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Interview: Utilising Google Tools to Enhance Digital Inclusion

We spoke to Jonny Wathen, CIO of the Wellspring Academy Trust about effectively engaging with pupils online, and successfully utilising technology to deliver an inclusive education experience, in the classroom and beyond.

Jonny discussed some of the key challenges the Trust have faced due to COVID-19, and how these have been overcome by using a range of Google tools. In this workshop style session, Jonny outlines how your school can use a vast array of these tools to help staff deliver a better remote teaching and learning offer and engage more effectively with pupils.

Challenging Times

As many education practitioners will resonate with, Jonny explained how difficult it has been to adapt online learning to fit a wide range of contexts during the COVID-19 school closure period. While there is an assumption with mainstream secondary and further education year groups that pupils will have an understanding of how to use online tools and be able to easily access these, providing user friendly tasks and platforms for primary age pupils has been more difficult.

Alongside this, ensuring accessibility for special school pupils takes on a different meaning, and staff have had to rethink methods of engagement. Those who attend alternative provision settings have also struggled with online learning as it typically isn’t a method that fits well with pupils’ learning needs, especially those with social, emotional and mental health difficulties. This is why the Trust places a significant emphasis on building human connections to help learning in these settings especially.

While Jonny praises the ability technology has to empower staff and pupils, he states that a blended approach is best overall, and the Trust’s digital journey is not about totally replacing traditional teaching approaches with online methods. By focusing on digital inclusion as the Trust has increased its engagement with and use of digital technology, staff have been able to connect, collaborate and communicate more effectively across 25 diverse academies, using G Suite to facilitate this, as well as to support learning inside and outside school.

While Jonny and colleagues at Wellspring worked hard to establish a digital platform to overcome their challenges, particularly in recent months, in response to school closures the Department for Education published a platform provisioning programme which is now available to offer more support for schools.

Building Online Communities

Jonny outlined how he’d set up a Google site as a way of sharing information between schools, in a way building a sense of community that was more difficult to do in person due to geography. Digital hubs and virtual conferences were created as a way of sharing best practice between subject leaders across different academies for example, which can be featured on the site, which Jonny explains further in the workshop.

To overcome issues around GDPR in relation to monitoring communications within and across academies, staff began using Google Chat which functions in the same way as other popular messaging platforms but is more secure.

Similarly, Google Currents, formally Google Plus, is used as a social media style platform to share communications frequently, including best practice documents or new announcements etc. The benefits of this include being able to access data on views and other forms of engagement with different types of posts, and being able to search by hashtags or specific people. It can act as your trust or school’s own social media site that is fully secure.

Being able to share resources and support each other so easily has helped staff adapt quickly to working and teaching from home, and as the G Suite is cloud based, its secure for everyone to log into on a personal or work device.

Teaching and Learning Remotely

Jonny explained how he set up another popular Google site called ConnectED where staff can upload videos and advice for each other to learn from and use, which he compared to what is being done on a country-wide scale with the Oak National Academy. A Google site also allows users to embed forms and quizzes for example, and so can really facilitate learning beyond the classroom.

As many educators likely already know, Google Classroom is perhaps the most useful tool overall to support remote learning, but for those wanting to better utilise this, Jonny highlighted a range of further resources. Teach From Anywhere hosts step-by-step video guides on this platform and its features, and further teacher-led videos are available via the Google YouTube page. In addition, this 40 ways to use G Suite in education guide offers fresh ideas for school leaders, teaching and support staff. A particular tool Jonny highlighted is goal setting, as a way of facilitating pupils to complete certain pieces of work.  

In addition, Jonny demonstrated how useful Google Sheets has been for the Trust, in particular making use of the action items feature when reviewing excel or word documents for example. These action points are auditable, so can be helpful in task management among senior leaders as well as between them and staff, as a digital to-do list can be created. But this can also be a way of moderating pupils’ work as a teacher, which could also be useful for exam boards to see.

Next Steps

For those seeking further support on their digital plans, Jonny highlighted the government-backed EdTech Demonstrator Programme, through which leading schools can offer support and guidance to peers who are earlier in their digital journeys, or looking to refresh how they engage with technology.

While reiterating that technology is about helping schools work better, not replacing the human element of education and relationship building, Jonny ended by urging schools to be thinking about their digital strategies over the summer, especially those who are still new to embracing technology. With blended learning set to remain a key element of curriculum delivery in coming months, and the potential for local or even national lockdowns due to the threat of a second spike of COVID-19, its more important than ever for schools to utilise technology to ensure they can engage effectively with every pupil, both in the classroom and beyond.


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