Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Hey look, my teacher's on YouTube

Chris Clay has won a global award for his innovative teaching methods which include podcasts and online question and answer noticeboards. Photo / Supplied
Chris Clay has won a global award for his innovative teaching methods which include podcasts and online question and answer noticeboards. Photo / Supplied

When science teacher Chris Clay first stood in front of his video camera to create podcasts of some of his Level 3 NCEA Biology lessons, he admits to feeling like a complete wally.

Initially his students thought the same - finding it hilarious to see their teacher on a YouTube video online - and giving him heaps about it at school the next day.

But Clay, head of science learning at Auckland's Botany Downs Secondary College, who has just won a global award for his innovative teaching, persisted.

He also created a wiki - essentially an online question and answer noticeboard - so his students could collaborate with one another about what they got - and didn't get - about the podcast. Often students would answer questions for each other.

Students were surprised to also see their teacher pop up on the wiki with advice at all hours. Clay has been known to post comments from his smartphone while pretending to read his paper on a Saturday morning.

The students quickly cottoned on. Lessons were "flipped" - literally turned on their head. Homework was to watch a podcast and post to the wiki. Class time was to "contextualise" the learning.

Following the podcast on DNA protein synthesis students looked at how American biologist Craig Venter, of human genome fame, created the first synthetic cell.

Clay's methods tick many of the boxes of 21st century learning: engaging students in their familiar online world; providing personalised learning whereby students watch the podcasts at their own pace; and offering a collaborative environment - the wiki - for students and teachers to clarify understanding.

As well as building relationships Clay says the technology has proved effective in raising achievement in NCEA. Those using the podcasts and wiki had 25 per cent less "not achieved" and 14 per cent more attainment of merit or excellence, in comparison to another group at the school.

"It also benefits my teaching practice," says Clay. "I can put resources online for others to see and give me feedback if I haven't done well."

Having a school environment where everyone is open to the possibilities of ICT is crucial says Clay.

Key developments for the school says Botany Downs associate principal Karen Brinsden was getting all teachers to use collaborative software and "cloud computing" - in this case Microsoft's SkyDrive - so learning material held on internet servers can be accessed anywhere, anytime. The software enables teachers to give instant feedback via text, audio or video attached to student's work.

The school also had to relax its "no phones in school hours" policy - allowing students to use their mobiles when learning was involved.

That ranges from students putting due dates for assignments into their phone calendar, to using a smartphone with chronometer or anemometer apps loaded on a geography field trip.

Following the Christchurch earthquake, Clay opened his podcasts and wiki to affected schools and then to other New Zealand schools. Today 125 students and 30 teachers at 31 schools are part of the network.

Initially, the missing ingredient was "real world" application of the learning. Many of Clay's year 13 students had helped set up junior students involvement in the "Shout" programme - a joint venture between the Smithsonian Institution, Partners in Learning and TakingITGlobal.

That included the "Tree Banding Project" to gather data about tree biomass and track tree growth in response to climate. Plus fundraising for DeforestAction and pupils monitoring a plot of land in Borneo via satellite photographs to make sure illegal logging wasn't occurring.

The senior students wanted to do something similar. Their project involved analysing DNA sequences of the pateke or brown teal, an endangered duck species to help Landcare scientists find the best birds for a captive breeding programme. One bright 17-year-old, Tzu-Han Lin, decided there had to be a better way than laboriously poring over masses of DNA strings.

He wrote a program to read the sequences and compile the results in a spreadsheet to more easily determine the best breeding pairs. The scientists were impressed - so much so they're writing a paper with the student to submit to a scientific journal.

This extra dimension helped Clay win the "Extending Learning Beyond the Classroom" category of Microsoft's 2011 Partners in Learning Educator Awards. Winners in six categories are selected from more than 115 projects, chosen from more than 200,000 applicants, who competed at national and regional events.

Clay plans to continue extending beyond the classroom with projects already planned for students to monitor the effectiveness of the dung beetle in improving pasture in New Zealand, and possible research into kiwi DNA.

- NZ Herald

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