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Offering technical support to displaced students

After the Christchurch earthquake, Mount Aspiring College used ICT to help displaced students keep learning, writes Laura Williamson.

There weren’t many silver linings to the cloud that was Christchurch’s 6.3 magnitude earthquake last month. However, for students displaced by the quake, one positive has been that, thanks to ICT, many were able to continue their programmes of learning despite physical damage to their home schools.

Wanaka’s Mount Aspiring College (MAC) was one school that took in a large number of students from Christchurch. At one point the college had almost 130 additional pupils, a 19 per cent increase on the normal roll. Class sizes grew, new desks and chairs were sourced, extra staff arrived, and the IT department had one main priority: to get the new arrivals wired.

“We saw a huge demand from these students to have access to our wireless network and we accommodated this,” said Tim Harper, teacher and MAC network manager. “For many of the students and their families, this was their only internet access while in Wanaka – possibly as they drove by in the evenings!”

Not only was the internet a news source for the students and their families but pupils were able to check on progress and potential re-opening dates for their schools back home. Christ’s College, for example, posted daily website updates detailing repairs and time frames.

For students facing uncertainty this was “essential”, said Christ’s College student Oliver Simmonds who studied at MAC after the quake. “We needed to know what was going on.”

Access to his college intranet was also crucial. Oliver is taking Classics, a subject not offered at MAC. While in Wanaka, he was able to go online and retrieve resources directly from Christ’s College, and continue his studies using support systems already in place at MAC for distance learning pupils.

“I made a security group on the network called ‘Chch’ and allowed special filtering rules on this group so that the students could communicate with their home school resources,” explained Harper.

He also relaxed other restrictions. With young people spread out across the country, separated from their families and peers, social networking took on a new importance. Students at MAC do not normally have access to sites like Facebook, but Christchurch pupils had their access unlocked.

“Social networking with peers has been one of the big requests, so we relaxed our internet filtering rules for specific students,” added Harper.

Sarah Bisset, a Year 12 student from St Andrew’s College, used Facebook to find out how friends were doing, and noted that her school had also started a peer support Facebook page. Another visitor from Christ’s College, Rupert Hobson, said that his English teacher was working on starting a class Facebook page. Asked how it was going, he laughed: “A bit slowly.”

At MAC, the school’s video conferencing equipment was made available to pupils from Canterbury. The school already runs, and has students attend, e-learning programmes through OtagoNet, and was able to offer these facilities to help Christchurch pupils connect with teachers at home.

There were a few hiccups, according to Harper. “The most interesting issue was joining one MacBook to our network – our passphrase has a “#” symbol in it that did not work on the computer concerned. I had to enter the passphrase into another device and use Bluetooth to get the passphrase to the computer!”

Finally, the earthquake offered some hands-on learning opportunities. Harper uses ‘earthquakes’ as a theme in his Year 8 ICT classes.

“We actually watched the earthquake live on the seismograph and afterwards I got the graphs and we pinpointed the P and S waves, and the distance to the epicentre. The new students have also seen this graph. Ground motion in many places exceeded the acceleration due to gravity. The Year 8 class was fascinated.”

Educationally, what stands out is how different the situation would have been if this earthquake had happened 10 or even just five years ago. Through internet and intranet access, social networking and video conferencing, displaced students continued learning and socialising in a way they could not have in the recent past. For them, their schools and their families, this made what was a difficult time just a little bit easier.

LAURA WILLIAMSON TEACHES AT MOUNT ASPIRING COLLEGE.

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Categories: Article, Issue 30

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