Niua School is in Pukapuka, one of the most isolated places in the Pacific. Matthew Easterbrook recalls his experiences visiting and how the small school’s making big steps towards utilising technology as a learning and teaching tool.
The distinctive shape of a stingray is visible as the three main motu (islets) of Pukapuka come into view. It is July 2012 and we’re flying over one of the most isolated parts of the Cook Islands – 1,140 kilometres northwest of the capital Rarotonga and 720 kilometres northeast of Samoa.
The three square kilometres of land are comprised of three motu. The main one, Wale, is where approximately 450 people normally reside. Motu Ko and motu Kotawa are reserved for collecting food. Contact with the outside world is infrequent as only chartered flights and the occasional supply boat make their way to the atoll. As we touch down on the coral runway and exit the small plane, I am struck by the humid, warm air and the sight of numerous seabirds flying over-head. I’m here for two weeks with colleagues from the Cook Islands Ministry of Education to teach at the only school on this atoll – Niua School.
Staff room doubles as computer lab
A boat ride across the stunning lagoon from motu Ko, where the airstrip is, delivers us to a reception by the local council and community on Wale. We listen to speeches and enjoy a huge kaikai (lunch) before getting settled into our accommodation. Shortly afterwards we visit the school and have another warm welcome by the Principal Tekemau Ribabaiti and his staff. A few of the 150 students are around but most have left for the day. We spend the rest of the afternoon organising timetables and learning programmes.
Computer technology at Niua School consists of approximately 20 netbooks spread out on a large table that occupies the staffroom. During the school day, this room becomes the computer lab and sewing room. Teachers are able to book classes into the lab and most of the learning is based around Microsoft Office software.
The computers are used by most of the secondary school teachers and students. The internet is available but can be unreliable and slow, and is expensive. A wireless network is expected to be set-up in the near future to connect these netbooks to the internet.
During our stay my colleagues and I taught Year 1 to 11 students an integrated art, science, math and literacy programme that was developed using the UNESCO resource ‘The Canoe is the People’. It was challenging, especially teaching the younger students, as my Pukapukan was very limited. I was grateful to have Niua School teacher Linda Mataora act as my interpreter during our stay. Our learning programme concluded with the students racing their model vaka on the stunning lagoon followed by a school picnic and swimming. What an amazing environment to learn in!
‘Netbooks for Teachers’
Fast forward to March 2013 and I’m back at Niua School, listening to the young children calling out “Mr Matt, Mr Matt” and crowding around me. I feel like a celebrity as I high five as many children as I can. I’m back in Pukapuka to assist the Minister of Education, Teina Bishop, and Secretary of Education, Sharyn Paio, deliver netbooks to teachers as part of the ‘Netbooks for Teachers’ initiative funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme. Every teacher in the Cook Islands is provided with a netbook as part of this initiative.
My role is to provide teachers with support for using the netbooks as a learning and teaching tool, and to set up Skype and the interactive whiteboard Idroo to enable professional development to take place from Rarotonga. I’m heartened by the enthusiasm of the Niua School teachers as they accept the new technology and are keen to learn more. Some of the teachers have very limited experience with using a computer but this doesn’t stop them trying. Also during this trip the schools wireless network is set up, so the computers in the staffroom can access the internet.
Connecting with Skype
Back in Rarotonga a professional development plan that meets the needs of the Niua School teachers is developed. This plan will allow teachers to gain an understanding of inquiry learning, as well as providing them with a way to use technology in their learning programmes. Over the next three months, I connect with the Niua School teachers once a week or fortnight via Skype and facilitate a 15-20 minute workshop. Skype provides the audio, the video is disabled to allow for a better audio connection, and Idroo allows ideas to be explained in a visual manner. The basics of inquiry learning are discussed and teachers complete a project on inquiry learning. Over the internet we discuss the art of creating good inquiry questions, using search engines to find relevant information, strategies to support students to summarise information, presenting information electronically, evaluating and assessing inquiry learning. Teachers email me questions and completed tasks as required. Each week I’m impressed with what I find in my inbox – these teachers are making great progress.
Keeping up the momentum
One thing that made my role easier was to have the support of Principal Tekemau Ribabaiti who encouraged his teachers. I was also supported by Roboam Wiriton, a teacher at the school who had a good knowledge of technology and was able to assist his colleagues.
I’ve just completed the professional development programme with Niua School and I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Feedback from the teachers has been positive, and I know they want more. I’m keen to keep the momentum going and will continue to support those teachers who are out of my sight but not out of my mind.
The next step for me is to find out what they would like to learn about and get planning to make this happen. Technology is definitely making an impact on education in isolated parts of the Pacific, and with enthusiastic teachers like those in Pukapuka, who knows where it may lead them.
MATTHEW EASTERBROOK IS A LEARNING AND TEACHING ADVISOR FOR THE COOK ISLANDS MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. HE HAS BEEN EMPLOYED IN THIS ROLE FOR THREE YEARS.
© INTERFACE Magazine, March 2014