The Digital Sandpit


Below is the article that was featured in the ICT in Education Journal in 2011:

The Digital Sandpit: Exploring and Learning Through Technology

by Ben Gallagher

During 2010 I decided to apply for an Innovating with Technology Grant. Student engagement at the school had been down, student absences were up and I found the number of students arriving 10 to 20 minutes into the day was very high. We are in a time where our students are surrounded by technology, they are using the latest technology at home and then coming to school and taking a step back in the way technology is used. We asked the students what they wanted and the Student Voice was overwhelming in favour of introducing new technology to our school. So I developed The Digital Sandpit.

As an educator, it has always been a personal goal of mine to provide my students with an education that is better suited to our current times. I grew up in the early stages of the Digital Age, I had a computer in my primary classroom…we were allowed to play Commander Keen on it during a wet day timetable, but we all had to take turns of course. During Secondary School, I think about year 8 or 9, we were introduced to the wonderful creation, the internet! Whilst the 14bps was slow, you could be patient because it was so new and exciting. As I grew up, the technology increased rapidly, but the use of the technology didn’t really move with it, in fact I didn’t get to do anything meaningful with computers until about year 11. As I progressed through my University studies and completed my rounds I noticed that whilst the technology available had increased markedly again, it was still being used in the same way and very reluctantly at that. I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to end up this same way.

Jump forward to 2010, through our Attitudes to School Survey, we identified that the student motivation was quite low, as was their connectedness to school. Our student absence rate was quite high and the number of students arriving 20-30 minutes late was averaging about 20 per week.  I also identified that my grades number knowledge, (times tables) was quite low. We held a student forum to find out why their motivation was so low and they wanted to use technology more in the classroom. I’d been teaching for 7 years and whilst I felt that I integrated computers into my class very well, there was a lot of new technologies out there that I wanted to use, such as iPods, and after reading about a Nintendo DSi trial in Ireland, I was super keen to get my hands on some. Thankfully, early in the year I was made aware of the Innovating with Technology grant for 1:1 hand held devices and after applying for the grant I was able to purchase 12 Nintendo DS1s, 12 iPod touches, a Wii and many games, it was exciting times ahead.

The initial idea for the Digital Sandpit, a digital immersion session, first came into my mind a few years prior to this, but I wasn’t able to get it off the ground. However, the rapid increases in technology and the IWT Grant made it possible for me to implement my idea in 2010. With the support of my Principal and Staff I decided to start the Digital Sandpit at 8:50, 10 minutes before the schools start time and run it to 9:10, a 20 minute activity that only takes 10 minutes out of the regular school day.  The sessions originally consisted of 4 rotations, Nintendo DSi, iPod, Nintendo Wii and Laptops. All of the activities were carefully selected and had educational underpinnings, such as the Brain Training and Math Training games on the DSi, Racing on Mario Kart and ordering each other’s times from fastest to slowest and many more.

The results started showing immediately, late arrivals disappeared almost instantly. The fact that they missed out if they arrived too late to class had students arriving 20 minutes early rather than 20 minutes late. Students, not wanting to be beaten on the Maths Training competitions were going home and practicing their time tables so they could be more competitive and their times dropped rapidly, this improvement also transferred into their regular maths sessions. Attendance was also a noticeable improver; those usual suspects having a day off because they felt like were now at school every day! My research continued throughout the year and it yielded some amazing results.

Formal Research Results:

  • Late arrivals down from an average of 20 per week, to none.
  • Class Attendance up from 92% to 97%
  • Students’ time table knowledge increased from 72% to 85% across the space of a term.

The Digital Sandpit has been very well received by all members of the school community. It is most noticeable with the students, they are starting the day with a far more positive attitude, they’re ready to learn and they are actually attending school at a much better rate. Their confidence in maths is much higher and they have a far better knowledge of their times tables. The improvement in the students’ attitudes has also been noticed by their parents, as I have had a number of them speak to me about their child’s improvement in attitude and how much they want to be at school on time. My work colleagues have also noticed the improvements, they are often boring the equipment for use in their own rooms, the 1/2 grades using them in their investigations for music was a highlight. It has also provided me with opportunities to grow my Professional Learning Network, I have presented The Digital Sandpit at many conferences and have had many schools visit to discuss with the students and myself about how they can implement the program at their school.

The success that the program has seen has allowed us to grow it further this year, new purchases have seen us add 5 iPads, an XBOX 360 with Kinect and heaps of games and apps. My work partner, Fairlie Pritchard and I have worked hard to implement all of the aspects of the Digital Sandpit into other parts of our day.

  • Wii/XBOX – Possibly the favourite ones for students to use they don’t have to be used just for fun. Games llike Dance Central and Guitar Hero have proven to be excellent inspiration for writing activities and given reluctant writers the motivation to write. I have also used Mario Kart for many different activities, such as looking at averages and graphs to track design and even writing activities.
  • Nintendo DSi – We use our DSis a lot during maths, featuring the Maths and Brain training games. We have interactive books, which the students can read during reading and then write reviews about and we also use Picto-chat in writing.
  • iPad/iPod – These are used as research tools on the internet but also through videos, we often put videos on the iPods for students to watch to get information and ideas from. We have apps that are specific to Reading, Writing and Maths. Students use them a lot during our investigation subject, iLearning and even more during our CEQ-ALL sessions, a session that is Student-Directed. We have had students create their own entire original songs using Garage Band.
  • Laptops – We use our laptops in every subject and not just to type up our work. Obviously we use them a lot for research and our students all have blogs where they can publish their work. We use many web 2.0 apps such as Wordle and Tagxedo. Plus Spellodrome and Mathletics, excellent online programs that the students can also use at home.

In 2011, the Digital Sandpit has continued to be a raging success with a new group of students and we are looking to spread it throughout the rest of our school. Fairlie and I have also again been successful in applying for an IWT grant, based on Game Development, which will feature during the Digital Sandpit and also integrated through the rest of our activities.

I am extremely proud of the success that the Digital Sandpit has seen and feel that I am currently continuing to achieve my goal of providing an education better fit for the times. We are currently in the middle of a shift in education, Game-Based Learning is becoming more prominent, the integration of technology is being encouraged far more and the push for Student-Directed Learning and Student Voice is coming. I am trialling a group of 5 students this semester that are fully directing their own learning, I feel that this is the future of education and I am of the opinion, why wait? I want to make the future of education present in my classroom now. After all, you should never be afraid to close your eyes and dream just be sure to open your eyes and realise it.

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