Journeying with Abdul Chohan

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a seminar where I listened to (and engaged with) Abdul Chohan speaking about his school in England, Essa Academy This is the second time that I had had a chance to be inspired by his story.
A metamorphosis occurred which saw the school achieve substantial (meteoric) improvement in academic outcomes for its students.
There were clearly a number of contributing factors which enabled this transformation. The solution which transformed Abdul’s school was unique and needed to be unique. There was, however, a central theme. Key to the school’s journey was the need to change belief. Abdul asserted that
“One person with belief is better than 99 with interest.”
All participants and stakeholders needed to be a infused with belief. Central to this was the belief that

“ALL will succeed.” And “Cognition is not fixed.”

In their model technology was a key platform for exchange of information etc between students and teachers. Teachers and students needed to believe that this technology was simple and reliable for adoption to occur.
Their initial implementation (2008) involved supplying iPods to all students. It involved providing a robust internet and wireless capability. Their internet was enabled through a fibre connection offering 100 Mbps up and 100 Mbps down and the wireless a state of the art Meru network The iPods offered both simplicity and reliability and the apps, many of which were free, empowered the students and teachers. Two mandatory applications were used for delivery and for response. iTunes U was required to be used by all teachers to deliver content and (the paid version of) Showbie was used as a key response platform by both students and teachers. These worked well together and provided a simple, reliable exchange between teacher and student. One of the immediate by-products of the adoption of this communication loop was a huge reduction in paper costs.

Teachers were also supported with professional development. The school innovated their approach by removing “pupil free days” and then incorporating these hours into regular PD sessions for all teachers during the normal school week. This meant that teachers’ out of hours time wasn’t impacted and that they could meet on a weekly basis to collaborate, share and learn. Once again this supported the teachers belief in their capacity and capability to improve student outcomes and engage with technology tools.

What Abdul was keen to stress was that their journey was about the pedagogy. There plan wasn’t about technology or about changing spaces. Their plan was about the pedagogy and about improving outcomes for ALL the students, about personalising the learning to suit student needs. It was about creating rich learning opportunities which aimed to leverage the SAMR Model transform. The leadership would formulate strategy and then enlist the support of players to make it happen. In the case of iTunes U, by example, a group of teachers and leaders across the school were recruited to develop programs, become expert, become advocates and infuse across the school. The technology was just the vehicle which was, at the bare bones, simple and reliable making adoption easy.

The parents and the community in general were an important part of the journey. The school worked hard to form relationships with the parents and community. They used food, which is often so culturally important, to bring their community together so that they could deliver messages, educate, inform. Parents too needed to believe and be invested in the vision.

Where To Next?


At this time we are solidly committed to our 1:1 iPad Program. We have opted for a school owned iPad program. In June /July we will renew a batch of about 100 iPads.

We have been using iPad 2s which have been very robust and slick. Certainly the students have found this form factor very portable and easy to use. The iPad 2 is now discontinued. We are confronted with three replacement options – the iPad Mini, the iPad 4 (Retina Display) and the iPad Air. I have a clear favourite. The iPad Air (which I have been using for about a month) is exquisite.

The Air has the Retina Display, a great fast processor, a good camera and a slim light weight form. This combined with the Apple DNA make the Air ideal as a mobile device. The Mini seems too small for continuous work and the 4 feels too big. So the Air seems “just right”….except for one thing….the price. As an individual device for myself the price is reasonable, but when we are looking to buy 100 now, and probably another 200 at the end of the year suddenly the cost balloons.

Our second choice is the 4 which is also a great device with Retina Display, a fast processor (not quite as good as the Air) and a good camera. The form of the 4 is bigger and heavier than the Air (it is very similar to the iPad 2, which has served us well). The cost difference between the 4 and the Air (in Australia) is about $140. This means that if we end up buying 300 iPad 4s, during the course of the year, we would spend much less than if we bought the iPad Air. At the end of the day I can’t justify the cost for a slightly slimmer, lighter iPad Air. The iPad 4 is the logical choice for us.

Device Hubs
At the start of our school year we purchased some MacBook Airs and a few Dell laptops running Windows. Using these we created a couple of hubs where the children can access devices anytime. We did this because we recognised that variety is the norm in the real world. While all children are equipped with a personal device (an iPad) sometimes they might prefer to use something different. Sometimes the iPad, while very versatile, isn’t the perfect tool for the job. Also we need to enable our students to be capable irrespective of the device available in their real world experience. These hubs are being used extensively. All the devices are instantly ready to go and are reliable. This is what iPad users expect because that’s what the iPad offers. Maintaining these device hubs to deliver reliably is essential. We will continue to update and provide new devices regularly. I must add here that we haven’t jumped aboard the Windows 8 band wagon yet. This I admit is my own bias. Windows 8 simply feels weird to me. It’s a bit like android in contrast with iOS. Anyway I suppose in our quest towards variety we should add these also.
Importantly our economy in selecting the iPad 4 should enable the provision and maintenance of devices for our hubs.

