Letting students use their own technology in the classroom can bring big benefits - the hard part can be in overcoming the resistance to change.
Nathan Kerr has no problems standing out. It might be his bright Hawaiian shirts, but despite being slight of build and, as he puts it, "all of five foot six", the Onehunga High School teacher makes a good fist of coaching a 1st XV whose pack outweighs that of the All Blacks. And whereas most teachers would happily confiscate cellphones at the school gate, Kerr is bringing them into the classroom - and winning international plaudits in the process.
His idea is simple: get students to record certain elements of class work in video form. The process of movie-making reinforces the lesson learnt and also provides handy revision for end-of-year exams. The end product can be played on nearly all the electronic devices that teens have helped make ubiquitous: iPods, laptops, and - of course - mobile phones.
"You have to keep it short and sharp so they can watch the movie - for argument's sake - while they're walking from school to home or on the bus or, in some cases, on the train," Kerr says.
He teaches geography and has found his students take to directing, producing and scripting short educational movies like, well, teens to technology. However, some planning by the teacher is needed to ensure education isn't sidetracked.
"Otherwise you'll have the issue where you'll get students who make music videos of their field trips - with no academic stuff."
His experimentation with mobile video in the classroom earned Kerr a scholarship from Microsoft that allowed him to work for the digital division of TVNZ for six months and also saw him win the title of New Zealand's "Innovative Teacher of the Year" at a conference held last year in Hanoi, Vietnam. At the international finals held in Hong Kong in November, his ideas won further acclaim.
Kerr's enthusiasm is infectious. Otago Polytechnic is considering offering a similar service to students, the Auckland University of Technology has expressed some interest and the high-powered Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has also been in touch.
Despite this interest from universities, Kerr is well aware that some secondary school teachers will be sceptical about bringing potentially disruptive devices into their classrooms. "I see the technology as having fascinating potential, but I don't want to push my luck."
Overcoming resistance to change was one of the key themes in Hanoi where Kerr picked up his gong. The conference was sponsored jointly by Microsoft, Vietnam's Ministry of Education and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), and Kerr was joined in Hanoi by five other New Zealand teachers, who were also part of the software giant's scholarship programme.
Jenny Lewis, a former Australian teacher included in the Bulletin's list of Australia's 100 most creative and innovative people, drew attention during her keynote address to a growing desire by students to bring their own technology into the classroom. "Of course, there is a lot of educational dilemma around this at the moment," she says. "It's not a dilemma for the students, it's a dilemma for the adults."
Until recently, Lewis was principal of Noumea Primary School in New South Wales, an institution she says visiting New Zealand teachers describe as decile one. It's in a rough community, and staff were encouraged to stay for a maximum of only five years, says Lewis. "Because kiddies were getting bashed and murdered around the area, this certainly did have an impact on the teachers."
Lewis remodelled the school from the ground up: starting slightly earlier; reducing the length of classes; and having more - and shorter - breaks to help malnourished students who often have short attention spans. But how did she get away with bending the rules?
Laughing, she says although the results eventually spoke for themselves, in the beginning she managed her relationship with the authorities on a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil basis. "If we didn't tell them about it, they wouldn't know."
The ambivalence - or even hostility - from education authorities when confronted with radical innovation in education is jokingly echoed by Sheldon Schaeffer, the director of Unesco's Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education. "There are institutions in many governments that find innovations today and kill them. It's called the Inspectorate."
Another barrier to introducing innovation or technology into classrooms is simply cost. Lauren Woodman, a director of Microsoft's public service outfit - the Government and Education Team - says her company has made a $700 million commitment to education this decade. In New Zealand alone, 22,500 heavily subsidised software licences have been -provided to schools.
Of course, even corporate behemoths like Microsoft run into near-insurmountable problems when trying to spread Windows to the far corners of the world. "It turns out you can't buy a copy of Microsoft Word and get electricity or clean water," says Woodman.
Woodman's department started in 2003, at the same time anti-monopoly lawsuits were brewing in Europe, but she denies Microsoft's philanthropic activities are just public relations damage control. "I don't think this kind of work lasts for this long and on this kind of scale if what we were looking for was a press release."
Later, after the conference formalities, the five New Zealand teachers cross town and soak up the colour of a local school. Hanoi-Amsterdam High School, built with donations raised in the Netherlands during what the locals call "the American War", has an industrial feel. Classrooms feature exposed wiring, and a white steel grille separates the administrative wing from a dusty courtyard where students play badminton.
Teachers, whose average class size is 40, start on a salary of $50 a month. Because of the demand for space, the school day is split into morning and afternoon shifts. And though the school has 115 computers to serve the 2500 students, it cannot afford an internet connection.
Yet this institution is far from decile one. Out in the Vietnamese countryside, many school buildings are still of the thatched-roof variety - three shifts running from before dawn until after dusk, with classes of up to 60 students not uncommon.
Hanoi-Amsterdam is a state-run magnet school with no qualms about poaching students. Only one in eight 11-year-olds makes it past the rigorous entrance examination each year. The school specialises in teaching sciences, informatics and languages - which explains why a significant percentage of the graffiti is in English, albeit mostly swear words.
Kerr, clad as usual in one of his trademark colourful shirts, pulls out his mobile phone and approaches several students in an English class, preparing to demonstrate his award-winning handiwork.
"Do you all have cellphones?" he asks. The answer nearly floors him: "No?"
Yet as much as the spread of gadgets and schools differ internationally, some things remain the same. The contingent of New Zealand teachers ask Hanoi-Amsterdam principal Do Lenh Dien what challenges he faces.
Wearily and through a translator, the principal explains he has problems with parents being too demanding, the endless need to replace obsolete technology and inadequate funding from his Ministry of Education. Almost as one, the Kiwis nod in understanding: "We have the same problems, too!"