Kiwi children the world's greatest 'cyber athletes'

By Stuart Dye

New Zealand children are among the world's greatest "cyber athletes" and this country is one of a dozen that lead the way in using computers in education.

Over the past 20 years, British Professor Stephen Heppell has become one of the foremost authorities on digital learning.

At a conference in Auckland on information technology in schools this week, he said the Western world had begun "surfing a pioneering wave of technology, but only a handful, including New Zealand, are still on the board".

Professor Heppell gave an unexpected boost to the Government in front of 750 teachers and educators, saying Education Minister Trevor Mallard was largely responsible for New Zealand's international standing.

"I have no political allegiance, but boy, do you need a minister like that," he said. "It's the choice between going backwards with exams or being a world-leading future generation. From the outside, the decision is not very tough."

Professor Heppell, described as an "online learning guru" in Britain, said other countries in the leading group included Thailand, Hong Kong and Norway - countries which shared New Zealand's ability to be "agile" due to their relatively small size.

But it was New Zealand's investment in information and communication technology that kept it at the forefront of a new learning age. "In terms of outcomes and investment New Zealand scores incredibly high in the OECD. Whichever party is in power, they have to keep doing that."

Professor Heppell also said creativity and ingenuity among New Zealand children was almost unrivalled when it came to technology and "that's probably the most precious thing in the world".

Parents were generally a passive generation, receiving media, but their children were cyber athletes.

Professor Heppell, who leads a technology learning research centre in Dublin, is creating a "virtual Silicon Valley" where the top countries will share best practice with others further behind.

"It will be a case of others coming to New Zealand for help, and that is already starting to happen," he said.

The ULearn Conference, held this week at Sky City, was organised by Christchurch-based Core Education, which provides online programmes for the education sector.

Educationalist Mark Treadwell, who also spoke at the conference, said understanding and learning were surpassing knowledge as the aim of schools.

"This is a quantum leap forward and is the complete rebuilding of what we understand education to be," he said. "The countries that recognise that opportunity will dominate knowledge economies of the 21st century."

Mr Treadwell has developed KnowledgeNET, an online learning tool which allows the classroom to be brought alive 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

He said it was vital to embrace the new styles of learning rather than "retreat to the safety of exams and the memorisation of content, which is available to anyone that can spell Google".

Mr Mallard said New Zealand was the third highest spender on state education in the OECD and $69 million would be invested this year in information and communication technologies. "Our rapidly changing world means today's students will be experiencing and using technology we cannot ourselves imagine or dream of," he said.

However, National's education spokesman Bill English said there was more work to be done in developing technology in teaching, and investment had the potential to spiral. "We want to be careful with taxpayers' money to make sure it [ investment] actually helps kids learn."

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