The Cloud
The iPad has certainly impacted the way we work and a local network is limiting. We are currently using a variety of different cloud services. The recent arrival of Office apps from Microsoft opens possibilities further as they interact with Office 365 which is in The Cloud. I am not sure that the Microsoft offering is the way to go. It is quite expensive even when priced for education and seems limited to the Microsoft Office platform only. We already have comparable capabilities via Apple’s suite of apps which can also interact in The Cloud and Google Apps for Education which is also free and Cloud based.

For us I suppose being able to deliver and access content, to store, communicate and collaborate anywhere anytime, in a streamlined way, is what we are seeking. We are using Edmodo, Evernote, iTunes U, Dropbox, Apple Cloud, YouTube, Socrative, Google etc. All this seems a bit clumsy. You will notice that all of these are free services. I am not sure that any of the paid options offer the streamlined service that I would like. About a year ago I attended a session about a Cloud service called “Stile” which seems to work brilliantly on any device as it is browser based. It also interacts well with any content and with apps on an iPad. This seemed to offer a good solution at a price. We are investigating this further. Another idea, suggested by one of our teachers, is in beta at the moment, Which is a different sort of concept, but might be worth a look.
We are also looking at storage options such as and
Remote Desktop access is another initiative being pursued at a local level.

We are looking closely at learning spaces. Over the last 12 months we have visited a number of schools that have innovated their learning spaces. We have found that our needs are changing rapidly and that rigid learning spaces aren’t able to deliver adequately. We are feeling boxed in. What is needed are spaces which are versatile and adaptable. We need spaces where students and teachers are excited to be in. Spaces which can be traditional, open plan, collaborative. Spaces which are rich with opportunity.

Learning from others who have innovated their spaces has been our first step after recognising the need. Our own process is in advanced infancy. We are in discussion with designers and architects and trying to articulate our vision and needs. This will provide a Master plan for our development over the next few years. We are also keen to start to experiment with alternative furniture to see what works and what doesn’t. We are keen to see some of our existing spaces change and be used differently. Essentially embarking on a Lean process

Teacher Capability
There are many facets to our professional development initiatives underway at this time. We are running mentoring programs, upskilling teachers technical skills, enabling teachers with the new National Curriculum, developing pedagogy through Visible Thinking and by opening our classroom practice for discussion.
In many cases teachers are boxed in schools a bit like they are boxed in classrooms. This is limiting especially when we are seeing the need for change. There is a clear need to keep evolving teachers. Here it is partly about the technology, but really it is mainly about pedagogy. We should send teachers to conferences such as Edutech regularly. These sorts of experiences are really rich both in terms of content and as a way of engaging in discussion with educators from diverse backgrounds. Conferences can be transformative. There is a clear need for teachers to see the bigger picture, recognise opportunities and leverage these experiences for their own professional development and classroom practice. More than this it opens possibilities to grow and transform schools.

Parents / Community – Awareness
It is important to bring the larger school community with us on our journey regarding the employment of technology in classrooms, sometimes we get push back from parents. Clearly change is occurring rapidly and for many this can be hard to keep up with. I suppose I am so immersed in a learning culture which is infused with technology it seems natural. Clearly using technology in the school situation as a “babysitter” is inappropriate and undermines the use of technology as an educational tool. Clearly too the implementation of a responsible usage agreement with students is important. Along side these there needs for a Cyber Awareness initiative which educates students about safety and responsible social behaviour. We are also targeting parents because clearly much online behaviour occurs at home. We are running ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority) cyber safety sessions for parents, teachers and students later in the year.

It is important for parents to understand how technology is improving student outcomes. They need to see how substitution, augmentation, modification or redefinition are employed using technology to benefit their children. How workflows can enrich the learning experiences of their children. We are planning to run a number of parent workshops and events to showcase some of what we are doing during the year.

We now have a fibre link into our school. At this stage it is limited to 10 Mbps up and 10 down. This is currently teamed with a couple of ADSL lines. Ultimately streamlining this into a purely fibre connection would make sense as capacity gets cheaper. When we go this route in the future it will be important to consider redundancy. Some sort of alternative should be considered. Keeping an ADSL line could be one option, but this is still reliant on wire to a local exchange. If we relied solely on this we could still be vulnerable. A microwave link is a possibility, but expensive. We could consider a 4G capability which would at least provide some small capacity in the event of failure – once again expensive too. I expect that as we move forward other options will emerge or these alternatives will become cheaper.