Interview: Engaging & exciting

(Last Updated On: March 3, 2014)

Teachers are losing control and Travis Smith, Assistant Principal at Frankston High in Melbourne, couldn’t be happier. Here he talks to INTERFACE about his school’s pioneering use of Tablet PCs.

As a teacher, what excites you about ICT?
It’s the possibilities it affords students and teachers. Traditionally, in the classroom, there may be a few different ways to assess something, but once you put in technology you’re only really limited by your imagination.
I find it exciting that teachers are losing a little bit of control. They’re no longer the font of all knowledge. Some people don’t like that and can’t let go of that control because they’ve always been the one with that knowledge. But we need to make sure that we’ve shifted our mindset because kids can find out information in five seconds about a topic we’ve never heard of!
I also love the engagement levels that you see with kids when they’re using technology – and that obviously is going to have positive effects on learning outcomes. I’ve often said that if there was a pill you could give kids to increase them to this level of engagement, the Department of Education would be all over it.

What’s your message to teachers wary of using technology?
My message would be more to the administrators: these teachers need huge amounts of support. Our leadership has always been behind what we do with technology, and that’s one of the reasons it’s worked. One of the things we’ve done at our school is to put money into employing someone full-time to work with teachers to integrate technology in the classroom. It’s what we call our ICT Facilitator, someone who staff can talk to about what they’re teaching and what they want to do, and can do some of the legwork and come up with ideas – and even help out in the classroom if a teacher is trying something new.
At the moment, he’s working on some French curriculum, integrating previous units into Microsoft OneNote and embedding in some Camtasia activities, shared sessions, webcam and audio recordings, all into the one unit. The teacher gave him a list of what needs to be done – and they’re working to put that together. The person has got a really good grasp of not just what teachers need but also the technical nous to make things happen. It seems to really work and it’s a model that’s being replicated elsewhere. Some schools are calling them technology coaches. They may not be a full-time positions but it’s where many Australian schools are going.

You are one of the few state schools in Australia with a student tablet scheme. How did you get started?
In 1992, we began investigating the application of laptop technology in the hands of students and 1995 was the first year we had a parent-funded laptop programme. We’ve now got the largest one in a government-run school in Australia.
We think that having laptops in classrooms is a huge benefit. It’s not about looking flash, it’s about educating students. I often talk about the difference between teaching with technology and learning with technology. It’s one thing for a teacher to have a laptop and a data projector to teach with, but it’s a whole different world if your students have access to the technology as well.

Your scheme is not compulsory – not every kid has a laptop. How does that work?
We break them into tablet and non-tablet classes, we don’t mix them together. The reason is because what you can do in terms of curriculum with a tablet computer is far different to the way you would teach the same content in a non-tech environment.

Doesn’t that complicate things?
Yes, it does. Timetabling is difficult, it complicates lots of things. But we think the advantages, the benefits, the opportunity we’re giving kids in a state school – it’s worth doing that.

Also, the kids without don’t want to be reminded of the fact.
That’s right. The other thing is the Department of Education doesn’t give us any additional funding to run our notebook programme – but what they don’t do is pull out any funding. So, we’ve got about 300-odd desktops computers around the school for our students (about 1,600 in total) but 700 of them have their own notebook, so they never need to use a desktop computer. The ratio for kids not in the notebook programme for computers to students is better than you’ll find in any state school – they’re actually getting better access to technology.

But isn’t there still an issue here between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’?
In private schools, they can say: “if you want to come to our school, laptops are part of it. Go elsewhere if you don’t like it”. We’re a government school and can’t do that. The equity issue is one that comes up all the time and one that we’ve had to deal with from the start. We’ve put 3,500 or so kids through a technology-rich learning environment that they would not have had any opportunity to do unless they’d paid to go to a private school. Sure, there are issues and problems with this, but we think that the opportunity we’re offering in the state system is unique.

