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IT – the laptop issue

Orewa College has told its school community that all Year 9 pupils from 2012 will need to have their own portable computer and have recommended the purchase of a Apple ipad.  Not unpredictably, there has been significant adverse comment.  And quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to be a teacher of Year 9 at Orewa College in 2012 and especially not the poor person in charge of IT there next year!

The issue of laptops in schools has three components: redundancy, access and teaching style.

Redundancy – the useful life of a computer is about three years.  After that, its operating speed and memory capacity mean that it is increasingly compromised in terms upload/download/display of multimedia files and the level of software that can be used.  The capital cost to a school of continually upgrading its computer stock in a three-year cycle is enormous and very often beyond the capacity of a state school.  There is little if any specific funding for this; most of such funds are locally raised.

Access – how does a school provide sufficient electronic access to the teaching resources and the internet such that all pupils who need it have it available when they need it?  Particularly in secondary schools, the computer laboratory is the current answer; most secondary schools have several.  In primary schools most have no computer lab, just a number of computers in groups scattered throughout the classrooms.  Neither of these solutions provides the right level of access for most classes.

If your secondary school subject is timetabled for the computer lab for every period, you are sweet, but if you have to book the lab, your programme delivery is subject to the vagaries of the booking system and the demands on the resource.  Where computers are distributed around classrooms you have the best and the worst situation; continuously available resource, but insufficient of it to use in any really meaningfully constructive manner.

The advent of the laptop has caused some school to create mobile labs of laptops which can be booked and used in any space or even outside.  That removes the need to dedicate a space for a computer lab (a huge cost in itself) but the issues of booking and availability are just the same as having a computer lab; and add to this there is damage cost factor in continually moving them about the school.

Teaching style – a computer in front of each pupil alters the spectrum of teaching styles that are available to the teacher.  Now, truly interactive learning is possible…but only possible.  The presence of the computer is just the first step.  Even teaching the pupil how to use the computer will not change the teaching mode.  What is required is for the teacher to alter the entire mode of interaction with the pupil, and with available electronic resources, to unlease the power of the computer to make the learning interactive. In this regard, there is a conundrum.  Before you can expect the teacher to significantly change teaching mode, to retrain, and to convert resources from a paper-base to an electronic base, the infalliable and personalised use of a computer by each pupil is required. Not timetabled or booked, but continuously and personally available including outside the teaching time.

Enter the affordable laptop/notebook/ipad.

If each pupil provides their own, the issues of redundancy and access are largely removed – note, largely!  The elephant in the room is the presumption that the school has the infrastructure and technical-support resource to ensure that every laptop brought into the school can connect to the school’s network, can do so without compromising the school’s network security, and can be fixed when something goes wrong (especially at the software level).  This elephant is enormous!

But if you can minimise this elephant with clever software and sufficient technical-support resource, another elephant springs into sight!  Do all the laptops have all the software loaded that the teaching programme requires, which operating system platform(s) (Apple/Windows/Linux) will be supported, and who owns the licences to this software; the pupil or the school?  The rising availability of web-based applications and cloud computing are reducing this elephant but it still requires a very significant thinking-through and solution-finding by the school of the issues involved.  Theoretically, it should not matter if you use a Windows-based computer or and iPad as both will generally save files in a format that can be read by the other.  But watching my wife endeavour to work collaboratively with others in an electronic distance-learning environment makes me realise that there is a great deal of IT-savvy required for this to be a reality in practice.

But if you have solved the infrastructure, network security, platform, technical-support and software issues, there is still the issue of changing teacher behaviour.  And this is by far the hardest to overcome.

Teaching is actually a very personal thing; as research continually demonstrates, it is the quality of the personal interaction at an emotional level that brings about the condition for optimal learning; it is not the teaching method that creates learning, but the engagement of the teacher with the learner.  Therefore, the teacher has to be so in-sync with the technology that is being used that the technology augments the emotional interaction rather than supplants it.  Just using technology in a lesson does not guaranatee anything except, perhaps, an increased level of engagement by some pupils at some level.

So, having killed all the elephants that technology brings to the party, the issue of teacher training and assistance remains; it is not a short-term issue.  Not all teachers are tech-savvy, indeed many are the opposite – what drove them into teaching is what may reduce their desire to uptake technology!  So expect that a school whose pupils all have laptops at school will face much of their teaching day where use of that laptop does not justify the personal expense of its purchase. That will be small comfort to the parents of Orewa College Year 9 students in 2012!

What is our position in this regard given that we have faced the same issues? Where are we on this journey?

