School in cyberspace

By Chris Barton

Botany Downs Secondary College students watch a lesson podcast made by science teacher Chris Clay (centre). Photo / Paul Estcourt
Botany Downs Secondary College students watch a lesson podcast made by science teacher Chris Clay (centre). Photo / Paul Estcourt

The way education is delivered is becoming increasingly technology-driven as students - and teachers - head to the web. But does learning via a computer achieve the same results? Chris Barton reports

It's an iNightmare. When cutting-edge teachers talk shop there is a stream of jargon: podcast, wiki, QR code, Scratch, Kodu, Photosynth, SkyDrive, Kinect, iPad, iPhone, iCloud...

Then there are awkward words like pedagogy and "gamification", plus collaboration, personalised learning, self-regulated assessment and knowledge building - collectively termed "21st century skills". Skills, it seems, most students aren't much getting at school.

Technology and pedagogy. The instinct is to flee. But then one of the teachers says something startling. "I want my children to be found by strangers on the net," proclaims Will Richardson - American parent, educator, speaker, author and blogger.

He reassures Microsoft's Partners in Learning Forum in Washington that of course children must first know how to discern good and bad strangers. His point is that our children are indeed increasingly being taught by strangers. In a globally networked world, education is not contained by the confines of the school or the classroom.

Richardson cites North American students stuck on science or maths problems using Motuto - on-demand, real-time mobile tutoring. Install the app on your iPhone or iPad, log on, connect with a tutor on standby and get the homework help you need for about US$5 ($6.75) per 20 minute session.

Knewton is adaptive learning software delivering computer-based lessons with diagnostics to create a "personalised learning path" targeting what lessons need work and then delivering the appropriate material.

Then there's Khan Academy, originally a YouTube channel, now offering 2700 instructional videos free online, on everything from mathematics to history to finance and biology. At last count it's had 82 million views.

"My Teacher is an App" is how the Wall Street Journal summed up this brave new world this month. The article noted an estimated 250,000 students in the United States attend "cyberschool" online.

Often the learning is informal. Richardson's children wanted to learn Scratch, an educational programming language developed at the MIT's Media Lab. They were taught the basics by a 10-year-old expert in Perth, Scotland via a Skype video call.

Seventeen-year-old Mark Klassen is a self-taught cinematographer who freely shares all his work online. As Richardson points out, Klassen learned his craft, including using professional editing software Final Cut, spending "not one minute in a classroom".

Richardson is talking about a fundamental change in the way education is delivered that raises questions about the role of teachers, what is taught and whether technology can make a difference. The recurring theme of Partners in Learning is that schools, even those well equipped with technology, are not providing for a 21st century workforce.

What's needed is applied digital literacy - competency in modern "authoring" tools like Photosynth and Movie Maker that demonstrates problem solving, critical thinking, knowledge building and the ability to collaborate. Yet most teachers still teach with traditional chalk and talk methods, albeit sometimes disguised by Powerpoint presentations or an electronic whiteboard, and test students with questions like this:

This Roman emperor changed the official religion of the Roman Empire and moved its capital to Constantinople (today Istanbul):

A. Ptolemy

B. Cyrus the Great

C. Constantine

D. Jesus

Richardson asks why we're asking kids to memorise facts that, in all likelihood, they will have forgotten in a year's time. Or, if we are asking them to do this, why we don't let them go online from their smartphone and use Google to instantly find the answer.

Challenging as the idea sounds, it highlights another problem. Generally, greater use of computers hasn't shown significant improvements in science, maths or reading scores - a conundrum calling into question the whole idea of giving schools technological upgrades.

Advocates say computer-based learning lets students learn at their own pace, teaches skills needed in a modern economy and holds the attention of a generation who has grown up with digital devices.

But simply using computers to drill students on maths, science and other curriculum facts, doesn't prepare students particularly well for jobs in today's world. The way learning is assessed, largely through standardised tests, also doesn't capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop.

The biggest barrier to effective use of computers in schools? The majority of teachers are not particularly proficient in their use. But not here in Washington, where some 700 educators, passionate about the use of technology in education, are breaking new ground in what can be done.