What have been the biggest challenges bringing in tablets?
One of the things that needs to happen in any school that implements a one-to-one programme like this, is that there has to be lead-in training for teachers. We need to take responsibility as a school for upskilling staff so that they can get the most out of their students by using this tool.
When we stopped using traditional laptop computers, we wondered how robust the tablets were going to be. In fact, the M400 – which we’re using with our current Year 7 cohort – is the toughest machine we’ve ever had. We’ve had fewer repairs on it than we’ve had on any other. And there’s no tougher market for laptop/tablet technology than the education sector

Do parents get a choice of computer?
No. We used to give a selection, now we mandate. We basically say to parents that the education of their child is too important and we’re not going to jeopardise that by using a computer that’s not designed for kids, which is not going to be tough enough and when the hard drive fails you have to send it to Sydney for three weeks! We have other vendors wanting us to use their machine because it’s going to be a couple of hundred bucks cheaper. We look at those but keep coming back to whether they’re tough enough for kids. Toshiba is the only company I know of who are doing research on what kids do with them and how kids treat them. Of course, kids drop them and whatever – we’ve got an insurance plan that covers for theft and accidental damage.
But we’ve made a commitment to parents that we’re going to use a product that’s reliable and is going to be well supported for the benefit of their kids.

How much do they have to pay?
The whole package, which includes the tablet, the bag, three year insurance, three year warranty, some software licensing, etc., is under A$3,500 for the length of the programme.

In general, how are Australian schools faring with ICT?
I think we’re in a period of change and a lot of schools are going to go down certain paths because they don’t know what else to do. The Federal Government is apparently going to provide a computer for every student between Years 9 and 12. I don’t know how that’s going to come about. What kind of technology are they talking about? However, we will find the state governments becoming much more interested. They’ve suddenly got this pool of money behind them that they’ll want to do something with it. I just hope it doesn’t get frittered away – I hope people are seriously thinking about how they can best use that money.

Why do you think your programme has been a success?
We don’t advertise our programme to our community, and I think that’s one of the reasons. It isn’t a marketing tool for us. Our Department of Education doesn’t give us any money; our programme is completely parent funded. If they decide next year not to participate, then it won’t run. It’s not just the fact that they’ve got a laptop, it’s that they’re doing good things with it for their learning. Our eye is firmly on the prize of educating kids using this technology, not doing it because the school down the road is doing it.

What do you see as the value of these tablets?
Relevance … and the use of information. You can use them for all the traditional things you use laptops for, but there’s the added benefits of a pen. The thinking and multi-tasking, the analysis and modeling they can do, is much more powerful when they’ve got a piece of technology in front of them that will allow them to do that. The students are engaged by what they’re doing and excited to share their ideas. And there’s this real culture of peer coaching and helping each other out and supporting each other. And using collaborative tools like OneNote allows all students and the teachers to be connected at
once and really share their learning.
What we’ve also seen is a boost in terms of innovation. In 2004, we’d been using traditional laptops for 12 years and I reckon we’d hit a plateau. The reason was there weren’t a lot of software programs coming out that we hadn’t seen before – there weren’t a lot of applications that could help us in ways that we hadn’t thought of. Since the shift to tablets it’s taken off again.

Can you give examples of this shift?
One of the things we’re about to work on with our ICT facilitator is to get maths teachers to record themselves (using Camtasia and an external webcam) solving a sample problem. What I found as a student was that while a teacher was standing beside me explaining what the mathematical concept was about, I could do it. But as soon as I went home, I had no idea and couldn’t do it. We’ll embed the video on the unit worksheet – they’re not getting it off the Internet, it’s already there. What I’d like to see is every Year 7 and 8 maths topic have a video.
Art is being used across the curriculum in ways never done before. English teachers wouldn’t have bothered going to the art room, getting out newspaper, paints and pens, and asking kids to draw their idea of the fantasy story map that they’re writing about. With a tablet, they just do it as part of the lesson. They’re not getting assessed on their drawing skills, but their ability to take something out of their imagination and describe what it is. We’re finding that kids who are good at art but not so good at English are achieving better results because they can paint what they’re thinking. Once they have it on paper, all they have to do is learn the skill of physically describing what it is they see in front of them – as opposed to translating it from imagination.

What’s going to happen with technology in education over the next few years?
I think we’re going to see a lot more integration of Web 2.0 technology. We’re going to see software that enables a lot more collaboration and interaction between kids and teachers, as opposed to software that’s traditionally for one person.

Thank you.


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