Category Archives: Education

Way too long between drinks…

I spent a bit of time tonight looking back at the stuff I’ve done this year and realised that it has been way too long since I’ve given a rundown of my experiences with education or technology here on my blog. I’ve made some minor updates to my website, but no real post to capture what I’ve been doing. So, this post will just lay out some of what I’ve been up to this year, and it should start me on a more consistent and regular posting run from this point on (at least, that’s the intention…)

  1. Re-design the system for reporting at school so that we generate all of our course documents from a single database – the same one we use for reporting and assessment;
  2. Win a CS4HS Grant from Google to deliver some PD to teachers – in the ACT and in Bendigo, Victoria – on integrating Computer Science into the curriculum through mathematics, english, art and other subjects;
  3. Founding President of InTERACT (Information Technology in Education and Research ACT) – ACCE affiliated professional organisation for educators in the ACT;
  4. Roll out a dual-boot image for MacBooks to all teachers at school, allowing them to use either Mac OS or Windows as required for individual lessons or classes;
  5. Apply for and be appointed to the ACARA Advisory Group for the Australian Curriculum: Technologies for the writing phase, working to advise the writers on the content that will ultimately become the Australian Curriculum;
  6. Begin developing a course for iTunes U that allows students to learn programming on an iPad – still in development, but excited by the possibilities of using this (and iBooks Author) as a means of deploying content to iPads;
  7. Accept a position with the Inspire Centre for ICT Education at the University of Canberra / ACT Education and Training Directorate to develop the capacity of schools and teachers to utilise Apple Technologies effectively in the classroom;
  8. Complete online courses in Cryptography and Gamification through Coursera – a free, online educational platform supported by world class universities;
  9. Enrol in a class on Designing a New Learning Environment through Stanford University’s Venture Lab platform;
  10. Work closely with the organisers of the ACCE Conference on their ACCE Unplugged hangout sessions to get people excited and ready for the ACCE National Conference which took place in Perth in early October; and
  11. Set up Apple TV as a wireless projection solution for iOS and (new) MacBook devices for use in the classroom on HDMI capable projectors and TVs, with the intent to roll this out to many more classrooms in the future (the setup costs under $1000 per room, compared to $7000 for an IWB).

They’re the highlights at least – I’m sure there have been other things, but that alone has taken up large chunks of time this year. Now that I think about it, I really have been busy, so it’s no real surprise to see why the blog has been quiet of late.

Still, I’m making the commitment now and everyone who ends up reading this post will be my witness – I’ll post regularly, and use this as a way of keeping track of what I’ve achieved and where I’m going. I hope you’ll join me on the journey!

The End of an Era at Stromlo High

There are some things that you get to be a part of in life that are truly special. As a new teacher embarking on their career, you hope that the principal of your school will support you in every way possible and that they have a passion for education that is both evident and infectious. So it is with mixed feelings that I begin today knowing that yesterday was the last day I worked under the leadership of someone who truly believes in the good that comes from public education. That person is Mrs Cecily Blake, retiring Principal of Stromlo High School.

I look back over the last 7 years and I realise that the successes I’ve had so far in my career have come about not just as a result of my hard work and desire to improve the lives of the students I teach, but also because I’ve worked for a Principal that has been supportive of my desires to not only develop as an educator, but also to innovate and experiment with new ways of teaching in my classroom. I’ve been encouraged to improve and enhance the curriculum I’ve taught; been given opportunities to work with staff from within my school, across the ACT and around Australia to develop my pedagogical and content knowledge; and supported in my career advancement as I’ve moved between jobs and considered applying for others.

I’ve seen the school continue to improve and the educational opportunities for our students grow and evolve as new initiatives and programs have been introduced and championed. Thousands of students have been given a great start to young adulthood because the decisions being made have had their best interests at their very core, and they’ve been provided with the guidance and support structures they’ve needed to succeed.

I’ve watched as new resources, teaching aids and technologies have been funded and implemented to keep the learning environment as interesting and modern as is possible in a building that lacks the design features needed for a 21st century education. As professional learning opportunities have been identified and targeted for staff, and financial assistance and time was given to those who want to succeed and grow as teachers.

None of this has been as smooth as my post might seem to suggest – there have been ups and downs, obstacles to overcome and major challenges along the way – but there is no doubt in my mind that Cecily leaves Stromlo knowing that it is a better place now than it was when she arrived, for the staff, students and the local community.