Teachers from 70 countries - including several from New Zealand's Howick College and Botany Downs Secondary College - are gathered to share in technological expertise and pedagogy.

Combining skills, interdisciplinary co-operation, collaboration and real-world engagement are to the fore. Hence Pennsylvania students creating historical documentary video podcasts of local businesses each linked to a QR code on display - a square bar code-like pattern which can be "read" by smartphones.

Or Malaysian students creating games using Microsoft's Kodu that teach environmental lessons. Or five American teachers in collaboration with computer science, fine arts, business and economics and design students to develop an Xbox Kinect motion-based simulation replicating sights, sounds and history of the Pike Place fish market in Seattle.

The elephant in the room, in this case, is Microsoft, but it could easily be Apple or another technology giant looking for a slice of the lucrative education market and its taxpayer funding.

Such overt corporate involvement leads to questions about whether education is being radically rethought at all - whether the only gains are for computer companies cashing in on the demand for technology in classrooms.

Sig Behrens, Microsoft's United States general manager for education, casually mentions 25 per cent of all Microsoft business is academic - a lot of software licences. He claims more altruistic reasons for the multinational's involvement. That imprisonment rates in the United States are among the highest in the world and that 50 per cent of those in jail did not graduate from college.

Plus that 77 per cent of jobs in the next decade will require technology skills, but a 3 million shortage of workers with American college degrees or similar is looming by 2018.

Microsoft's Partners in Learning Forums, with their focus on teachers and teaching rather than technology, are very much a soft sell of Microsoft products. But, as a New York Times article this month pointed out, "the courtship of public school officials entrusted with tax dollars is a sensitive matter".

The article noted how Apple woos the education market with a state-of-the art sales operation, inviting American educators to "executive briefings" - described as "equal parts conversation, seminar and backstage pass". The criticism was such trips could "cast doubt on the impartiality of the officials' buying decisions, which shape the way millions of students learn".

Whether soft or hard sell, the education sales pitch battles an atmosphere sceptical about how effective high-tech products are at improving student achievement.

Even Apple's co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently agreed "that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools - far less than on other realms of society such as media and medicine and law".

Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs also recounts Jobs telling US President Barack Obama that education was hopelessly antiquated and crippled by union work rules. "It was absurd," he added, "that American classrooms were still based on teachers standing at a board and using textbooks. All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time."

It's a view echoed by Gates, whose vision of what schools in the future would be like has students watching lectures and video lessons on their own while using the classroom time for discussions and problem solving. Gates also promotes teaching the "Big History Project" in schools around the world, working with Macquarie University's David Christian to make it happen.

The approach looks at the past from the big bang to modernity, weaving evidence and insights from many scientific and historical disciplines "into a single, accessible origin story".

While some worry that high-tech classrooms and online learning are education cost-cutting by another name - replacing teachers by having fewer do more - many see technology's march on the classroom ushering in a fundamental change in the teacher's role. That teachers need to transition from being "a sage on the stage to a guide on the side".

But findings from the Innovative Teaching and Learning Research project across seven participating countries shows there is a long way to go. The research, sponsored by Microsoft's Partners in Learning, shows while examples of more innovative learning environments can be found around the world, "too often they are available only in isolated pockets rather than to all students".

And while ICT use in teaching is becoming more common, its use by students in their learning is still an exception in most schools today. The fact that just two New Zealand schools are involved in Partners in Learning is further testimony to just how long the road ahead is.

On the plus side, the report highlights how innovative teaching practices may flourish - when a school culture offers "a common vision of innovation and consistent encouragement for new types of teaching".

It also requires one of those elusive 21st century skills - collaboration. In this instance, it's teachers working together, focusing on peer support and the sharing of teaching practices, plus active professional development of teachers - particularly in "practicing and researching new teaching methods". Pedagogy - the art, and, increasingly, the science of teaching - rules.

Chris Barton travelled to the Partners in Learning Forum in Washington as a guest of Microsoft.

- NZ Herald

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