The rise of smarter platforms in education: How online schools are switching to tools designed for education

Are video conferencing systems like Zoom, Teams and Google Meet the right platforms for online learning?  So many schools continue to use them for live classroom delivery, of course, and do so very effectively.  But are some of the emerging platforms and new technologies able to enhance lessons even further and support teachers to direct their time and attention more effectively?

In this blog, our Head of Online Education, Matt James takes a look at the rise of new education technology in digital classrooms.

Video conferencing systems, originally designed for business use, found a new and unexpected role during the pandemic when educators swiftly transitioned their lessons online. Now, innovative and forward-thinking Cambridge online schools are exploring tools and platforms specifically tailored to their needs, as they look for more effective approaches to online education.

It’s not only the choice of technology which matters, of course, but also the planning of lesson activities. We used to tell teachers to avoid ‘chalk and talk’ in the classroom but sometimes a Zoom or Teams lesson can feel just like that – PowerPoint slides galore, too much ‘teacher talk time’ and limited meaningful interactions with students over voice or online chat. But even if online schools stick to video conferencing systems, they can still enhance learner engagement greatly with a slightly more creative approach.

So what teaching tools are Cambridge online schools using?

We work with a range of online schools and they have told us about their experiences of using different systems.

The Infinite Wisdom School has had much success with Kami, which allows the online teacher to monitor students as they complete work, the equivalent of looking over their shoulder in the physical classroom. Feedback for students can be left via voice or video.

Similarly, Dr Frost Maths, used by Bruton Lloyd Online School, allows the solving of maths equations to be monitored in real time while the teacher observes a dashboard of which questions the students are answering correctly, to best know where to focus their teaching efforts and input.

Some online schools are experimenting with virtual reality too, although headsets can be expensive so providing equality of access is a challenge. However, the Infinite Wisdom School has found a solution to this. They use a web-based VR platform Eduverse which provides an immersive experience for students in subjects like science, history, geography and literature.  They describe this as a ‘game-changer’ for interactivity and have noticed that students are significantly more confident in lessons and more likely to take risks as virtual avatars than they would be in real life.

Over 4000 Cambridge teachers are now using our Cambridge Teaching Tools every month – these are very simple in design but greatly improve interaction in lesson openers, reviews of understanding, or can be used to simply ‘change gear’ in a lesson.

Other Cambridge online schools are going further and moving away from Zoom, Teams or Google Meet entirely. Newer platforms, purpose-built for educational purposes, leverage data analytics and AI to enhance teacher effectiveness rather than replacing them.

Engageli allows the teacher to group students in visual ‘tables’ instead of sending them to invisible breakout rooms. The interface clearly shows who is contributing where and who needs support. The open-source platform Big Blue Button has a similar approach to breakout rooms, additionally allowing work and chat from each room to be brought back into the main classroom for sharing with the rest of the group. The platform also integrates with a school’s Learning Management System (LMS) platform so at the start of a lesson a teacher can easily see which assignments have been submitted and can follow-up with students on any missing work.

Big Blue Button also uses AI tools to automatically create polls and quizzes based on lesson content at different levels of difficulty, which can be used within the lessons or scheduled to be sent later. Both platforms have data analytics dashboards which not only show which students are in the lesson but display the frequency of learners’ responses to questions, talk time and number of times they put their hands up. Until recently, there were uncertainties about a teacher’s ability to effectively gauge student engagement if cameras were turned off. However, with the aid of this type of analytics, teachers now obtain a more comprehensive understanding of student engagement beyond what audio and video alone can provide.

What do Cambridge online schools have to say?

Minerva’s Virtual Academy is one Cambridge online school which has made the leap from Google Meet to Big Blue Button. After just a few months of adoption of the new platform, comments from Headmaster Lawrence Tubb are a real testament to the benefits of online schools adopting tools and platforms designed from the outset with effective learning in mind:

“We have seen students who would have been reluctant to contribute if the only options were raising hand, speaking or typing in public chat, now taking part more in lessons.

The impact on their learning has been really positive as they are applying their skills more frequently, and teachers have more data with which to assess and provide guidance.”

Find out more about our approach to online education

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Matt James
By Matt James

Matt James has over 20 years' experience of working with schools and educational organisations around the world, developing strategy, implementing change, developing and delivering products which positively impact teaching and learning. After an early career in radio broadcasting, he taught English, Media and Film Studies in the UK and has held leadership roles at the International Baccalaureate, Fieldwork Education as well as Cambridge University Press & Assessment, where he has led work on professional development, teacher support and assessment. In his current role as Head of Online Education, he oversees Cambridge International's work with online schools.

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