Cecily – you will be missed by many in our community, but you leave behind a legacy of innovation and excellence in education that everyone will continue to uphold and deliver on well into the future. I’m looking forward to the challenges next year will bring knowing that you’ve done all you can to help ensure our success in your absence. Enjoy your retirement – I hope that when the time comes for me to hang up my hat, I too can boast of a successful career that has had a positive impact on the lives of many.

Barriers: What we need for success with Technology

I spent two days last week at the IWB Solutions conference hosted by IWBNet in Sydney and it’s got me thinking again about the increasingly complex puzzle of true integration of technology into learning within our schools. One of the things that is finally becoming clear to many teachers is that the greatest barrier to successful use of technology is not the costs associated with it, but the failure of schools to change the way they operate to fully leverage the benefits.

My observations based on some of the sessions I attended over the conference:

1. Teaching and Learning ARE different, and BOTH are valuable

As Chris Betcher kept emphasising in his Keynote on day one, there is value in differentiating between teaching and learning. There are times in every class (and I don’t care what you teach) where standing up the front and giving your class some factual information or demonstrating a skill IS the best way to introduce or explore something. You CAN do this in interesting and exciting ways – ways that engage kids with the ideas you are presenting – and this can still be defined as teaching. You are the focus and in this case you need to be – you remain the person with the knowledge and it is your role to impart that to others.

In other situations, the students are actively engaged in learning – they are seeking answers to problems, questions, issues etc either individually or in small groups based on what they have previously been taught, what they have previously learned and what they want to know more about. The teacher in this case plays a facilitator’s role – we guide, nudge, encourage and nurture without giving away the answer (if indeed there is one for the issue under investigation).

It is useful to keep these practices separate – both require different pedagogical approaches, and each is supported by technology in different ways. An IWB may not be an effective learning tool in a classroom, but it can be an effective teaching one – just like a 1:1 program will not necessarily improve the teaching capacity of the teacher.

2. Technology is an amplifier

Following on from above, it should be noted that what technology does is amplify the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the teacher. A good teacher will be a good teacher regardless of the technology they have access to, but a good teacher who knows how to use technology has increased capacity to be much better. Likewise, someone who’s pedagogy is not effective will not improve when you provide them with technology – it will become another tool that is used poorly and fails to improve the learning experiences of their students.

For this reason, we must continue to ensure that teachers are trained not just in the technical skills of new technologies, but are shown how to either improve or enhance their existing pedagogical knowledge to leverage them effectively. The investment in staff is more important than the investment in the technology – something our politicians might need to think about…

3. No single piece of technology is a silver bullet, even for a “good” teacher

Since a good teacher uses multiple teaching strategies, pedagogies and tools to keep students engaged and active in the learning process, it should be evident from the above that no single piece of technology will lead to an improvement in the outcomes of their students. Instead, multiple technologies need to be made available that support each of the numerous teaching methods employed by the teacher and the learning activities that students are participating in. This requires a massive investment if every student is going to have access to every tool in every classroom – something not possible in most schools in the country.

4. Schools as we know them are becoming irrelevant

Which raises the question – are schools as they currently exist still relevant in society today? If students can walk out of the classroom into a world where their access to information and learning opportunities is increasingly growing, is the classroom a productive place to be spending a third of your day?

The evidence is clear – that the single biggest factor effecting the performance of students is a good teacher – so the classroom still has its place. What needs to change is the approach we use when students are in our classrooms with their teachers. Teachers must be more open and flexible; be more willing to adapt and allow the lesson to evolve as students become caught up in the experience of learning. Our current systems with structured timetables, concrete curricula and fixed hours are no longer appropriate for how our world operates, and the schools that begin changing some of these “ancient” practices will be the schools that groom the most successful citizens in our future.

Nothing I’ve mentioned above is new or ground-breaking, but in the hope that my voice added to the many others will help make these points heard, I felt the need to get them out there, as it were.

21st Century Learning – Reflections on #ITLMC

Over the past few days, IWBNet held their first ever ITL Masterclass conference up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. The conference was a different format to the usual conference event – delegates participated in a cohort session that involved 6 hours of deep investigation of a topic, as well as a series of pre-prepared and unconference sessions hosted by a range of participants. I had the privilege of facilitating one of the cohorts through an investigation of 21st Century Teaching and Learning – a broad concept that encompasses pedagogy and practice suited to the modern world. I also presented some pre-prepared sessions on Challenge-Based Learning: An integrated approach to the Australian Curriculum.

