Do you need provoking to use technology?

(Last Updated On: March 4, 2014)

The successful use of ICT in teaching is as much about engagement and curiosity as it is about technology believes education specialist Bruce Dixon.

In your experience, what’s stopping teachers using technology?
I think it’s a misconception that teachers themselves are challenged by technology. What they’re challenged by, for the most part, is access to technology … and access for their students. I believe both the leaders and the wider community have been unrealistic in their expectations of the uses teachers should be making of technology when, up until not too long ago, they didn’t even have their own computer. Given the opportunity, given the access, given their students’ access, what I see is that most teachers are doing amazing things.

Such as?
Well, there’s no limit. I think they’re only at the very early stages of tapping into the possibilities. I’m working with Ideas Lab in Australia to help determine what’s possible for technology in learning and I see teachers coming up with a whole range of ideas, whether as part of the traditional curriculum or exploring new areas of thinking and engaging kids.

What do educational leaders and administrators need to do to best support teachers in this exploration?
They need to understand that to reach the true limits of possibility there are some fundamentals to put in place. They’ve given teachers access to a laptop, now they need to think about what access they’re going to grant to kids to maximise the impact on their learning. For some reason, we thought that teachers could do amazing things when we didn’t give their students access to computers!

We think they have more than they do?
Absolutely. There’s a myth I’m trying to dispel about how much access kids have in school. Try it out. Just walk into a school and ask half a dozen teachers how much kids use computers a week; then go ask the kids. Staff will say ‘Oh, we think the kids have an hour or so a day’, but it’s usually out by a factor of three or four.

What level of access would you like to see?
Anything less than on-demand, as-required access is inappropriate. If we’re only going to give kids an hour or two a week, I’d rather we spend the money on gyms and swimming pools. For kids, who in many cases have uninterrupted access at home, an hour or two is irrelevant … and they see it that way, too. We have to understand now that if we’re going to provide a 21stCentury learning environment, it’s a given that everyone has access to this technology. Without it, we’re doing kids a disservice.

What do you say to those who may be reluctant to explore student laptop initiatives, or question the need for one-to-one programmes?
I have a laptop and so does everyone that I know. They have it because it’s a tool for thinking, it’s a tool that allows them to work in ways that are appropriate today. I don’t know why we think that’s inappropriate for kids. The days of us debating whether or not every child will have his or her own portable computer have passed. It’s now inevitable because it’s accessible, and delivers equity to all kids.

It’s a move being supported in a rapidly growing number of countries around the world. New Zealand and Australia have just taken a little bit longer to get hold of the idea. I wish we’d just get over it. Just give them one, get it out of the way.

Of course, you can’t simply go out and dump a thousand laptops in the hands of kids. That can be a disaster. The challenge we have is to effectively use that computer. It’s not just something that you give to somebody and hope that good things will happen. It requires building awareness about the curriculum opportunities and different learning paths.

For those teachers wanting to do more with ICT, what would be your advice to them?
Some teachers will spend a lot of time exploring a lot of new ground; some will be more focused in a particular subject area, some will want to connect and share resources. Whatever is it … be curious. Find more resources that you can use with kids. That’s what makes it the most challenging and exciting time to be in teaching. Things are changing but in ways that we never could have imagined a few years ago.

Where does professional development fit into all this?
I think most teachers understand now that professional development is a career commitment, it’s not something that just happens at one particular time of the year or on a curriculum day. But I think it’s taken a while for all professions to work that out.

Conferences are always good places to meet. There are other virtual and flexible professional learning opportunities. I love the cluster model in New Zealand. I think it’s a very compelling and powerful model. Coaching, clustering, mentoring, by far that’s going to be way people do it.

Rather than saying ‘you should use a blog or a wiki’ or ‘you should do this or that’, you’ve got to help someone understand the strategy they take about it. Say, for example, we want to engage more kids in a deeper understanding of history. The basis of that should be that we want them to have the joy of being historians rather than learn about

history. So, let’s go online and connect kids not only to the documents but, in some cases, experts who can talk about circumstances and even people who have first hand experiences. It’s about exploring and allowing them to discover the magic of why people are engaged in history rather than saying here are some facts and some dates that you should know.

I think once we start explaining to teachers those strategies, so they understand that the computer’s role is to increase their pedagogical capacity, they’ll start to engage more kids, in a deeper understanding of things that they couldn’t do before.

Do you see any differences between the approaches in New Zealand and Australia?
Both have a very strong pedagogical foundation, whereas some large western countries, one in particular, aren’t as fortunate. They also have some of the best prepared teachers in the world and lead a lot of the thinking and understanding. That’s why I’m happy to be back working in this exciting region where we’re seeing a coming together of this access to technology on a sound pedagogical foundation. If you don’t have that wisdom, no amount of technology’s to make the slightest difference to what you do with kids. The way investment has been made and policy directions have been taken are largely similar, although in the last two or three years, I must admit, Australian governments have committed some pretty substantial funds to finishing the story about giving access to kids.

The Federal Government gave A$2 billion to make sure every Year 9 to 12 student had their own computer. The Victorian Government’s now doing a pilot with Year 5 and 6 kids, which I’m involved in. That’s probably the only part where things in New Zealand haven’t quite developed yet.

You co-founded the Anytime, Anywhere Learning Foundation – can you tell us a little about that?
It’s a not-for-profit organisation that’s brought together a collective of people around the world to share resources and ideas about granting universal access to kids. It takes a fair chunk of my time – a lot of that work is evangelism. However, the job’s coming to a nice conclusion in terms of our original objective to ensure all children have access to unlimited opportunities to learn anytime, anywhere, and that they have the tools to make that access possible.

What’s next for teachers and technology?
The focus now has to be on exposing teachers to more of the possibilities, provoking and stimulating them to explore those, and giving them the necessary support to take the risks. In some cases, it’s about making sure that the things we do well we scale, so we don’t just see it reside in one classroom. We’ve also got to show real solid evidence that we’re getting to more kids and exposing them to opportunities they wouldn’t have had before. Otherwise, all we’re doing is giving them a glass textbook.

We’ve set up expectations about what schools should be doing with technology but we still haven’t got over the fact that kids haven’t got this access. Let’s accept that it’s just going to be a given and concentrate on investing in teachers to provide expanded opportunities for young people.

Thank you.

Bruce Dixon was talking to INTERFACE Editor Greg Adams.
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