The ideal digital school would have a virtual learning environment, interactive whiteboards, high-speed internet access, mobile learning devices with response software and learning apps, e-books, educational games and online assessment and free high-quality material from the internet.

A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), similar to Learning Management System (LMS) or Learning Platform.

The basic content on the VLE would include syllabus, lesson plans, and resource materials like pictures, videos and graphics. Students can be set homework, use on-line testing and self-assessment material, and teachers and students will have records of test results. Homework can be submitted online so teachers can see the status of every student’s work in real time and parents will have access to their child’s targets by subject via online reporting.

It is also a social space where students and teacher can interact through threaded discussions and collaborate on projects. The success of Facebook underlines the fact that students really like the opportunity for social interaction as they learn.

A great example of a VLE is the EduScience platform in Poland, funded by the EU. It’s designed to facilitate the sharing of  best practice in science and maths teaching, to reduce teacher preparation time and to help teachers deliver inspiring lessons by making visually exciting resources instantly available. The programme also includes learning and thinking skills books for both teachers and students that I have created, to help ensure that students can take full advantage of the opportunities for independent learning.

Interactive Whiteboards

The evidence is clear – they increase the pace of the lesson, improve the understanding of complex concepts and can significantly reduce the time taken for students to cover the curriculum with understanding, especially for lower-ability students.

The latest IWBs have built-in software for maths including 3D geometry, the ability to record lessons and an automatic reminder of key points in future lessons to achieve the pattern of ‘spaced repetition’ that we know greatly improves memrorisation of material.

High speed internet access

Much of the software can be available online and updated continuously. Cloud programs make it easier to offer the same material in cases where students and teachers may have a variety of hardware – eg computers, netbooks and tablets/iPads.

Mobile learning devices, particularly tablet computers  

They are light, with automatic file-save, are easy to read, intuitive, and notes, references and handouts are all in one place. They have internet access and the evidence is that students love using them and feel a strong sense of ownership and care.

The latest have built in response software so that teachers can pose questions and students can respond in real time. This enables the teacher to immediately see the level of understanding at the class level and at the level of each individual student.

If a number of students answer a question incorrectly, the group can be asked to stop the lesson, discuss the question and its topic among themselves, and then re-answer the question. This active peer-to-peer type of learning has a proven positive effect on attainment. In addition, responses by individual students are automatically recorded for analysis and follow-up action by the teacher.

This means that teachers can quickly monitor who has grasped the key concepts  in time to ensure that every student has mastered the content before the class moves on to a new topic. In a ‘mastery’ or ‘competence’ based system, failure or poor performance may be an initial part of student’s learning curve, but it is not a final outcome. Competency or mastery based learning is fundamental to personalising learning and improved attainment – and a key advantage of digital technology.

There are an ever-increasing number of learning apps – applications to make learning easier or more motivating – especially that enable collaboration between students.

For example, through Google-docs students can work collaboratively on a document and the teacher can monitor progress remotely and give feedback that is quick and constant.  Maptini enables a class to create a collaborative Mind Map in real time.  Reeldirector  enables students to create and upload podcasts.

The provision of tablets or laptops to every student is often known as a 1:1 initiative and helps ‘level the playing field’ among students with  different economic family backgrounds. But the true objective is to provide personalised learning opportunities that match the learning needs and pace of each individual student and develop higher-order thinking skills.

This differentiation has always been the objective of the best teachers – but has involved much laborious preparation time. Now technology – combined with training students to plan and assess the quality of their own learning – permits true personalisation.

Blended Learning

A lot of the learning in a Digital School will be ‘blended learning’ where the basic information is delivered to students individually over an intranet or the internet and then ‘activated’ and enriched in class and through group work. (This is the exact model I used when designing the Colin Rose Institute Language Courses, which reduce the costs of language learning while simultaneously greatly increasing the speed at which a foreign language is learned.)

In this blended model of learning, when students are working on an assignment and the teacher notices a group of students who are struggling with the same concept, she may automatically organise these students into a tutorial group. Then she might conduct mini-lectures with that group and bring in other students who have already mastered the concept for peer-to-peer teaching.

Students therefore help each other learn instead of relying on the teacher as the sole disseminator of knowledge. If students have questions, the teacher’s job isn’t simply to give answers, but to show them how to find those answers.

The blended model should not be a ‘sometimes’ learning strategy, but a permanent feature of a 21st century school.

E-books and educational e-games

The digital school would use e-books which are cheaper and which can be continuously updated. Some authorities calculate that the savings on books could pay for the digital hardware and infrastructure long-term. But be wary of publishers who merely transfer their paper textbooks over to a PDF and say, ‘See, we have an e-book!’ E-books should have animations and hyper-links.

A further feature and benefit is the availability of educational games that make learning and testing fun eg. for maths, and virtual reality demonstrations eg. of atomic structures and elements. Websites like LittleBigPlanet and Minecraft point the way.

Digital Assessments

Assessment would increasingly be based on portfolios and digital essays which incorporate images, audio, and video into a traditional research paper, on special projects and experiments — real accomplishments, not abstract test scores. And at the end of the year, students have archives of their work that they can review to see their progress.

When a student’s writing becomes public on their own website in an LMS, it ceases to be an assignment they just hand in for the teacher – they realise that anybody could be reading this, and it really needs to look good!

Online video lectures and courses

Finally a digital school would take full advantage of the wealth of free high quality video lectures and courses available on almost every school and higher education subject. Sites like:

  • Khan Academy, founded by visionary Sal Khan and which now hosts more than 2,300 videos.
  • Academic Earth, which has a huge selection of lectures from top universities.
  • Discovery Channel, which has thousands of videos that the students have approval to download into video-editing software and use to meet the multimedia requirements of their presentations.