Teachers on learning curve
Technology is forging new ways of teaching and learning, writes Kirsten Lees
TECHNOLOGY is changing the way we learn. That is a given as school students — the ubiquitous digital natives — come to class equipped with skills and expectations unparalleled in schools 20 years ago.
As a matter of course, technology is also changing the way teachers teach — from how they engage their students and manage their classrooms, to how they shape their working day, manage their professional lives — and indeed how they think about a career in education.
To teacher Wendy Pettit, the impact of technology on her year five class at Currambena Primary School in Lane Cove in Sydney’s north has been gradual and led by the students.
For the teachers, she says, it was initially a steep learning curve. ‘‘ I remember the seemingly endless and sometimes nervous discussions about buying the first computer for the school.’’
Now computers, and related technologies are as integral to her teaching as any other medium. And Wendy Pettit acknowledges that this is affecting the way she manages the class.
‘‘ Firstly, I teach in smaller grabs of time,’’ she says, ‘‘ but this is a good thing. I personally believe that teaching has long been too auditory. It is important to cater for different perceptual styles — visual, auditory and kinesthetic (learning by doing) — especially when teaching younger children.’’
The internet and related technologies, Pettit believes, offer new ways for her to engage children in learning activities that suit a range of learning styles. New media bring more variety, colour and movement when presenting material to the class and allow students to present assignments in different ways.
‘‘ The children use Powerpoint, basic animation, as well as word processing packages,’’ says Pettit. ‘‘ I have had a project from one child who was fascinated by technology and interested in marketing. He came up with a scripted, acted, filmed and edited advert, all done on the home computer. Another project was a short film, again fully edited and all about bmx biking.’’
To Dale Spender, an educationalist and an expert on the impact of digital technologies on learning, the shift is fundamental: ‘‘ There has been a switch from passive to active learners,’’ she says, ‘‘ and active learners need a different range of support staff.’’
This is more than a learning revolution for students and it opens up a range of job opportunities for people interested in a career in education, according to Spender.
Learning managers, care-givers, counsellors, tutors, software programmers, instructional designers, network managers, content creators — these are all occupations and skills that she believes will play an increasing part in supporting learning.
‘‘ Before the internet, to be a teacher you had to be everything in one person. Now there is a range of possibilities and many more people can become part of the education process,’’ she says, ‘‘ whether it is managing the process, creating new forms of content for a national curriculum, or devising new ways of evaluating progress and measuring success. If you walk into a space in a school that is making good use of technology, it probably looks more like an office than a traditional classroom. There are workstations, students working in groups, getting up, wandering around, asking questions, working things out. Projects will be designed to be less content prescriptive and more outcome oriented as it becomes less important for students to know, and more important for them to know how to do. School projects may be put together by teams of teachers with different backgrounds and different skills.’’
Spender speculates skills and new areas of expertise will grow.
‘‘ This is not to diminish the role of educators to simply and an administrative job,’’ she says. ‘‘ Teaching is an intellectual skill. It is the art of getting people to expand their minds, have insights, develop values and to grow emotionally. That will not change.’’
Debbie Murray has been a high school teacher for 19 years, and her experience largely reinforces what Spender is suggesting. As a specialist in distance education, most of Debbie’s classroom hours are spent via satellite with classes of remote students. ‘‘ We can hear each other (we have audio), and importantly, the technology allows the students to see what I am doing, demonstrating techniques, and so on,’’ she says.
Nonetheless, in order to further enhance the learning experience of remote students, Murray and her colleagues are at the forefront of researching, trialling and evaluating communications and software tools for use in education.
Much of what they have learned and implemented for distance education has relevance, Murray believes, for face-to-face classroom teachers, and she is often asked to visit schools to discuss her work and to demonstrate different technologies and different approaches to teaching.
‘‘ My role is to train teachers in using technology in teaching, but often this means training teachers to think in a different way about how they deliver lessons. Teaching has evolved from teachers being the source of all knowledge and students learning what the teachers learned. We have become facilitators of learning, ensuring responsible learning and safe learning. Teachers are no longer those that supply information, but direct students to useful, the most up-to-date and appropriate research.’’
Matthew Kearney, senior lecturer in educational technology at the University of Technology’s education faculty makes the point that technology will have an impact on how educators manage their career profiles, build their resume credentials and gain professional recognition, through the proliferation of webbased career management tools and community portals.
‘‘ Such communities,’’ says Kearney, ‘‘ offer teachers a flexible and convenient way to develop professionally, providing an opportunity to exchange resources and share success stories. Many provide access to peer reviewed learning materials or specialise in learning design issues. Less formal communities (TeacherTube, teacher blogospheres and podcasts) are a convenient way for teachers to share and comment on new teaching ideas and opinions.’’
In Kearney’s opinion, contributions to these formal and informal online communities might be included on a teacher’s resume, and will eventually receive official recognition from employers, in time adding to the development of an educator’s professional identity. The pervasiveness of technology in the teaching environment is transforming careers in education, just as it is changing the learning experience. But, Pettit sounds a note of caution on her tech-savvy tenyear-olds:
‘‘ They may be used to fast movement, lots of colour and push-button control but as yet, teachers are only human and we don’t have pause control, or a fast-forward, or an off switch.’’
Software for hard tasks: Students are innovative in presenting assignments, says Wendy Pettit