.

After the early morning greeting we enter the first session of the day hosted by acting principal Jeff Ellis.

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He talked about the change in society but not in our schools and mentioned how the school building itself is significant in creating the environment they want to work in. He says that most new schools are built on old models while this school was built with their vision in mind. A vision based on the future, technology and that “All WILL succeed”.  The structure of the school week is fundamentally different from the 40-80 minute sessions known in most schools. Here they have nine – 3 hour blocks consisting of 2 each day and one on friday. The blocks are:

1.Science
2.Sports
3. Well being – science… Mix
4. The web – Technologu, business and economics
5. English
6. Maths
7. The arts – art drama and music
8.-9 One world – languages and humanities

On fridays students have an additional hour to work on projects not included in the curriculum. With this 3 hour structure, mentioned earlier, they now have teachers plan lessons together and split the whole group into smaller groups. This has increased collaboration among the staff and helped them produce some really amazing stuff in the classroom.

Next up was Andy Peet, educationalist and acting Deputy Principal of Essa Academy.

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He walked us through the amazing building which he worked on designing along with the architects as part of the program, Building Schools for the Future (the British government’s investment programme in secondary school buildings in England in the 2000s.) As he walked us through the school he went over the schools vision and showed us how that is built into the building itself.

First was democracy with a single entrance/shared space where the staff models the behaviour they want their students to follow. The office is in the open space, where most meetings are. To further establish the fairness all staff and students have lockers, located in the same area of the school.

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In the center area there is a big display screen consisting of 12 TV monitors connected together and this really sets the tone when you walk into the school. When we continued to walk past the 12 monitors we came to a room called the ‘Virtual 3D theatre’ where, among other things, the theatre group sets up it’s productions.

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We walk further and come to the library at the heart of the school and very visible. In this space the iPads are banned except as a part of a lesson. When the iPads first came the library turned into a game zone, so they don’t allow them in there anymore. When I talked to the students about that rule they claimed they didn’t use the library that much anyway…. weird 😉

After the tour we sat down with some students to discuss the school and got to ask them questions and had lunch afterwards. After lunch we learned about the iTunesU courses the school is running but their entire curriculum is now through iTunesU.

iTunes U looks like a series of textbooks but is actually the structure all the courses, resources for students and PD for staff on Fridays. Each semseter is divided into 17 weeks of 17 (3 hour) lessons and students can prepare before class, watch lectures and read content after class as well. Students who miss classes can find it on iTunesU and catch up.

The teachers use iTunes U for delivery, Showbie to give feedback and turn in and Dropbox to save to make sure everything is saved.

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Our talk went to going paperless and they claim they haven’t gone paperless completely because the tests are still done on paper so they have to include that in their teaching and learning. I was really happy they haven’t gone completely paperless since I spilled my tea all over the table in one of the sessions 🙂

Fridays are organized around personalized learning. Both in the students block and after that the staff has a 2 hour Professional Development session, with breakout sessions. Almost all the PD is done with in-house staff.

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My visit to Essa was really inspiring for me as a teacher to see how they structure their learning at Essa Academy and using technology like the iPad to do better. Essa Academy is truly a great school with commited staff and students and I would love to visit again in a few years to see the progress they will have made then.

Thank you for giving me a chance to visit and showing me a glimpse of what the future of education might look like.

Ingvi Hrannar Ómarsson.

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