PC pedagogy: How much technology should be used in Kiwi classrooms?

by Nicki Roberts / 08 April, 2018
The use of digital technology in New Zealand classrooms varies from school to school. Does it really make a difference to educational outcomes? Photo / Getty Images

The use of digital technology in New Zealand classrooms varies from school to school. Does it really make a difference to educational outcomes? Photo / Getty Images

The way of the future or one giant experiment?  Nicki Roberts investigates how New Zealand primary schools are going digital.

The year is 2063. Elroy finds his place in the rows of desks and sits before a small screen with buttons. Complicated white chalk-looking equations cover a green blackboard. His robot teacher Mrs Brainmocker, zooms around handing out report tapes. Elroy is so excited about his excellent grades he takes off, jet pack flaming, to the classroom roof. His teacher reminds him the school principal doesn't approve of flying in class.

Hanna-Barbera envisaged this picture of 21st century primary school education in their popular cartoon The Jetsons. Here we are today in the 21st century with no robot teachers and sadly, no jetpacks at school either. But news that tech-executives in Silicon Valley are choosing to send their children to Waldorf Schools, where there's not a computer in sight, has also got people thinking. These parents are choosing the low-tech or no-tech education that teaches students the innovative thinking skills needed in the workplace. They develop the ability to think independently from a device, without a reliance on it.

Here's how Hanna -Barbera thought the classroom would look in 2063. Still got chalk though.

It's difficult to track down evidence of any educational benefit to using digital technology in children's learning. A global report by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) looked at education systems that had invested significantly in computers and concluded there was “no noticeable improvement” in their results for the core subjects in the popular Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Despite this, digital technology is increasing in many of our primary schools – in some more than others. Just how much and for what learning purposes, remains a mystery to many parents.

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The Ministry of Education sees a need to prepare all children “to participate, create and thrive in this fast-evolving digital environment”. Recently it introduced the Digital Technologies curriculum content to the National Curriculum to ensure all learners have the opportunity to become “digitally capable.” Individual schools and kura are encouraged to design learning programmes that integrate digital technology and to work with their local communities to understand how this can contribute to improving educational outcomes.

However, there is to be no 'one size fits all' approach when it comes to the integration of digital technology in schools.

How well equipped are all schools and their communities to identify and meet those needs?

The Steiner way - no tech during school hours

Beth Thomas, editor and mother of two (five and ten years), describes her home as a 'high-tech household'. Her children attend the state integrated Steiner school in Belmont, Wellington. Her ten-year-old has no contact with digital technology during school hours. Instead, the students work on building vital skills including developing attention span, imagination, social skills and creativity.

Thomas feels some schools may be rushing into embracing new technologies without properly thinking it through.

“If there is going to be this wholehearted broad acceptance of technology in schools and the changes are rapid, then we need to be absolutely on the ball about how it's used, when it's used. What are the boundaries around it? What are the dangers? The risk is that we get swept up in advancing technology with no understanding of the long-term effect on social interaction, learning and health - such as over-exposure to screens on young peoples' eyes.

“There is this idea that technology is the world we live in. People make arguments for technology being in the classroom saying it's important and we need to keep up with things.  But you could equally say you don't need to keep up because it's changing so rapidly and is so intuitive anyway. Or could they not just learn this kind of thing in the home environment? Is it really the role of the school?  Also, given the rate of change, how can we possibly imagine what it's going to be like for a 5-year-old when they leave school?”

Some of the world's best-performing education systems - particularly those in East Asia - have continued to use a low-tech approach in the classroom. In Japan, the approach is decidedly low-tech at school and yet technology is the backbone of Japan's economy.

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A balancing act

One primary school taking a measured approach is Wadestown School, in Wellington. This is a state school with a large well-resourced library and a full-time librarian. Now they are trying to find a balance between a high-tech and low-tech approach.

Deputy principal and father-of-three, Nick Julian, has been teaching for twenty years. He explains that once digital technology in schools was all about learning to code or decipher spreadsheets in computer labs but these days technology is integrated into the normal everyday learning.