For three years now, the Cathedral Grammar School has provided each of its Year 6 pupils with a brand new, entry level notebook.  It is the pupil’s personal notebook for the next three years, to be kept at school in the pupil’s desk or locker, and used by the pupil exclusively while at school.  Each pupil is charged about $50 per term for the use of the computer.  The school owns the notebooks, insures them and retains the licences for the software on them.  At any particular class level, all pupils have identical notebooks.  The notebooks are connected to a schoolwide, thin-client, wireless network so that all files are retained on a server and not on the notebook; these files are also available to the pupils at home through any web-enabled computer.  Use of a thin-client model also means that network traffic is reduced and only the servers need to be grunty, not the notebooks! On departure from the school in Year 8, pupils have the option of purchasing their notebook for $150.

Years 4 & 5 have access to a 25 seat computer lab; Pre-School to Year 3 pupils have access to a small number of computers in their classrooms.

Our attitude to IT is that it is there to support teaching at this level, not to supplant it.  We believe that at primary school, learning is paramount, learning about IT is secondary (and best kept in proportion, increasing towards Year 6), and its use needs to advance and evolve at a speed with leaves teachers feeling comfortable and supported; the teacher is the most important part of the equation.  Our teachers are the best – not in implementing IT but in teaching their subject(s); the IT bit is developing.

For instance, we have probably advanced teacher uptake of IT more by installing interactive whiteboards in each classroom than we did by providing staff with laptops.  The whiteboards being so intuitive and practical, staff have grasped the IT challenges with much greater enthusiasm which has spurred their desire to convert their resources to electronic forms.  And they were certainly motivated to move the use of web-based learning forward by being suddenly required to provide distance learning overnight by the after effects of a few earthquakes; and they suddenly had the time available to put into the professional development required!

Adopting mobile IT into education is a journey on which every school will eventually have to embark.  Whether Orewa College has adopted the right course at the right time remains to be seen by its community, but I am very confident that we are very much further on in our mobile technology journey; and fortunately, through the insightfulness of our IT Manager, Adrian Gray, we have the infra-structure in place to move fexibly in whichever direction the rapidly changing nature of this hardware moves!

School holidays

Following the 22 February earthquake, once the initial frenzy of alternative arrangements had subsided, we turned our attention to the future…how we would reconstruct the rest of the school year.

Having lost four weeks of instruction to the upheavals of the earth, there was a significant under-current of desire for the school to regain lost ground; that, after all, is why most parents send their children to an independent school – to get the full educational deal and miximise the value of the time spent at school!

We added a week to Term 2 by shortening the mid-year holidays by one week.  It seemed at the time such a reasonable and sensible thing to do.

Eighteen weeks and many a tremor later, that decision seems altogether different.  The children are too tired to learn, the teachers are too tired to function properly and even many of the parents are telling us that they and their families need a break.

It illustrates more starkly than normal just how important school holidays are, not just to break the year up, but to provide very real emotional space for everyone involved.

It is tempting to look upon school holidays as some sort of industrial curse on education, or as an irritating remnant of a time when one-income families were the norm; an aberrant blip in the social economy of the country.

School holidays are, I believe, a welcome necessity on several levels and need to be valued by the community as such.

Without holidays, the teaching community would quite simply vaporise leaving behind a few unresponsive zombies to mind the masses.  Teaching is a profession unlike all others; it is more akin to acting than anything else, and imagine the exhaustion of an actor who daily had to be on-stage and in character for a six-hour play five days a week. Without the opportunity to step back from the limelight and retreat to a less emotional level, teaching would be insufferable.  As it is, few teachers do not spend significant parts of the school holidays preparing for the next performance.

A school is a distinct entity unlike any other in a pupil’s life. It is a high-pressure mixture of social interaction, cognitive stimulation and social conditioning. While families no doubt feel like this at times, the interactions between children in a school environment are very different to those within a family: there are at a very different emotional level, the variety of the interactions is extreme and the pressures on the self-image of the child are continuous.  School holidays act as important circuit-breakers for children from the “stress” caused by the need to make continuous adjustments to their social construct of the world.

School holidays provide parents with a sometimes uncomfortable reminder of the real priorities of life, a little like the recent earthquakes here in Christchurch.  In the end, having children is the point of life; we may be sophisticated technological animals, but our true usefulness in the world is ultimately associated with the life that we bring into being and leave behind us.  When we are forced to weigh up the competing interests of childcare over the holidays with the need to earn an income, this reality is brought to the fore.

If only industry valued parenthood to the extent that employment was organised around school holidays.  Progressive companies are starting to make these sorts of accommodations but there is a long way to go.