The Cohort Sessions

I’ll admit that I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the event. I agonised for weeks over how I was going to ensure the best outcomes for the participants in my group, and a week out, decided I’d go in with a stack of resources and ideas up my sleeve, but ultimately prepare very little in terms of presentation to the cohort. I introduced the topic and gave them an opportunity to reflect on the concept in the hope they’d be able to identify something they needed to address in their school to move things in the right direction. With such a broad topic it was a challenge, but in the end I think everyone managed to identify a need and a way of addressing it when they get back. The conversations that took place between the delegates (including myself) were extremely powerful – there are so many schools in different systems and sectors grappling similar issues, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) the biggest obstacle most of them face is changing the culture amongst staff, not students.

Through discussion within the cohort and with other conference delegates over the two days, the participants came up with a range of solutions that they’ll be taking back to their schools in the hope they can begin the process of changing their school culture:

  • A set of expectations/standards that teachers within the school can work towards as a means of guiding them along a clearly defined path for professional learning (based on the work being done around teacher standards by AITSL and the ISTE);
  • Professional Learning showcases that involve staff at the school publishing case studies or presenting to their colleagues, demonstrating the evidence of improved student learning due to their innovative and student-directed approaches. To make these particularly effective, staff that are not savvy with the technology and are seen as “typical” practitioners at the school should be leading the event – this makes it seem more achievable to those who are less confident with the ideas being presented;
  • Pilots should be established to demonstrate the effectiveness of an idea. This came up in discussion around implementation of a 1:1 initiative in place of a laptop trolley solution (which is not achieving the outcomes expected from access to the technology);
  • Regular dialogue and professional conversation amongst colleagues, and the repurposing of meetings to contain less administration and information to be more active forums for professional sharing and learning;
  • Flip teaching [1, 2] as a means of overcoming the technology barriers that may exist in the classroom due to external or imposed school/departmental policy;
  • Keeping in mind the need to overcome barriers that prevent students from learning (such as low literacy or behaviour issues) so that the 21st Century pedagogy is more effective – it may mean simplifying activities so that they are more attainable for students until their skills develop further;
  • Increasing the “genuineness” of student learning by publishing their work to an international/community audience, rather than it being shown only to the teacher or their class; and
  • Making sure that the technology is used by the students and is less teacher-driven. This includes not only the selection of which technology is appropriate, but the type of activities involved. Technology includes robotics, cameras and personal devices – not just school-owned computers!

All in all, a successful series of sessions that will equip the participants with some tools and information to help shift the thinking in their schools. Resources that explore the topic a little further have been made available on the conference wiki and at my website.

My session on CBL

As an Apple Distinguished Educator, I’m one of a group of educators around the country that has been recognised by Apple as someone who is doing great things with technology and their products in the classroom. My experience in the program introduced me to Challenge-Based Learning – a framework that gives students the opportunity to direct their own learning around a Big Idea, with the teacher acting as a facilitator. With all of the investment going into the Australian Curriculum by the federal government, I’ve always had a fear that the development of documentation built around specific disciplines may create a situation where learning becomes pigeon-holed rather than multidisciplinary, and CBL is one mechanism that could be used to prevent that from occurring. At the conference another ADE, Dr. Jason Zagami, gave a presentation on brain-mapping that highlighted the importance of developing links between concepts that extend beyond single-disciplines and/or contexts, which served to reinforce my belief that schools must make sure they build integrated study into their curriculum.

My presentation gave delegates an opportunity to see how CBL works through two case-studies and examples, mapping the learning and content in the Australian Curriculum from multiple disciplines into a single challenge. I’ve published a copy of my presentation on both the conference wiki and on my website, and feedback and discussion with participants suggested that many understand and see the benefits of this kind of approach to learning. I’d encourage everyone to have a look for themselves, and consider how the model could work in their own context to break down the culture that exists in some schools around learning being restricted to specific learning areas.

Other Goings-on

The organisation of the conference was great, with plenty of opportunities to talk to other educators about their experiences in their schools and contexts. Breakfast, morning tea, lunch and dinner all provided delegates with a chance to talk to people they wouldn’t normally engage with in their regular day. Many educators who already connect with social networking tools like Twitter also had a chance to meet each other in the flesh, finally putting a face to the avatar they’ve known for a while.

If I get the opportunity to participate in something like this again, I’ll definitely get involved. I might refine topics a little more to narrow the focus a bit beforehand (which will also allow me to identify a really good set of resources that explore the practice as well as the theory/ideas), but other than that, I’d say it was pretty successful. A big shout-out to the team at @IWBNet for their work in making the conference happen! And, if you weren’t able to attend but would like to know more about what went on, either visit the conference wiki or search #itlmc in the twitter stream.

