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Homework in a Digital Age

Published on 10/07/15

Tricia Kelleher, Principal at the Stephen Perse Foundation, looks at how homework has changed in the digital age.

Homework – the lot of school children across the ages. In the minds of adults typically there is a correlation between the amount of homework set and the progress children are making. There is a comfort blanket of “busyness” and “doing” visible to everyone. Work is set, done, marked, returned, grade noted. Of course, I am caricaturing the homework process, but my concern is that because of pressures on schools from the Department for Education and Ofsted the purpose of homework becomes caught up with broader issues relating to school improvement and data. It certainly leaves little time to think about homework differently.

But imagine if you could? If you had additional tools which changed the dynamic of learning beyond the classroom? Tools which allowed you to refine measurable learning outcomes and promote the value of immeasurable learning? By adding the iPad to our teacher’s toolkit, homework has under gone just such a makeover in our school. Indeed, the boundaries between work during lessons and beyond have become blurred as the digital device unleashes possibilities previously unknown to teachers. Through exploring the opportunities offered by the connected world inhabited by our young people, teachers can channel their learning in a purposeful way.  I think it fair to say that our teachers are quietly and authoritatively deploying this digital tool in ways which are revolutionising how young people learn.  
Whilst the fundamental learning outcomes remain constant, the digital device allows the teacher to enrich their repertoire of tasks. It has been a revelation observing teachers explore the potential of the device as a tool for learning. In the Modern Languages Department the iPad has quite simply become a language laboratory. Listening and speaking, which conventionally happens in lessons because of the reliance on the teacher, now happen outside of lessons through the iPad. The advantage for the teacher is the written work can be under their supervision ensuring that mistakes do not become embedded and are corrected in real time rather than when the work is marked. This is a significant benefit for language teaching. And the range of Apps for language learning make a potentially dry exercise of learning grammar and vocabulary fun and more accessible to those who struggle with language learning.

Indeed, the digital device is a masterly tool for differentiated learning. It offers a platform which allows for a seamless feedback back loop between teacher and student. In the non-digital environment students typically complete a task, hand it in and a few days later get it back, with summative and formative assessment which the teacher hopes they look over, absorb and use to improve their next piece. This process is problematic in two ways. First, if a pupil has misunderstood the task set or found it too hard, often, by the time the teacher finds, out the student has already moved on – not only has the learning opportunity been lost, and that homework time been wasted, the student may well have had a thoroughly frustrating and demoralising experience. Secondly, students can be too prone to just look at their mark or the amount of red pen on the page to find out “how they did” and then stick the work in a folder, possibly never to be looked at again.

With Google Classroom, a digital dashboard on the teacher’s device, there’s the opportunity to add an extra step into the process allowing for differentiated guidance. By issuing the students with a mid-way deadline of when they have to ‘submit’ a first draft, whether that be the introductory paragraph, essay plan or their attempt at the first three questions of several, teachers can much more easily give feedback at a meaningful point in the homework process. By being able to see which students are having problems and exactly what those problems are, the teacher can clear up misunderstandings, provide extra scaffolding or even alter the parameters of the task for that student to avoid those issues, all remotely. The teacher can then simply ping it back to the student to complete, and because they are still working on the piece they are naturally going to engage much more with your feedback and make use of it to finish the work. Potentially this feedback loop is transformational for students’ learning.
But what about the textbook or worksheets in this digital world? In addition to Google Classroom we use iTunes U as a digital curation platform and iBooks Textbooks to create content tailored to the our students’ needs. So as long as students have access to these platforms they can draw on the resources anytime and anywhere. Those students that want to do more work outside of the lesson can always be stretched and extended through materials in iTunes U courses, extra reading curated by the teacher or recommended YouTube videos and channels. For Biology IGCSE we already have an iBook Textbook offering a hugely enriched resource for our students which is so much more accessible and engaging for students tasked with homework.

Indeed, in this digital Eco system the teacher can be in the room “virtually” with a student. That difficult Physics concept can be re-explained by the teacher through the Explain Everything App or experiments can be reviewed on You Tube with the class teacher demonstrating again the aim of the experiment. And this can be viewed as often as the student needs to understand. No longer a solitary activity with the potential for family rows over misunderstood tasks, homework becomes interactive with the teacher on hand to offer support. And we should never underestimate the power of the teacher’s voice in guiding students.

In fact, homework has the capacity to become a truly social activity. The digital device allows teachers to encourage collaboration, a force for creativity and invention and an important skill for our young learners. Ordinarily constrained by location, homework can now become a collaborative activity not only involving other members of the class but students in any part of the world who could become collaborative partners. The possibilities for collaborative projects are extraordinary. Just imagine a collaborative project across continents on environmental issues – really powerful learning about our world and those who live in it.

So, learning beyond the classroom can be very different in a world of digital learning. The concept of homework can be re-calibrated as a process which is both more meaningful and truly engaging. Homework becomes an authentic extension of learning with the learner supported and guided in ways previously not possible. Homework moves from the task to be completed to being a social, interactive experience and an integral part of a young person’s education both measurably and immeasurably.