The education and teaching sector is undergoing a rapid transformation, with the rise of digitalisation and technological advances continually influencing, challenging and establishing new instructional teaching methods. This is evident in schools and educational establishments worldwide, where educators regularly discover how developing technologies can revolutionise the way students learn, interact and communicate. Since the late 1990s, Education Technology Director Bradley Arnold has been working to support the integration of technology and education, and has been responsible for educating both teachers and students in utilising new and existing resources whilst adapting new methodologies.
Khartoum International Community School (KICS) is placing an increased focus on utilising such technologies to support student development, alongside traditional teaching methods. Situated in Sudan, with approximately 400 students from reception (age three) up to year 13 (age 18), the private school is highly diverse, with students from over 50 countries studying alongside Sudanese students. The school continually looks for new ways to enhance student learning, and has institutionalised blended learning, which has provided a multitude of benefits for students.
Arnold’s development of blended learning focusses on the advantages of integrated technology and experiences, which then maximises learning opportunities for students. His passion for blended learning is immediately clear, explaining that “the possibility for students to interact with others, share with one another, go out and ask questions and follow up on questions and enquire – these possibilities have exploded.”
However, he acknowledges that embedding blended learning within teaching and education at KICS has not been without its challenges, as not all were originally welcoming of such a significant shift from traditional learning methods. “It became difficult for teachers to get on board because students were sharing with people - not necessarily in the classroom - and then finding and developing information which teachers possibly can’t control,” he says. This has led to many teachers redefining their role within this new digital world.
Arnold has been behind the drive to integrate a dynamic learning environment at KICS, where individuals are empowered to take advantages of interactive possibilities. He adds with a chuckle, “It is difficult for teachers sometimes to grasp the possibilities, but students can usually grasp these very quickly.” Students are encouraged to develop deep meaningful connections in the classroom while using mobile technologies and different internet tools to gain access to centres of knowledge around the world.
To embed this blended learning practice further, the school operates an evolving online classroom environment, KICS Learns, which is accessible by students, teachers and parents. Parental involvement is vital within blended learning, where parents are asked to participate in their children’s digital classrooms, engaging in assignments, resources, collaborations and feedback. This promotes the school’s anytime, anywhere learning vision.
To support this anytime, anywhere learning further, all students from years 3-11 are provided an iPad, which belongs to the student until they leave the school. Students in the Infants section up to Year 2 share classroom sets of iPads, and students in Years 12 and 13 each are given a laptop computer. Arnold explains that if students have a question, they can go online and see what the other students have said about a particular subject, as well as see feedback from teachers. Arnold provides an example of this online learning and its advantages, stating: “I’ll often record students in my class when showing a presentation, or when students are having a debate, and this is then uploaded to our private KICS YouTube account.” This video is then embedded in the course KICS Learns page. It helps students retain lessons which are taught in class, enabling them to look back, develop new understandings, and make connections to other subjects.
Social media presence
KICS encourages students to utilise social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, where ideas are routinely posted or work uploaded. Arnold believes this to be highly advantageous, explaining that “students will always write openly and freely on these platforms, but they won’t always use language that is proper academic language.” However, he adds, “we’re not worrying about sentence format here; it’s more about getting ideas out and making connections.” Such platforms also enable students to connect with classes in other countries within independent and group learning, where Shakespeare can be discussed on Facebook, or Hamlet can be researched on Twitter, and students can see what is being said about these topics by students and academics around the world. Arnold adds, “The students get a wealth of knowledge which isn’t dry textbook language – students are comparing and contrasting, and this helps get them comfortable with various concepts and ideas.” This prepares students for assessments and exams and enables them to put across the messages or meanings they wish to express. Such an environment should encourage students to develop their thinking patterns and problem solving abilities.
However, Arnold is acutely aware that internet and digital security is KICS largest concern with regards to social media, and is also an ongoing concern for parents. Consequently, KICS has separate media accounts for each year level and subject, and children under 13 years are not permitted to use personal accounts, only engaging with social media under teacher supervision. Classes for these students typically use social media tools available in the closed KICS Learns environment.
At KICS, teachers are expected to acquire certain technical skills, but are also fully supported in order to ensure blended learning is fully embedded. Teachers can enter the “Blended Learning for Teachers” course page in KICS Learns to access a repository of resources, support materials, as well as documented teacher experiences. Furthermore, teachers can also participate in weekly Learning Labs and Café 21, which Arnold compares to an Apple Store and genius bar. This scheme enables teachers to discuss new ideas or topics in education and gain further support. Whilst the Learning Lab and Café 21 are not compulsory for teachers, Arnold highlights that these have become highly appreciated teacher professional development opportunities.
The role of the teacher is being further developed at KICS. During the school year teachers participate in blended learning environment reviews and self-evaluations. These are based on the 7-Traits of Blended Learning framework that Arnold helped write and develop while at KICS. Teachers are encouraged to look at how their learning environments are organised; use resources, encourage exchanges, provide formative feedback, encourage social behaviours, utilise communication channels and promote active learning engagement. “By asking teachers to look at the environment in this manner we will provide them the ability for constructive and professional conversations,” adds Arnold. “It is not a teacher evaluation as such, but a tool of reflection; a framework to allow teachers to look at where they are on this continuum of potential.” Doing this helps enable KICS faculty to see how the digital environment can be designed to maximize learning opportunities and redefine the learning experience.
Despite such transformations, KICS has faced a number of internal and external challenges. Located in Sudan, the school has consequently been restricted by US economic sanctions. Nonetheless, KICS has come a long way, and Arnold is proud of how the institutionalisation of blended learning has provided a multitude of benefits and has put the focus solely back on student learning and enabled teachers to support and enhance student education. “It is a way of learning which I truly believe is unique. There are schools that are doing similar things, but they are few and far between.” KICS is also in regular contact with other international schools across Africa, in addition to Dubai, India and Asia, who are all striving to implement blended learning and embrace new teaching methods.
At the end of President Barack Obama’s term, sanctions were lifted; however, this is currently under a six-month review, so there has yet been no change in how the school conducts its business.
Looking to the future
With the majority of students attending good universities, Arnold succinctly concludes: “We don’t just want them to just go to good universities, we want them to star in those universities. We also want that university to look back at our school and recognise that we produce real learners who are active contributors.” With supportive leadership, both Arnold and the owners of KICS have an established a vision for learning which has enabled students to become increasingly empowered and creative. Humbled by his experience at KICS, he adds: “I feel very privileged to work here – I’m just so proud of this school”, which puts the student learning experience first, and will continue to deliver great education for the ongoing future.