An Alsager school pupils looks at a Sway of someone's memories

Teacher using Microsoft tech to help people living with dementia wins major award

A teacher who uses Microsoft technology to help people living with dementia remember their loved ones has won a major education award.

Lee Whitmarsh, a Curriculum Leader in the Art, Design and Technology Faculty at Alsager School in Cheshire, was one of two teachers supported by Microsoft to take home a Silver Award at The Pearson Teaching Awards – known as the Oscars of the education sector.

As a Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE), the 38-year-old has taught his pupils how to use the digital storytelling app Sway, and together they built interactive timelines of photos and videos to help individuals living with dementia recollect important moments from their past.

“Working with the Alsager Partnership, we asked couples who have been living with dementia, whether it’s their partner or themselves, if they wanted to be part of our community project,” Whitmarsh (below) said. “We had coffee mornings with the couples and students, and we just sat down and shared stories. We talked about their lives and memories, what they did, when they got married, their first dog. They brought in all their photographs and artefacts from their lifetime.

“We digitised everything, and also photocopied all the images so we could make an art-based collage. We put those in a frame for the couples and presented it to them, so they could hang it in their home to remind them of the workshops, working with the students and past times.

“We researched memory and reminiscence therapy, and we found that the more dynamic the experiences, the easier they are to remember. So, the Sways have music, sound, text and images. We used touchscreen tablets so the couples had to use their hands to scroll through the images or make them bigger.

“We bought a website domain name and are now working to get a Sway Life Stories website set up, so the couples can access them at home or in care homes.”

Whitmarsh has also introduced Office 365 and collaboration tools SharePoint and OneNote to Alsager School, which teaches more than 1,400 boys and girls in its secondary school and sixth form. He set up a OneNote with a school in Seattle, whose pupils offered feedback on his photography students’ work and vice-versa.

A computer screen showing Sway

“That blew my mind. You’re sat in a school in Alsager in Cheshire but you’re getting feedback from a school in Seattle,” he said. “It was really exciting to see that OneNote being used for art and visual media, reflection and annotation.”

Since Whitmarsh introduced Microsoft technology into the classroom, he has seen his pupils complete more work outside of lessons and use their time with him to learn about the subject in more detail.

The impact on students led the headteacher and assistant headteacher to nominate Whitmarsh for a Pearson Teaching Award. Started in 1998 by Lord Puttnam as a way of recognising and celebrating excellence in education, the awards honour outstanding teachers and their methods.

“This award means that the amazing work the students are doing is being recognised and celebrated, and I hope it shows people they can use technology in a way that doesn’t have to be closed. It can be open-ended, shared and community-based,” Whitmarsh said. “It also recognises the work the students do to support families and people living with dementia.”

Everything you need to know about Microsoft in education

Louise Porter, an English teacher at Ribblesdale High School in Clitheroe, Lancashire, has also won a Silver Award for her work with technology in the classroom.

The MIE has introduced Surface devices, Office 365, OneNote, Sway and Teams into lessons “to aid and support the learning of our pupils”, who range from 11 to 16.

“I’ve seen such a positive impact on the pupils, the engagement, how quickly they are learning, how easy it is to access and for me to differentiate and give them instant feedback,” she said.

“When I’m marking schoolwork I speak to my computer and OneNote records my voice. The parents can then log on to their child’s device and hear my feedback; and I encourage them to respond back to me verbally. Then we have a dialogue between teachers, pupils and parents, which is key.”

Following Porter’s nomination for the Pearson Teaching Awards, judges visited her school and interviewed staff, pupils and parents. They asked one class of children how they would describe Porter’s use of technology, to which one boy replied: “Just perfect.”

“I get feedback from the students on how it’s helping them, because it’s important to get their opinions. I’ve also had feedback from parents, saying how they think it’s benefitting their children,” she added.

Porter was nominated for the Silver Award by her school’s headteacher and assistant headteacher, and admitted she was “surprised and shocked” to win.

“It was amazing just to be nominated. Ribblesdale High School has nurtured my passion for using technology and supported me every step of the way. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. I am very chuffed and over the moon.”

Whitmarsh and Porter will attend a Pearson Teaching Awards event in London in October, which will be broadcast on BBC Two, where they will learn if they have won a Gold Award.