Why Marketing Matters

The ABC published an article today stating that the education minister in the ACT has come out and said that public schools in the Territory need an overhaul due to a fall in enrolments vs our private schools. He talks about the need for public schools to develop partnerships with Universities and to specialise in specific areas to introduce diversity into their offerings and overcome their “sameness”. In a small jurisdiction like the ACT it would be quite viable to actually set up a system like he suggests (since travel between home and school is only ever going to be a relatively short distance – though that assumes public transport is sufficient, but we’ll deal with that another time), but that’s not where I’m going with this post today.

The other thing he says needs to happen is that public schools need to improve the way they market themselves to the community to entice them back from the private sector. Although I don’t believe it is as simple as that (particularly given the relatively high affluence of the ACT and the tendency that would create towards private school enrolments), he does have one thing right – public school do need to market themselves more effectively because if they don’t, community perception is enough to keep enrolments falling since money is not a deciding factor for a higher percentage of the population.

If you drive past the campuses of schools in the ACT, you notice one thing very quickly – the campuses of the well-known independent schools are large, sprawling areas with multiple sporting fields, many of the buildings seem to be new or renovated to some degree, the signage around the site is either modern and slick or old and “prestigious-looking”. Essentially, the schools create an external perception of either:

  1. A modern, dynamic place where money is spent to give the students the best environment they can learn in; or
  2. A school that has a proud tradition of success, much the same as the “sandstone” universities (like Sydney, Melbourne etc) are able to impress upon others.

Is this true? Well, if people perceive it to be the case, it becomes a self-fulfilling statement – the parents who want the best for their kids, support them and have the means to ensure every success for their child will send them to a school that they believe (from their impressions) will provide the best education. These kids will succeed because they are already destined to do so – regardless of whether or not they actually have a good educational experience or not.

Compare this to what you see when you go past a public school. With a few notable exceptions (and the BER injections from the federal government), many of the buildings are old, poorly maintained (I get my own swimming pool outside my office when there is a downpour) and the general perception of them when you go past is that the money they have to spend on their kids is much, much less than what the private schools have in their pockets. It’s partly true – without compulsory school fees it is difficult for a public school to increase their revenues beyond what they receive from the government – and given the funding is pretty tight, often funds for maintenance and improvement are better spent on improving the educational resources available for the students (that is, after all, what the core business of schools is, isn’t it?).

So the challenge for public schools is – how to overcome the perception that exists in the community that private schools are better for the reasons I referred to above? Given the ACT government seems set on making it even harder to do any successful marketing through additional funding (they won’t pay teachers properly or negotiate on improving working conditions either), it falls on the schools to start thinking about imaginative ways to positively influence the opinions of families in their areas. The move towards School Autonomy in the ACT (i.e. schools work out how they are going to spend their money rather than following strict budgets or formulas) may be an opening for this to occur, but it will need to be done properly – this is the bit that is far from guaranteed.

This is why marketing matters – in today’s world, it is often perception rather than actual quality or outcomes that will determine whether or not you achieve your goal (which, in this case, is increased enrolments). With more money, it is easier to market yourself in a positive light – you will always look better than your counterparts who are struggling along with their old resources and dated infrastructure. You can rely on quality results spreading through the community via word of mouth, but you can just as surely rely on any negative incident spreading quickly, counteracting any positives you may have built up over time. It is easy for all of the good, hard work to be undone by one mistake, and if you don’t look like you aren’t perceived to have a quality product, it can be especially hard to bounce-back from that kind of setback.

I have no idea how all of this will play out when (and if) something begins to happen, but I know one thing for sure – failure to invest adequately in education, whether it be through marketing, infrastructure improvements or teachers (via salaries, support or working conditions) will ensure that enrolments in public schools continue to fall while the cost of private tuition is not a make-or-break issue for families.

Teacher Professionalism and NAPLAN Testing

NAPLAN testing for our students is over for 2011 and, whilst I could use this as a chance to vent/debate/rant about the merits and pitfalls of standarised testing, I’m sure plenty of my colleagues will do that for me. So, rather than spend this post raising issues such as the appropriateness of the data, the validity of it is a measurement tool etc, I’ve chosen to question another aspect of the testing that I don’t think all teachers consider in quite the same way.

You see, I administered the testing this year for some of our Year 9 students and, whilst the group I was supervising was exceptionally well behaved and followed all of the directions they were given to the letter, the whole process still managed to get me riled up. It might seem a tad silly, but the aspect of NAPLAN that made me the angriest had nothing to do with the measurement of student performance – it was the demand that every teacher deliver the test in exactly the same way. Not the timing, or the format or anything like that – it was following a pre-written script to the letter when explaining instructions and procedures to the students.