Julian estimates that in an average day, his class of 10 to 12-year-olds would have around an hour a day of 'screen time' contact. There is generally less in the junior school but he adds that it can vary depending on the teacher.

Wadestown School has a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy in the senior school where students are able to bring their own laptop or iPad. Otherwise a small room or 'pod' of 48 computers are provided and shared between four classrooms. There are also four permanent computers in the classroom and an interactive data projector. New classrooms are getting big TVs that can be hooked up to the computer.

So just how might students be using digital technology in an average day? They could be jumping online for a bit during maths, filming something, writing and editing, making presentations using Powerpoint, or emailing their reflections on their weekly learning to their teacher and parents.

Homework includes 'Mathletics'  (an online maths learning space) and some classes use the popular game 'Minecraft', to engage students in realizing the setting and characters in a novel being studied.

Julian explains that he probably sits somewhere in the middle with how much he uses technology but feels it has helped him become more well-rounded as a teacher.

“Some younger teachers probably use it a lot more than me but I think it has helped me as a teacher in terms of getting interest up and if you have a weak area you've got access to a lot of help online. Very rarely do you get a primary school teacher who excels in every subject area – though they still have to cover them all. I started out as a secondary teacher strong in Maths, Science, Geography and PE. Now I really like teaching Art. I look at tutorials and work out how to do things. The same with languages.”

Other benefits Julian sees are students becoming more self-managing with their learning as they use technology to formulate their own questions and find answers. At the same time, they are learning important skills like how to identify reliable sources and stay safe online.

Do Julian and Greer see any potential downsides if their school were to go even more high-tech in the future? Less mastery of handwriting, spelling and punctuation immediately spring to mind.  Julian guesses they might also become less patient and have weaker listening skills if they became too reliant on seeing things always 'colourful and happening'.

“You don't want them to rely on being over-stimulated all the time and get to the point where they aren't able to entertain themselves. When we were younger, if your parents said, 'Go outside and play' you thought it was Christmas. Now they'd probably say, 'Well what do you want us to do?'. This is the challenge for us as both teachers and parents.”

A matter of cost

There is some expense involved with providing digital technology. At a decile 1C primary school in Porirua, there is still reasonable access to digital technology at school. With a roll of 207 students they have 97 chrome books, 15 interactive computers, 15 iPads, a 3 D printer and cameras.

The problem this lower-decile school sees with their students' access to digital technology is not at school but at home. Only 25% of their kids have access to the internet and computers after school and 20% don't have access to the internet through phones.

Does the increased use of technology in schools perpetuate the divide between the have and have-not communities? Consider the extra financial burden and pressure felt by some parents to provide that technology in the home, for the sake of their child`s learning, when they can't really afford it.

And what about the teachers?  Currently almost half of our teachers are over the age of 50, and more than one in five are over the age of 60. Even when schools embrace digital technology, how much time and money is being put into getting older teachers who need it, up to speed with the technology, and giving them the confidence and support to use it to improve learning outcomes? There are stories of schools spending up large on digital devices that are then just shut away in cupboards.

At Wellington's Amesbury School children sit in small groups with their teachers. Photo / supplied 

The NZ school of the future?

This is not the case at Amesbury - a seven-year-old state primary school in Churton Park, Wellington. It aims to be part of what it sees as a 'learning revolution' driven by changes in and access to technology, as well as new understandings about how the brain works. It also gives us a glimpse of what future New Zealand primary schools might look like.

At Amesbury, there is no teacher behind a desk. In fact, the classes are desk-free. Children sit on the floor in small groups with their teachers, in the light-filled, open-plan space. A few students are gathered around some soft-furnished, modular furniture.  Some but not all, have devices in hand. The atmosphere is peaceful but not silent – there is a quiet discussion going on. The kids are engaged and not simply 'staring at screens' as some parents might fear.

With a roll of around 240 students, the school has 250 odd Chromebook computers. There's also desktops, iPads and other devices for use by teachers and students. This is no BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school. As soon as students start creating content on a computer - for some that will be at six or seven years old, they are provided with their own Chromebook.

