Learning at their fingertips
Digital technology is revolutionising the classroom and schools are scrambling to keep up, BREANNA TUCKER writes
A group of Year 7 students rush into the classroom of Queensland's Assisi Catholic College, pull out their mobile phones and sign in to Twitter. A short video clip springs onto the screen of a digital whiteboard and within seconds the classroom's live feed is awash with student tweets about scripts, acting, camera angles and concepts such as the incorporation of ''dramatic replay''.
Staring over her group of 13-year-olds, the school's iCentre co-ordinator Maureen Twomey is delighted to see the students rushing to tweet their thoughts before the next scene emerges. ''Their whole concept of what is allowed in class and what is out of bounds has been turned on its head and suddenly everything seems more exciting,'' she says. ''They don't even realise how much they're engaging with the activity.''
As peculiar as it might seem, this scene is not uncommon in today's schools. The rate at which technology is infiltrating the classroom has progressed so rapidly that then education minister Julia Gillard's declaration of an ''education revolution'' three years ago now seems almost laughable. Forget giving every child access to a computer, now they expect to carry one in their backpack. Textbooks are downloaded in digital form, assignments are submitted to online wikis and even basic literacy and numeracy skills are taught via the latest ''apps'' released on iTunes.
There is a growing fear among parents and educators that failure to incorporate such technologies into the classroom will result in a generation ill-prepared for the demands of a digital workforce. But as teachers scramble to keep up, academics are questioning just how much students are benefiting from the experiment. Can technology really increase their academic prowess or is it just becoming another distraction in an increasingly crowded curriculum?
At Canberra's Namadgi School, deputy principal and IT co-ordinator Lea Chapuis argues the school has ''no choice'' but to try to keep up. Today, almost every student comes to class equipped with their own smartphone, iPod touch or laptop. ''In their eyes, their demands as to what they should have in their learning environment has to align with what they use in the world outside of school,'' she says. ''One hundred years ago we didn't have the same discrepencies and that is why it is so tough on schools today. We know that if we don't engage with kids in the classroom then we're not going to see any results.''
While most academics would agree with Chapuis about the need for engagement, the extent to which technology plays a part has become a point of contention. Early studies suggest technology is successful in increasing student engagement but the jury is still out as to whether or not it can be used to improve student results.
At some Rudolph Steiner schools, the use of technology has been ruled out almost completely until at least mid-high school. John Davidson, director of Canberra's Orana Steiner School, dismisses the argument that this policy disadvantages his students. ''Are you saying it takes children 12 years to learn how to use a Word document, or do a search on the Internet? You can teach these skills in a few days,'' he says.
Davidson believes parents are so focused on ensuring their children are successful they push them to learn too much too soon, and that this stifles creativity. He points to a recent article in The New York Times (''A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute'') which shows an increasing number of advanced engineers from companies such as Google, Yahoo, eBay and Apple are sending their children to the equivalent of Steiner schools in America. In the article, the engineers say computers ''inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans''.
Of the 670 students at his school, Davidson says only five families do not have computers or the internet at home. Rather than detract from the core curriculum, he says technology can largely be learnt by osmosis at home. ''If you look at the children at our kindergarten they will play with computers but it's not a computer, it's a block of wood,'' he says. ''By the time students reach Year 12, they have the opportunity to work on a personal project and last year a number of them made video and multimedia clips. In other Steiner schools I've seen students make full-blown movies. ''If you reflect on life you will realise that you do things your parents could never do with technology. Nobody taught it to you, it was just a reality.''
Technology is developing so rapidly Davidson says it is pointless for schools to try to keep ahead of the game. Many point out that the students are often more tech-savvy than their teachers anyway.
But Dr Gerald White, an Australian Council for Educational Research fellow, says students are not as far advanced as we think. While many can use social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, conduct searches on Google and navigate their way through countless blogs, wikis and video posts, he says recent studies have shown many are only ''surface users'' of technology. ''Most of them have no depth of knowledge on how to effectively use technology for learning, research and collaboration,'' he says.
And this, experts argue, is where teachers are needed more than ever.
Rob Fitzgerald, a director of the University of Canberra's new Inspire centre, says while students are keen to use technology, they also want to be shown how it can be used for more than just fun. With this in mind, he has warned teachers not to confuse the concept of being ''engaged'' by technology with being ''entertained'' by technology. ''For us to be engaged in the task it needs to have some relevance, needs to have something that actually motivates us to go that extra yard, to understand something differently,'' he says.
''I think our task, as educators, is to find the most appropriate uses of technology ... to see if there is some potential and relevance in the devices or applications that students are using.''
Sorting through such a vast list of resources is a task that is quickly becoming a full-time job, both inside and out of schools. At an academic level, research facilities on this topic are already popping up across the country. The University of Melbourne has launched a website - Assessment of Teaching of 21st Century Skills - that co-ordinates 250 researchers worldwide who are investigating the skills needed for the next generation of workers. Fitzgerald is also preparing to launch the Inspire centre - a $7m facility created in partnership with the ACT Department of Education and Training solely to explore the use of technology in teaching.
But until this research evolves, schools are still scratching their heads over just who will take on the overwhelming task of sorting through technologies for their students. In this debate, it is teacher-librarians who are emerging as the unlikely heroes of the digital teaching taskforce.
