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Opinion Editorial: Small steps will lead to big changes in education

9 October, 2009 | Jane Mackarell, Academic Programs Manager, Microsoft Australia

 The 'digital education revolution' promises to put Australian schools at the forefront of 21st century learning by providing students with access to their own portable, one-to-one computers.

One-to-one programs offer the potential for students to experience unlimited learning opportunities anytime, anywhere, in ways that are relevant, engaging and suited to their individual learning styles, and which extend learning beyond the traditional school day in ways that were never possible with traditional computer laboratories.

The one-to-one approach is a very different paradigm to the traditional model of schooling and requires a major cultural shift. While there are some clear logistical challenges in getting hardware into students’ hands effectively, it’s hardly revolutionary. Technology is the part most people are focusing on, but it’s really the easy part.

The real revolution is happening in the classroom, where teachers are leveraging the potential of the technology. Success will depend on how they approach this change. Everything else is just noise.

There are three factors that are critical if we want effective change: teachers who are confident to be inquisitive explorers of technology; teachers who are supported by appropriately balanced professional development; and teachers who are comfortable in taking small steps for incremental change.

Inquisitive explorers

Look at how students approach and use technology at home and at school. They experiment; they take risks; they’re not afraid to make mistakes because the technology will let them try again; they share experiences; and they follow their interests. Basically, it’s a try, try again approach.

Good teachers are always looking to improve. They try new things. They notice what works and what doesn’t work. Things that work well are kept until a better way is available. Things that don’t are reinvented or dropped. It’s a try, try again approach as well.

Put the two together and it looks like there’s a good fit between teachers and technology, but there’s a slight problem: traditional approaches to schooling require teachers to be cautious, correct and always in control. We need to shift that if we’re to enable teachers to engage with technology through experimentation and making mistakes. The role of a contemporary teacher is to model good learning within a frame work that is increasingly asking students to learn, unlearn and relearn. In the case of technology, this includes having a go, failing, changing the approach and adapting.

Professional development

The focus of a contemporary pedagogical designer is shifting from content to process. Put otherwise, the contemporary teacher creates conditions in which students become expert learners. This means providing constructive, meaningful and rich learning experiences in a context where student technical skills are unlimited and varied.

Teaching the same content in the same way, in the same place and at the same time is an outdated and inefficient model.

Content is still important, but content can come from a variety of sources with varying levels of integrity.

With the glut of information available on the internet, good teachers are more indispensable than ever. Good teachers help students become critical consumers of information and coach them to develop the higher-order thinking processes necessary to be constructive participants in a knowledge economy.

Teachers must be pedagogical design experts who are comfortable with technology, but they don’t have to be technology experts.

They don’t need expensive software, they don’t need to know more about the tools than the students and they don’t need to change everything overnight. Professional development experiences must reflect this.

Incremental change

While it’s essential that teachers undertake a journey of transformation, they must be allowed to take small steps rather than being forced into radical change.

To enable that, teachers and school leaders should be asking at least seven fairly basic questions.

  • What learning experiences do we need to provide to prepare our students for unpredictable futures?
  • How can technology enable students to actively engage in richer, more interactive and meaningful learning, and what steps do individual teachers need to take to ensure we can provide these experiences?
  • What steps do individual teachers need to take to ensure they can provide these experiences?
  • How do students learn?
  • What adjustments are necessary in things like physical space, timetabling, learning delivery and so on to allow learning to be manageable, occur anytime, anywhere, and to be available in ways that are meaningful?
  • What will my role as a teacher be?
  • How can teachers share with and learn from each other?

One way that Microsoft is helping teachers to focus on the three critical success factors I’ve mentioned is to identify exemplary teachers who are explorers of technology, whose work models good professional practice and who demonstrate how small steps lead to big changes. This year’s Microsoft Innovative Teachers Awards recognise great teachers who use often the simplest technology for effective teaching and learning.

Keeping it simple is fundamental. As Stacie Witton, one of the eight Microsoft Innovative Teacher Award winners for 2009, explains, that means any teaching unit should address three I’s – being interesting, being informative and fostering independent learners.

Witton, from Korumburra Secondary College in Gippsland, Victoria, has incorporated technologies like Windows Mobile Devices, Photo Story, Movie Maker, video cameras and data loggers into her practice to allow her to teach difficult concepts in Physics in ways that are interesting and meaningful to students, without focusing explicitly on teaching them how to use technology. The reason? ‘I want to make technology commonplace in all my classes to prepare students for the working world,’ Witton says.

The ‘digital education revolution’ is certainly an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally change education, but revolution might be the wrong word, since the most effective change is incremental, evolutionary not revolutionary.

Jane Mackarell is the Academic Programs Manager at Microsoft Australia.

For more information on how Microsoft supports teaching and learning, visit www.microsoft.com/australia/education/teachertools.

For more information on the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Awards or for the full list and profiles of 2009 award winners, visit www.microsoft.com.au/innovativeteacher.

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