A lot of current educational thinking places real value on the establishment of relationships with our students. A large part of my day is not spent delivering lessons or preparing learning activities, but rather involves talking to the kids about what they want to achieve, what they want to learn, how they would like school to be better/different – things that help me engage them not only when they walk into a classroom, but also when we encounter each other on the playground or (shock horror!) at the shops or in the community. And, when the relationships we build are strong, respectful and built on trust, students value their interactions with you and value their learning.

As professionals who use what they have learned through formal education and (more importantly) experience, teachers know how to get the most positive results from their students because they have strong relationships with them. Our students learn a bit about who we are, and they build expectations about how we’ll behave and what we expect.

However, delivering NAPLAN requires us to follow a script when the kids enter our class to begin the test. We are instructed not to deviate in any way from the provided text, and it contains no emotion, is uninteresting and designed to ensure a common and consistent experience for all students in the country. Every student will hear exactly the same instructions, and no student is therefore advantaged or disadvantaged. So the theory goes.

I understand the reasoning behind it all, don’t get me wrong – and I see how following the procedure prevents teachers from inadvertently giving some students assistance that others don’t receive, but I question the justification of such a need. Teachers are professionals – we are all educated, have chosen to pursue a career in a field aware that we’re not going to be rolling in cash or working short hours, and know and understand the purpose of testing on this scale (and the importance of being fair and equitable). Does ACARA have so little faith in the profession that it doesn’t trust us to do the right thing by our students?

If the data was used for purely diagnostic purposes (which is what it is designed to do) so that we can assess how our kids are progressing and can tailor our educational programs to address their needs, we’d have no reason to “artificially inflate” our students’ results – we’d be doing them a disservice if we did. It also wouldn’t matter whether our students were, as a cohort, above or below “the line” – it’s an average, and therefore it is IMPOSSIBLE for ALL students to be above it! Even comparisons of “statistically similar” schools will lead to some kids being below the benchmark, purely because of how it is calculated. And, if we know which kids need the additional support, that data can be used to help us address their needs through better resourcing, investment and potentially through action research.

I may appear to have drifted off topic a bit, so let’s reel this all back in…

Let’s consider another occupation that performs diagnostic analyses on a regular basis – the medical profession. Every day, GPs will have their patients visit for a myriad of reasons – some for checkups, some to collect results from tests, others with some sort of discomfort they are experiencing, and so on. I’m not sure about you, but if my interactions with my doctor involved them stepping through a scripted, pre-determined text that failed to acknowledge our relationship, my needs and personality and my medical history, I probably wouldn’t go back. I can also guarantee I’d be less likely to actually open up about any problems or concerns I may have, especially if they were embarrassing or awkward. Why? Because I wouldn’t be comfortable. And my failure to feel comfortable/relaxed, and the inability for me to develop trust in that relationship, is going to be negative for both me and for my doctor – me because I get poor medical care, and for my doctor because he is unable to do his job effectively due to the constraints of the procedure.

This wouldn’t happen in the medical profession – in fact, the many doctors I have met/spoken to/visited in my life so far have all had their differences. And some I haven’t liked. I like my doctor to be direct – I don’t want them to soften the blow if there’s something wrong, and I want the most practical and direct advice they can give me. I don’t want them to be consoling if the news is bad, I just want to know what the next step is. You might be different, and if you are, then you wouldn’t go to my doctor because you wouldn’t be comfortable. Or you would go to my doctor, but his response to you would be very different to the one he gives to me.

And this works, because we all respond to people and data differently. Doctors are expected to use their professional judgement to identify how best to establish a relationship of trust and respect with their patients. They’ll use the strategies they have developed to do it, and we accept that they are capable of doing so.

Our kids want to know that when we’re in the classroom with them, we’re there to support them and all that they do. They know they don’t have to be the brightest kid in the class to have our respect, nor do they need to get everything right all the time. What matters most to us is that they continue to learn and develop a passion for learning that they’ll carry with them when they leave us to move onto the next phase of their lives. If every time something “matters” we turn into unfeeling, uncaring robots that all say exactly the same thing and stop being the people they know and trust, how does that make them feel?

Are teachers not professional enough to respond appropriately in such a “serious” situation? Is that the fear? That we are unable to make good judgements about what is best for our students and for the outcomes of the testing process? If so, then I find it both disheartening and infuriating that society does not respect educators enough to give us credit for the work we do. If it’s not, then why is the benchmark for professionalism in various occupations different?