In a teacher-led exercise, one small group is creating spider diagrams on their individual Chromebooks. It turns out they are brainstorming in preparation for a writing piece. It's impressive seeing the kids manage this particular computer program so proficiently but is it likely to be one still in use when they hit the workforce? Some might also argue this task could be done just as well on paper - though perhaps not as neatly. But using the Chromebooks, means there is now a permanent record of the learning in this piece of work, accessible on line on ALF (Amesbury Learning Framework) so that teachers, parents and kids have access to it.

Principal Lesley Murrihy sees ALF as a way to make children agents of their own learning. It maps down what students need to learn at each year level and then kids upload evidence of their learning and goals. “We have a view that children are insiders in their learning – though they haven't always been treated in that way.”

Murrihy explains that one of their key mantras around learning is that kids' time is valuable.  So they should never be in a group that is too hard or too easy. “We should be able to know where kids are at, have that recorded with technology and to then set up learning so that no ones' time is being wasted.” Small groups are then established around recognised learning needs, often including students of different ages. In this way, new technology assists with personalizing learning.

Murrihy describes teaching as going through a major shift. “What we used to consider 'teaching' is changing and for the future it needs to.  A lot of what was considered 'teaching', like the delivery of content, will be much more effectively done using machines in the future. Making use of technology and designing the organisation of learning to ensure equity and equality will make teaching look different.”

Already at Amesbury, most of their explicit content workshops are delivered using the data projector.  Murrihy says it is about efficiency. “It makes sense because then we have a copy of it and we are not always reinventing the wheel.”

Murrihy agrees that there is not a lot of hard evidence of digital technology's educational benefit yet, but says she has observed the positive difference it makes to the teacher's ability to make decisions about students' individual learning.

“Teachers previously have had to do all of this cognitive work in their head.  With something like ALF all of the information is there, about exactly where each kid is at. It has the potential to lift the quality of teaching earlier.”

Amesbury school principal Lesley Murrihy believes schools not embracing technology are "burying their heads in the sand." Photo / supplied

With almost half of New Zealand teachers approaching retirement age within the next fifteen years, this kind of help could be useful to a new influx of inexperienced teachers.

Are all schools equally leveraging the capabilities that technology can bring to education? Murrihy thinks not. 

“It's a real worry that there are still some schools that think technology is a choice. That we can be highly technological or we don't have to be. There may be some schools that are struggling financially to provide the wherewithal to be more technological but some may be burying their heads in the sand.”

Amesbury is pragmatic in that it's about what's efficient and what works best. This pragmatism extends to being flexible when kids don't want to use technology and prefer to use paper. The students do still have books. Their writing has to be legible and if it`s not, they`d be asked to practice handwriting.

“Our view is that you've just got to be able to handwrite well enough.” Murrihy says,  “with a lot of exams still being handwritten.” They have a similar approach to spelling. Kids work on spelling in order to be effective communicators but like handwriting, it is seen as nowhere near as important as it once was.

“I think realistically there will come a time when we won't write.”

One big digital experiment?

A common criticism of the use of digital technology in early education is that students are losing skills other than spelling and handwriting. Some educators argue that sitting with boredom allows time to wonder, opportunity to deeply focus and to be genuinely creative in finding independent solutions.  Some tertiary educators have noticed these skills sadly lacking in recent tech-savvy students.

Murrihy acknowledges that potential effect and describes 'a bit of a lag' adding, “perhaps education hasn't sufficiently developed quickly enough to keep pace with digital technology.” She appreciates that finding a balance with the use of digital technology in education is needed.

Forward-thinking schools are figuring out ways to include opportunities for creative, independent thought. This year, Amesbury is giving students the chance to ponder 'unGoogleable' questions - or questions around the moral impact of things. Murrihy points out that it's impossible to answer these kinds of questions without creativity and imagination. 

The question is are children getting the digital skills they 'need to thrive' or are they part of some giant experiment? Parent of primary-schoolers Emma Smart expresses fears that a lot of parents have for their children in this digital age.

“Kids these days don't know about a life without the internet. We don't have any knowledge of what this is going to mean in the future. What's this going to mean for the generation of kids who have known nothing else?”  

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