The Australian government has spent millions of dollars putting technology into schools, however is it paying off? Are children learning more? If we want to enhance children’s learning then putting computers in classrooms is a good first step. But it’s the easiest step. If we genuinely want this technology to help students then we must look beyond the rhetoric of the computer companies and the politicians. Read my opinion piece on the topic published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age.

 

Free laptops all very well but how best to use them in testing times? By Dr Joanne Orlando

The rhetoric of computer companies is that laptops in schools will transform how students are taught. Unfortunately, the federal government has succumbed to this rhetoric without thinking about the practicalities.

Since the Rudd government launched its Digital Education Revolution, more than $400 million has been spent to provide every Year 9-12 student and teacher in government secondary schools with a laptop for the next four years. We were told laptops would revolutionise teaching methods and students would be learning the necessary skills to perform the jobs of the future. But like so many recent education policy announcements, things aren’t always as they seem.

Research tells us initiatives that focus primarily on the provision of computers are not successful because the computers aren’t used to their full potential. A consistent finding is that many students barely even use their new laptops. I personally know at least two high schools in my local area where the year 9 students don’t even take their laptops to school because they know they won’t use them. One student told me she had used it only once in class this year.

Predictably, teachers are being blamed. Speculative reports pointing the finger at them are widespread, with many arguing teachers are resistant to change and are stonewalling because they want their classrooms to stay the same.

But this is a simplistic response to the many challenges facing teachers and schools following the federal government’s recent interventions. Schools are complicated environments, even more so now, and expecting one addition to raise standards is naive and unhelpful.

Schools, under the Labor government, are dealing with two competing agendas. On the one hand, the government is resourcing schools with laptops, but on the other hand it is increasing the pressure on teachers to be transparent and accountable, often to the detriment of these new technologies.

The publication of league tables in newspapers and on the controversial MySchool website is an example of this. Schools are under incredible pressure to achieve good results in nationwide standardised tests, but research consistently shows us that standardised testing discourages teachers from creatively using computers to prepare children for the 21st century, and instead forces them to apply ”old-fashioned” teaching methods to help students pass old-fashioned tests.

It doesn’t change if the test is delivered on a screen, as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority envisages. The new standardised testing regime is fundamentally at odds with government announcements regarding the innovative learning methods students can employ with their laptops. Is there time or motivation for teachers to use web cameras and video conferencing when they are under pressure to prepare for NAPLAN?

Added to this, an examination of the new national curriculum going into schools in the near future shows there is little understanding of how these new technologies will be used in learning.

No one has given any thought to how new technology and testing regimes go together.

Computers can transform the content and learning processes learners work with and use. For example, students researching rainforests could use webcams to talk to scientists, activist groups, people who have lived or travelled to rainforests as part of their research. Then instead of presenting their project on a sheet of cardboard, or filling in answers to a test, students could design a multimedia presentation that incorporates the sounds and movements of a rainforest, and the voices of people they interviewed.

The burdensome time that it takes to prepare for NAPLAN leaves little time for creative approaches to teaching and learning that the computers make possible.

You only need to scan recent government reports and the professional development courses being offered to teachers to see that the government remains dazzled by the technology and its potential, yet completely uncertain as to how its vision is going to come together.
Putting computers in classrooms is a good first step. But it’s the easiest step. If we genuinely want this technology to help students then we must look beyond the rhetoric of the computer companies and the politicians.

The federal government needs to start working with schools to map how computers can be successful in the complicated environments in which they have been placed. We’ve got the equipment. Let’s shift focus to the real stuff, learning, and how we can realistically take that to the next level.

For the sake of our students, the government must clarify the type of learning it wants to take place in our schools, and how computers can be used to support this. And please, let’s not allow these decisions to be made without consulting schools, teachers and students. We need their help to make it work. Australia is relying on it.

 

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