What’s in store for 2011

It turns out that, based on the staffing available at the school this year, I’ll be teaching Year 7 and 8 SOSE for the first time in a while. Given my last couple of years have focused primarily on IT, and the year prior to that was Year 11 and 12 Accounting and Economics, it’s both exciting and daunting at the same time. Exciting because I think it’s going to be a LOT of fun, but a little daunting because it means engaging more deeply with the Australian Curriculum than I had expected would be the case. That said, after looking over the History Curriculum for Years 7 and 8, I’m feeling quite confident I can do a good job of it.

My plan for the year is to shake things up a bit – to bring a Challenge-Based Learning approach to the classes and see if, by facilitating and guiding the students, they can meet all of the Australian Curriculum outcomes without the need for me to explicitly teach every aspect of them. I’d like to see the kids really engage with the material in a more meaningful way – to start to actually participate with others in the class in a way that enables them to get more of an idea about what it was like to be alive in the periods of history we’ll be exploring. To instil in them a desire to find things out for themselves, rather than rely on the teacher to tell them what it is they need to know.

For year 7, that means becoming a part of Ancient Chinese society – to understand what it means to be a member of one of the main groups within that society, and how law, religion and beliefs shaped the way they act. Similarly, for year 8, an exploration of Renaissance Italy should give them an appreciation of the various influences culture, art and wealth had on the lives of the people. It would be easy to point the kids to content online and in textbooks and have them “learn” by taking it in from secondary sources, but to me the emphasis on content seems to be misplaced given that really, if they want to know about that stuff, the answers are all a couple of clicks away on an Internet search.

Our role as educators now is to spark a desire for learning in the minds of every one of our students. For some of them it’s going to be a scary thing – it means challenging the idea that you know what you need to know, and that your opinion may not be correct – but the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration I hope will enable them to understand and appreciate different perspectives; perhaps even allow them to identify what backgrounds and experiences contribute to the views held by others.

So what kind of tasks will I be asking students to complete? That will need to be negotiated with my colleagues and the kids of course, but I’d like to see students write their own historical fiction (whether it be books, serials, diary entries or screenplays/film trailers is up to them) that provides insight into the life and experiences of well known celebrities and the common people of the time; perhaps participate as a member of a church or government, making decisions and analysing the impacts of those decisions on themselves and their peers; maybe use what they’ve learned to draw parallels to modern society and how history has directly and indirectly influences the lives we live today.

As I said, it should make for an exciting year!

The iPad: What does technology offer to educators?

Update: I indicated during my presentation that I would add more information based on the questions I was asked at the end of the session. See the headings at the end of this post for more information regarding accessibility issues. Thanks to all who asked interesting questions at the event!

A quick search on the Internet for information about technology in education will give you a myriad of links to information published by educators, theorists, technologists and others who identify the many potential benefits technology could bring to all levels of education. A lot of it focuses on the personalisation of learning, greater access to knowledge (both in and outside of school), and increased interactions with others that helps to make learning more relevant and real to our students. There has also been extensive study done that highlights the importance of quality teaching in harnessing the benefits of technology – the notion that no matter how impressive the technology is, without a good teacher utilising it effectively the realisation of those benefits is hit-and-miss. With so much work going on in this area, it’s no surprise that there has been extensive debate surrounding the iPad and its suitability for use in the classroom.

I’ve been asked to present a brief session at the ACT All Colleges conference on the 1st of February to explore what technology has to offer educators, with a particular focus on the iPad. As an advocate of more personalised approaches to learning, with less reliance on centralised infrastructure and a mandated set of applications/tools that students must use, I was more than happy to provide some insight form my experience and knowledge around the topic. This blog post supports the workshop session I delivered, but in a nutshell the content of the presentation was around:

  • The pervasiveness of technology in our lives and the lives of our students – the world we live in is one where just about everything we do is influenced in some way by technology;
  • The increasing emphasis on mobile technology as a means of accessing information and communicating with others;
  • The lack of a significant investment in high-quality, reliable infrastructure in schools to support the lifestyle and habits many of our students are used to in their everyday lives (which becomes even more important when there are access issues at home);
  • The potential that personal devices that are not managed by the school could have on improving the learning opportunities for students; and
  • The power of the iPad as a mobile, personal device (as demonstrated through a series of useful apps and a brief overview of its technical capabilities).

