Wick and the surrounding towns—whose primary schools feed students into the High school—are relatively remote. Inverness, the nearest large city, is about two and a half hours away by car. Educators are acutely aware of the need to equip students with skills that are attractive to employers; hopefully teachers can also inspire students to remain in the region after leaving school.
“A lot of our young people leave as soon as they’re done with school—the cities are a bigger draw,” says Chris Aitken, computing science teacher at Wick High School and himself a former student there. He believes local schools can help to reverse this trend not only by preparing students well, but also by seeking opportunities to showcase students’ skills to local employers. Hands-on technology experience is a way to provide students with the skills needed for new economy jobs, Aitken says.
Toward this goal, the high school adopted G Suite for Education in 2014. However, students could only work in G Suite while in the school’s two information communication technology (ICT) labs outfitted with desktop computers. “We never had much flexibility,” Aitken says. “To teach a class with computers meant booking the ICT room, shuffling everyone there and performing setups. It was very inefficient.”
In his own computer science class, Aitken discovered other limitations. Physical computing, or combining hardware with coding, plays a key role in his teaching. However, to use Raspberry Pi , his preferred device for teaching basic coding and programming, he had to gather a keyboard and mouse for each one, a process that cut into actual instructional time.
In addition, since the school’s desktop computers were centrally managed, teachers couldn’t easily request or install software based on their classwork. They had to request such tools and then wait for approval.
“If you write a curriculum on a coding language like Python but you can’t install it, it constrains your teaching,” Aitken says. “A teacher may want to experiment but then have to wait two months for it. You lose the impact and the drive to teach something in that moment. We spent a lot of time designing workarounds.”
The school’s 2014 adoption of G Suite was an intelligent first step toward greater choice and flexibility, but it was Google Classroom and Chromebooks that made the entire package indispensable and ubiquitous throughout the school.
“Classroom connected everything for us,” Aitken says. “From the moment it went live, our teachers embraced it fervently, on their own, without any formal implementation plan.”
Classroom has had a keen effect on how pupils and teachers communicate about lessons. The process used to be paper-based, with students completing assignments and then waiting for teachers’ feedback. Today, that collaboration happens within Classroom in real time. “Pupils these days expect everything to happen quickly,” says Aitken, “With Classroom, we can operate at that pace in how we grade papers and give or receive feedback, all while requiring less work from teachers.”
Along with other schools in The Highland Council, Wick High School adopted a 1:1 Chromebook program in 2018. “The four years of G Suite paved the way for our Chromebooks,” says Aitken. “They act as an extension of the Chrome browser, making everything we do easier and more accessible.”
Instead of limiting digital learning to ICT labs, pupils can work from anywhere. “They can share lessons with other students, or do homework on the bus using a mobile phone,” Aitken says. “It’s a very different way of learning and working, and these best practices are spreading through the Highlands.”
Teaching pupils how to apply digital skills
Aitken is passionate about teaching digital skills, and he’s also devoted to showing students how they can do good with technology. Every year, he uses lessons plans from the UK’s Apps for Good program, which helps students build confidence in tech skills with a focus on solving a problem in society, from managing cattle passports to reducing waste going to landfill.
In the 2019 spring term, Aitken’s students decided to tackle the problem of cyclist safety on the ‘North Coast 500’ tourist route, which winds around the Highlands’ coastline; increased traffic and poor visibility has resulted in many cyclist accidents and injuries. Aitken and his students decided to outfit a bicycle with AdaFruit LED light strips, programmed by the Raspberry Pi devices to change colour as a cyclist braked, gained speed or indicated turns.
“The issue was that we'd have to have a keyboard and mouse attached to the Pi in order to change the code,” Aitken says. He found a Chrome extension for Terminus, an interface that allowed them to use the SSH protocol that allows Chromebooks to connect the Raspberry Pi devices remotely without the need for screens or keyboards. While programming the lights, pupils could see the bike’s speed on their Chromebooks; they could also use the VNC Viewer for Chrome to view the Raspberry Pi’s desktop.
Students brought the ‘Light Bike’ to Birmingham’s science and math Big Bang Fair in March 2019, where 1,500 people tested it out and saw the changing light in action.
“We've now got much more freedom and flexibility to use Raspberry Pi devices for physical computing, without the added stress of setting up devices,” Aitken says.
Showcasing pupils’ digital skills with the community
The Light Bike project created a good deal of interest in the Wick High School community; in fact, there’s even talk of starting an inventors’ club, where locals can suggest problems that students can solve with technology. Aitken believes this is just the sort of thing that can alert the Highlands’ technology businesses to the talent in the community.
“I’m hoping we can create links between employers and schools to establish a local talent pipeline,” Aitken says. “The projects like Light Bike give a face to students in front of employers. This means that students have the opportunity to stay local after they leave school and look at other qualification models such as Foundation Apprenticeships..”
Tools like G Suite, Classroom and Chromebooks are helping students to see that Wick can be a part of the global economy. “The possibilities of increased connectivity and remote working allow kids to consider broad horizons, yet stay local,” Aitken says.
Inspiring teachers to let students choose how they want to learn
With Chromebooks, G Suite for Education and Google Classroom, teachers have the ability to create innovative lessons like the Light Bike project, according to Aitken.
“In Scotland’s schools, teaching is supposed to be driven partly by pupil input, The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence requires the teaching model to consider pupil choice and relevance,” says Aitken. “We look for opportunities to go in directions that students want to take, instead of saying, ‘This is the curriculum path you must stay on.’ But in the past, we haven’t had the flexibility to put this into practice.”
The movement away from inflexible and centrally managed computer labs and toward cloud tools and devices for every student has opened doors to new teaching approaches. Now, if teachers discover apps they want to try out in class, less time and far fewer steps are needed.
“Our teachers have been quite empowered by G Suite and Chromebooks, and many are now confident enough to experiment with the tools,” says Aitken. “There’s a lack of fear—they’re not afraid to experiment.”
“Our teachers have been quite empowered by G Suite and Chromebooks, and many are now confident enough to try the tools. There’s a lack of fear—they’re not afraid to experiment.”Chris Aitken, Computing Science Teacher, Wick High School
What they wanted to do
- Move away from inflexible information communication technology (ICT) labs
- Make it easier to use physical computing tools
- Help students build digital skills attractive to local employers
What they did
- Adopted G Suite and Google Classroom
- Achieved 1:1 Chromebook program
- Used Chromebooks to enhance physical computing projects
What they accomplished
- Gave pupils hands-on experience with coding and programming
- Inspired pupils to tackle digital projects relevant in their community
- Empowered teachers to experiment with using technology in lessons