The specialists, who hold a double degree in both teaching and librarianship, are on the path to extinction as schools decide they are no longer relevant in the digital world. But those in the job argue they have adapted to cyber space more quickly than any other specialists in the education sector.
June Wall, a teacher-librarian at Sydney's St Ignatius College, says the latest research suggests that the amount of information in the world doubles every two years - and almost all of it is online. She points out that encyclopedias are not only digitalised today, they are also split into versions suitable for kindergarten, later primary and senior secondary groups. Included are further links to the latest research journals, academic reports, research papers and lists of ''curated'' websites (websites researchers have deemed credible and accurate sources for further information).
Organisations such as the Australian New Zealand Reference Centre have also digitised newspapers and journals from across the world; Electronic Resources Australia links to resources in libraries across Australia, including the National Library; and other sites are dedicated solely to digital video collections and audio recordings. ''There is so much information out there students get lost in how to use it all, how to define what they're after and figure out what they can use,'' Wall says.
Meanwhile, subscriptions to these websites can cost upwards of $1000 a year, while school library budgets are usually limited to $1000 to $3000. Wall says schools can not afford to purchase the base number of resources and expect students to navigate it themselves. ''The reality is that outside of school, students can go wherever they want on the internet without a teacher or librarian there to mediate,'' she says. ''That is why our role is so important; not only to teach things like digital citizenship and ethics but to teach students how to critically evaluate a source's appropriateness, authority and relevance to the topic.''
Today, teacher-librarians are being seen more and more as teachers who specialise in IT and resourcing. At the top of the game is Australian Teacher-Librarian of the Year Maureen Twomey, of Queensland's Assisi Catholic College. She has revolutionised her school practice by merging the school library and IT departments into an iCentre. With the help of her school principal, she has also instituted a policy where every student, from Kindergarten to Year 10, must now have their own portable digital device. Whether it is an iPad, laptop or similar tablet, students can bring any device they choose, so long as it can host a minimum set of programs such as a web browser, word processor and photo editing software. ''We find that kids have so much access to technologies outside of the school environment that asking them to come to school without them is essentially like asking them to dumb down,'' she says.
Twomey says a large part of her week is dedicated to evaluating film, video, books, online games, activities and websites for teachers requesting help on how to improve specific topics and assignments. Such workshops have led to diverse activities, such as the earlier example of asking students to analyse video clips via Twitter and review the tweets for class discussion afterwards. ''Teachers don't have time to explore or evaluate these tools and this is why we exist,'' she says. ''Teacher-librarians know about pedagogy and the curriculum, because we are teachers, and we know about resourcing, because we are librarians.''
She adds that society should not be concerned that digitalising schools will lead to the extinction of hard-copy books and handwriting skills.
In her school library, every book has its own QR code that students can scan with their mobile phones or tablets to download the digital version. Even with this option, she says students usually hire both hard-copy and digital format and flick between them depending on when and where they choose to read the book. In class, she says teachers are just as likely to ask students to ''sit down, turn on your mobile phone and sign in to Twitter'' as they are to say ''everyone turn off your phones, today we're doing an exercise from the textbook or a measuring activity outside''.
At Assisi, part of the digital revolution includes teaching students the appropriateness of using different technologies at different times. ''Just as you wouldn't jump on chatlines, write private emails or have long discussions on your mobile phone at work, we tell students that this is not appropriate at school,'' Twomey says. ''To me, it's no different to saying 'don't use that language in front of your grandmother'. Even though the devices have changed, the ethics and the thought processes are the same.''
Though hard proof is yet to be found, teachers say there is already anecdotal evidence of the wonders technology can bring. At Canberra Grammar, where 100 iPads have been purchased, principal Justin Garrick was surprised to find a student go out of his way to make an appointment with him during school holidays to praise the device for improving his history studies. ''By the end of the lesson we were crouched over our iPads together, showing each other what we had learnt and discussing how we could improve lessons for other students. Where else, in the history of education, do you see that happening?''
And at Namadgi School, where eight iPads are being trialled in intensive literacy and numeracy groups, the devices are having a positive effect on those who are disengaged from school. Chapuis points to Year 3 student Chloe Matusinak as an early success story. A highly capable student, Chloe already reads books three years above her age group and has scored NAPLAN marks above government averages in reading, writing and spelling. But the nine-year-old also had a reputation for being disruptive in class.
After just five weeks in an intensive iPad literacy group, teachers are amazed at the turnaround. Chapuis says Chloe often writes plays using an app called Puppet Pal and has requested to handwrite them so she can show her parents. In class she is more focused, willing to assist other students and determined to improve her maths skills because it is the only area where she fell below the national average. ''In this app called Maths Bingo Bugs I've been getting better at solving equations faster and now instead of sitting on one question for 10 minutes it's like 'boom' and then I'm through,'' Chloe told The Canberra Times with pride.
Chloe says the iPads have not only made school more exciting but they have also improved her behaviour, and she thinks this is the key factor in helping her make friends. ''I used to have anger issues but now I'm getting this time away from getting in trouble people are starting to come up to me and ask me to play,'' she says.
Chloe says she finds it easier to concentrate in the iPad class and she likes the fact she is being shown how to use the devices for learning rather than just fun. And since being in the iPad class, she claims to be ''finding out lots of interesting facts''. ''Like, the other day I found out that giving something all that you've got is better than not giving anything at all,'' she explains.
Perhaps technology really can be a wise investment after all.