I don’t intend to go into extensive detail about any of the above here, suffice to say that there is plenty of information about each of the topics I’ve state above scattered all over the Internet and published by reputable educational research organisations. What I will do, however, is provide a brief example of why the arguments made by many that the iPad is not useful in education because it is primarily a consumption device are misplaced.

1. The library of applications available is extensive (over 60,000 and counting). Not all of the Apps are designed to allow you to “create” things, but may do, and what you can create includes music, video, 3d models of houses, diagrams and graphs… just about anything you can think of.

2. The way many of the apps are designed encourages you to consume information in new ways – FlipBoard is one example of how presenting RSS feeds, your tweet streams and your facebook feed in a different format allows you to get more details from each snippet/post being made by your friends. Aweditorium is another example (this time around music) that encourages you to investigate/browse content you otherwise may not. The more you consume – particularly if that information is different to what you would normally interact with – provides you with more information from which you can construct your own knowledge and understanding of the world.

3. iPads are personal – they are not meant to be deployed as a “class set” or in place of a laptop trolley, and I don’t think there is any real benefit in managing them at the school level (such an approach de-personalises the device). That doesn’t mean they don’t fit in education, it just means that the model of schools providing the hardware for learning isn’t relevant when considering the power of mobile technologies. What is the point of a mobile device that you can’t use the way you want to?

The whole point of this post is to get you thinking about the approach you take towards technology in the classroom – to perhaps reconsider the outlook you might have on mobile phones and/or student-owned laptops/tablets in your classes. With so many powerful and interesting applications available, it seems a shame to be telling students what they can and can’t use to learn. Technology gives us, as educators, a real means to empower students to discover the best way they learn; to encourage experimentation and risk as acceptable techniques when learning something new.

For further information:

Managing iPads in the Classroom – Issues and potential solutions

Mobile Learning (Ulearning) – Blog posts from a strong advocate of mobile learning in Qld

The Open Book Scenarios – Exploring possible futures for teaching

iPad Trials in Victoria and NT

The list of Apps I demonstrated, referred to or had installed on the iPads during my presentation:

Organise

  • Underscore Notify
  • Things for iPad
  • Evernote
  • Instapaper
  • DropBox

Consume

  • Shakespeare in Bits
  • The Elements
  • Molecules
  • Solar Walk
  • Star Walk
  • Geo Walk HD
  • Beautiful Planet HD
  • Pulse
  • Shakespeare
  • Louvre Museum
  • 3D Cell Simulation and Stain Tool
  • Nature: The Human Genome at 10
  • Houzz
  • Melbourne Museum Please Touch
  • Zinio

Connect

  • Aweditorium
  • Flipboard
  • Magic Piano
  • CourseNotes
  • AskPhil(osophers)
  • ArtHD
  • SCVNGR
  • TweetDeck

Create

  • Ideate
  • Brushes
  • ASketch
  • SketchBook Pro
  • iBand
  • iDesign
  • Home 3D
  • ReelDirector
  • Or, in IT classes, you could have students write their own!

Collaborate

  • Inkling
  • Popplet
  • Maptini
  • Google Docs (use in Safari – no App required)
  • Whiteboard HD
  • Skype (and other IM tools)
  • Box.net
  • Fuze

Accessibility and the iPad

The iPad has a number of accessibility features built into iOS, making it reasonably friendly to users with special learning needs out of the box. That said, the accessibility of some apps will be dependent on the features included in the app by the developer, so I’d recommend exploring those apps that you’re considering to investigate the accessibility features and whether or not they suit your needs before shelling out for a paid version of the app.

Treetops.org.au has plenty of resources surrounding Apple products and their accessibility features.

Creating, Consuming and Knowing

I’m active in a number of forums online (Blogging is probably my lightest online presence) and I follow educational debates very closely. One that occurs in just about every forum in the online and physical world is the argument about students creating their own knowledge through projects and activities, and the critical importance of a constructivist approach to education in the world right now. I agree with the view that our kids (and indeed everyone else) need to construct their own knowledge, and that teachers should be providing students with all of the assistance and skills they need to be able to do this, but there are a couple of things I think a lot of educators forget about when they go on and on about the need for students to be creating ‘something’ to demonstrate their learning.

Assessing what students have learned is fraught with difficulty – they may not necessarily want to demonstrate what they know for social or personal reasons, they may be required to use a medium that doesn’t necessarily work for them (yes I’m looking at you standardised testing), or it might simply be that on the day we formally assess them they’re off their game. To help overcome this difficulty, we can use formative assessment strategies and can give the kids greater flexibility over how and what they present. So far I don’t think anything I’ve said is too controversial, and if you’re an educator I’d like to think that so far you’re nodding your head in agreement with me.

