Higher trails for the technological classroomNovember 2011
TROY SMITH, head of ICT at a New Zealand secondary school, writes about how to spend the educational technology dollar strategically.
Readers of this article might well be in a situation similar to what I was in 12 months ago. As head of ICT, I needed to advise my school on whether to buy computers on wheels, workstations, tablets or smart phones, and many other technologies. I can save you some reading – the answer is “yes, we should buy all of these things”. Obviously, it is not that simple, hence I have spent the past year completing a literature review on “how to spend the educational technology dollar in New Zealand” as a guide to developing a strategic plan for the next three years of spending on ICT in our school. This is a summary of my findings and some opinion on changes that perhaps are needed internally and nationally to best manage this.
Internationally, the United Kingdom was the educational technology leader prior to the liquidation of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA). This happened in March this year due to government cuts resulting from the global financial crisis. However, prior to going under, BETCA was responsible for driving many innovative technological advances with which New Zealand is now playing ‘catch up’; namely the introduction of full-speed fibre into schools, laptops for teachers and an interactive whiteboard programme from the late 1990s.
Horizon reports, which attempt to predict coming international trends in educational technologies on an annual basis, also have a good track record in anticipating technologies that have eventually become a part of
New Zealand’s education system. The Horizon reports successfully predicted the effects of learning management systems, social networks and ubiquitous mobile devices from 2004. These technologies have also been noted by Core Education in their top 10 trends in New Zealand this year.
The current major investment in educational technology in New Zealand is the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband (UFB) and the Schools Network Upgrade Project (SNUP), a project to ready schools’ network infrastructure for gigabit and beyond data rates.
This investment is evidence to schools of the importance that the government places on e-learning in New Zealand classrooms and will go a long way to help bridge the technology gap that exists between New Zealand and other leading OECD countries.
The Ministry of Education has released its latest requirements for school network technologies and cabling, with far more detail and specifications than the previous release from 2004. To take full advantage of these initiatives, schools should build a mutually beneficial relationship with their preferred technology suppliers and technical support companies, without being limited either to one company or to too many. Schools should use companies that have overlapping areas of expertise so that advice can be sought from different contractors to reduce the risk of losing ownership of their technology infrastructure. Ideally, these contractors should work in collaboration with the schools’ teaching and management staff to create an ICT strategic plan for the future to best make use of the SNUP and ensure that the systems remain operational in years to come.
The money that is being invested in school network infrastructure by the ministry – beyond the operational funding and building grants already given to schools – indicates the perceived importance of e-learning. As the SNUP funding stops at the wall socket, it is up to the school to decide what technology they put in front of their students. To help decide which technologies to purchase I reviewed many international and national case studies. I found that you don’t have to look very hard to find that any investment in educational technologies results in an improvement in engagement and achievement. However, due to the rapidly changing landscape of educational technology, there are few longitudinal studies demonstrating continued improvements, such is the nature of ICTs. The most talked about technology currently finding its way into the classroom is, like so many others, not designed specifically as a teaching tool. Yet the consumer and marketing hype has worked well for Apple, with some schools adding the iPad to their stationery lists. With the devices being so new, can the teacher really be an expert? In reality, it is probably more likely that the students will be teaching others how to use the device; there is nothing wrong with that – this is collaboration.
With so many technologies available it is difficult to know which to choose, so if you take nothing else away from this, remember the following bit! Teachers in New Zealand classrooms need to be connected with the school, online globally and using interactive multimedia tools. To do this, teachers need a computer; to this end TELA is too good an opportunity to pass up and boards of trustees should encourage teachers to use the technology by providing funding for this. OHPs are “very last century”, but they found their way into nearly every classroom. In their place now should be a good-quality projector with a high contrast ratio so we don’t have to teach in darkened rooms. Teachers need to be able to put together an interesting PowerPoint quickly and easily, hopefully with a funny yet educational video included. This means our classroom needs sound; good quality speakers can be purchased for less than $200 that fill a classroom with enough sound to let the kids in the room next door know you’re having more fun learning. The video can come from the school’s video server or from online; both require network connectivity. Network connectivity does not require every classroom to have a complete wired LAN, as current wireless technology allows an entire campus to have coverage from a single gigabit switch and strategically-placed access points. Don’t forget to ensure your classroom is comfortable, with ergonomic seating and desks, a quality temperature control and good lighting – as all these technologies ensure a comfortable learning environment.
Teachers need to be able to take still images, moving images with sounds, and record voices to create evidence of good practice and to use as video tutorials for future students. Smart phones can do all of these things. Personally, I would love to see a programme developed similar to TELA that put an Android in every teacher’s pocket. Teachers would need a card reader, a Bluetooth-enabled device and WiFi to get data from students who have phones without memory cards. Teachers should encourage their students to bring their phone’s cable to school to transfer data if no other way is available.
This is not a conclusive list of educational technologies needed, rather an opinion of what a modern classroom should at least possess. Certainly, specialist subject teachers have needs that should also be met. However, we need to get the basics right before investing in specific expensive technologies that can only be used by individual departments.
For any educational technology to be effective, the teachers using them must have a strong belief that their use will educate students effectively and to a higher standard than alternative teaching methods. The educational technologies employed should be those that have been strategically chosen by their institution to better influence the learning of the students. There are broad e-learning guides at government level available on the ministry website; these need to be considered by schools in their strategic planning. In some cases, the community will be consulted as to how much technology is expected and in others the community will need educating as to what the technology can do for them. The board of trustees then needs to ensure it has the best possible technical advisors in place to deliver the technology that implements the school’s strategic plan. This implies that educational technologies that are accepted and expected in one school might be unnecessary in another.
Regardless of which educational technologies are chosen and who is expected to provide them, there is a definite need to have technological and pedagogically competent leaders in the school who can show the way and advise on ICT procurement and use. The Technology Career Changer Scholarship is one such pathway that allows people with industry knowledge to easily progress in secondary education. This is a start, but perhaps we need more incentives to get highly qualified industry-savvy people into schools to educate our children.
Get connected, get interactive and engage with your students in a medium they understand.
Troy Smith is HOD of ICT and systems administrator at Te Aroha College. Troy has a BSc in physics and electronics and received a TeachNZ Careers Changer Scholarship in 2008. Troy has worked as an electronics service technician, embedded electronics developer and ran his own business specialising in motorsport electronics for five years prior to becoming a teacher. Troy’s main interest in education is ubiquitous mobile devices connected to a national and global learning environment via a socially constructed medium.
Recommended further reading:
- CORE Education (2010). eLearnings – Implementing a National Strategy for ICT in Education 1998-2010. Christchurch: CORE Education Ltd.
- Wright, N (2010). E-learning and implications for New Zealand schools: a literature review. Report to the Ministry of Education: Research & Evaluation.