In the meantime. we have re-learnt the value of school holidays.



A real education

There are two phrases which really get under my skin, phrases which are wheeled out regularly by “modern” educationalists and unthinking teachers – and echoed by politicians – in the justification of the latest fad to be hitting schools .

The first of these is something to the effect that we are “…inculcating life-long learning…” ; that education is somehow doing something which is altering the nature of the relationship between the learners and their world so that they are protected from changes yet to come.  In reality, this is a wonderfully arrogant claim by those who make it; it sounds good but it means nothing.

My father is 91 this year and left school when he was 14 with the bare minimum of qualifications.  Since leaving school, I doubt if has read more than one novel (and that was to his family) but I know he has avidly consumed any non-fiction which interested him.  He was brought up in a time when school learning was largely a matter of taking in and regurgitating facts, many of which have since proved to have been little more than fiction.  At school, he never experienced integrated teaching, or open-ended questions or group problem-solving, nor was he the benefical receiver of any co-operative learning techniques.  Yet, like the vast majority of his generation, he has been and remains continually open to new ideas and continues to learn new things every day.  He and his generation did not need an adapted schooling system to make them able to be “life-long learners” – it was a natural state that came in the package at birth.

Show me someone who has stopped being a learner and I’ll show you someone who has ceased to be functionally human.

The other irritating and empty phrase is the one that says that “…we are educating citizens for jobs which have yet to be imagined”!  It is the sort of thing trolled out at the launch of a technology block or at a prizegiving to engender warm fuzzy feelings of future-proofing and cutting-edge thinking.

When I left school, aged 17, having completed a successful academic education, I had never seen a computer, let alone touched one.  The nearest I had come to a computer was to buy a very expensive hand-held calculator, expensive because it was the latest model with, as was proudly printed over the packaging, the enhancement of a percentage key!  None of my teachers had used a computer, nor did they prepare me in any direct way a career as a maker of web sites.  Such a position had not been thought of in 1973 – the whole topography of the internet was yet to materialise!

Yet hundreds of thousands of my generation are happily enjoying successful careers as web designers and in computing and indeed, when you think about it, the computers that they are using – certainly the ones that they started learning on in the 1980s – were designed by people still older still!  There is something wrong with the logic that says that we have to prepare current pupils for jobs that have yet to be thought of when the previous generations have happily and successfully taken up employment in positions that were never conceived in their day!  Does it mean that humanity is getting less adaptive, or is it that tasks are getting harder??

Certainly, technology is getting more complicated and the concepts that drive technological change are increasingly complex.  But that is not that change that future-proofing educationalists are talking about.  When you look at the rate of technological change, it is very probable that the pace of change is slowing compared to that experienced by my generation, or even my grandparent’s generation.  After all, my grandmother’s generation went from horses and kerosine lights to men on the moon and colour television!

So what is it that future-proofs an individual to face the future?  It certainly is not the ability to use a computer! The software that a pupil might use in primary school will be infinitely different by the time he/she reaches employment!

Being able to be adaptive and flexible in one’s attitudes and thinking will almost certainly be important…but is this something that schools can teach or inculcate?  Schools can encourage flexible thinking and reinforce the attitudes that lead to it but the real motivator of creative and adaptive thinking is not practice…it is knowledge.

How we think and view the world is a product of our cultural bias and the extent of our knowledge base.  The less aware we are of the extent of literature, art, history, mathematics, science and religion, the less our thinking can entertain the idea of other viewpoints, of other ways of understanding and of alternative visions – this is flexibility.  After all, it is hard to take into our considered thinking something of what we are totally unaware.

So a real education which prepares one for the future is an education which has as one of its central ideas that education should be about knowledge; not just skills and processes, but a reasonably solid dose of knowing stuff!  Of course, we cannot know everything; some of the knowledge that one takes in as a young person will change over time; some will be proven to be scientifically incorrect, some will need to be come more complex, some will need to rejected as biased or  inappropriate.  And we will always be learning. 

A real education will be one in which the learner knows that they are learning new things each day – not just exercising their ability to think in a group! So when judging an education, we should be critical of how much real knowing is expected – that is the test. 

Unfortunately, many primary schools have fallen into the trap of form over substance – that how you do things has become more important than the knowledge that you absorb from doing it.

Our Location

To arrange a visit please contact the School:

Street Address

The Cathedral Grammar School
26 Park Terrace
Christchurch 8013

Phone: (03) 365 0385
Fax: (03) 365 0384

Postal Address

The Cathedral Grammar School
PO Box 2244
Christchurch 8140