Here comes the kicker – how well do you differentiate between the creation of knowledge and the creation of things?

The iPad was met with a very mixed response when it was introduced – some people think its fantastic, others say it doesn’t have all the features they want but that it has potential, and others think its just a downright stupid idea. Without a doubt though, the greatest criticism I hear of it is that its emphasis on the consumption of information means it is not a relevant device for the world our students live in. Those who hold this view point to other portable devices and say how much more superior they are because they allow students to create things, whether they be multimedia-rich projects or simple word processing documents. Without getting into a debate about whether or not the iPad can ever be a creation device (I think it has that potential), if you are one of those people that holds this view, I want you to read through the scenarios I present below and reconsider your view. In both scenarios, pretend you are a student.

Scenario 1: Consumption, Consumption, Consumption

Imagine yourself walking into a library that has been redesigned from the ground up. It’s full of all of the latest novels, magazines, journals, and it’s got multiple TV screens and computers that deliver streaming media, news and commentary 24/7. It has a podcast library that allows you to download directly from it to any device, as well as open access to any online subscription service you can think of. You can turn on your own iPad, Acer netbook, Android mobile or Ubuntu notebook – all of them connect instantly to a wireless network that is secured but has no blocking filters in place, allowing you to interact with the world around you in a multitude of ways, including access to your social networks and chat services. You spend 8 hours in that environment, investigating things you’re interested in and learning about things you didn’t even know existed, simply by following links and catching interesting tidbits of information from the variety of stimulus material around you.

Question: Have you learned anything? Has that experienced allowed you to construct new knowledge?

Scenario 2: Creation, Creation, Creation

You get home from school and sit down to work on an assessment task. The task requires you to demonstrate what you have learned in class by posting to a blog, constructing an ePortfolio of your classwork, contributing to a class wiki and creating a 2 minute podcast episode that highlights what you have learned. You sit down and spend 8 hours working on this task, and create products that you’re fairly happy with.

Question: Have you learned anything? Has that experienced allowed you to construct new knowledge?

Hmmm….

My guess is that in both cases, you’ve answered the question the same way – yes, you’ve learned something and you’ve had the opportunity to construct some new knowledge or understanding from the experience. I’m not going to argue about that – I agree that in both cases the student has been given real opportunities to engage with and develop their own idea of what knowledge is.

What I’m curious about is which experience has been most useful for the student in terms of learning new things and developing an informed opinion about what (s)he learned as a result of each experience.

I think it would be fair to say that if students are consuming information that comes from a variety of sources and provides alternative perspectives and views, that the consumption of that array of information allows them to truly construct knowledge. If, however, we simply sat them down and got them to simply make things from what they know already (e.g. make a podcast, now make a blog, now make a website, now write a computer program, now create a movie…), I would argue that the experiences of that student would be much less rewarding and the knowledge they create is much more narrow.

It’s easy to hold up the creation of “stuff” as being the ultimate goal of education – if kids are making stuff, they are obviously learning something – but I also think it’s important that educators do NOT underestimate the value of consuming stuff too. The creation of knowledge does not have to result in a tangible product being produced – if that was the case, there’d be a lot of people out there who wasted a LOT of time over the years. Equally, the creation of stuff does not necessarily demonstrate the creation of knowledge.

ITSC: This is NOT Amazing

I attended the Sydney ITSC Conference (hosted by Apple) recently and Chris Betcher delivered the Keynote address on the topic “This is NOT Amazing”. It struck a real chord with me and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment – it’s something that has bugged me ever since I began my teaching career.

I mentioned this idea at a recent guest lecture I gave at the University of Canberra, and promised the students that I’d direct them to more information when it came to hand. So, to keep my promise to those students, I’ve posted links to the relevant posts from Chris, as well as an audio grab from his lecture.

I missed his introduction, but the guts of the lecture is still there. He’s also indicated he’ll post a version of it up himself after he delivers the final keynote at the last ITSC on May 23, so a better quality version will be available at his site around then.

This is NOT Amazing

Chris’ Blog post – http://chrisbetcher.com/2009/11/this-is-not-amazing/ (he also makes a recent post on his blog – http://chrisbetcher.com/ – where he reflects on the ITSC conferences and the way they operate).

In Chris’ Keynote, he refers to his daughter and her Virtual Busking project. If you’re interested in checking out more info about that, you’ll find it here – http://chrisbetcher.com/2009/04/425/