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The dilemma of computers in schools July 22, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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From Dr. Joanne Orlando

In this post, Dr Orlando reflects upon the considerable investment Australian governments are making in placing computers in Australian schools, and suggests that the provision of the hardware is just a first step if we are to see a positive impact on student learning.

 

If you spent millions of dollars putting computers into schools, what do you think would happen? Do you think students will achieve better results in their learning? Do you think teachers will change their practice and adopt new ways of teaching? Do you think that governments will change the teaching and learning they expect to take place in schools?

Computers have been associated with developing the 21st century skills students will need for the future workplace. Late last year the Federal government implemented the Digital Education Revolution into Australian schools. This four-year initiative was the government’s response to capitalising on the benefits that computers potentially hold for student learning. In NSW this initiative has a budget cost of over $400 million (Federal government funding) and $25 million (NSW State government funding). It focuses on providing every Year 9 student and teacher in every Government secondary school in Australia with a laptop for the next four years.

Research to date however suggests that initiatives which focus primarily on resourcing schools with computers are not successful. Placing computers in schools does not seem to enhance student learning and achievement.

Teachers’ lack of performance or unwillingness to change is often given for as the reason for lack of success of initiatives which focus on resourcing schools with computers. This is however a one-dimensional response to a complex and important issue. It also does not provide insight into how we can actually make the most of using computers to enhance student learning and meaningfully prepare our students for the future workforce.

Schools are multifaceted and complicated environments. Expecting one new addition (computers) to change schools and raise standards is simplistic and unhelpful. Considering the complexity of the environments that these computers are being placed in will give us greater insight into reflecting on why teachers choose to use computers in their teaching in the ways they do (or don’t).  It will also support signposting where future planning might take place to facilitate future advancement and growth of the use of computers in schools that will support reaching the goal of enhancing student learning.

For example, a current and significant issue for schools and teachers is that while the government is resourcing schools with laptops they are simultaneously increasing pressure on teachers in terms of accountability. This is evident with the publication of league tables in high profile newspapers and the MySchool website. This accountability is linked to nation-wide standardised test scores. There is sufficient research to show that standardised tests encourage teaching which is traditional and teacher-centred. This of course is at odds with the creative software available on school computers and the use of these for the development of 21st century skills. Add to the mix other significant factors such as the diverse student abilities and experiences, and recent and significant changes to the curriculum.

The resourcing of schools with computers is a substantial beginning step for enhancing student learning. A second step now, if we really aim to use computers to their full potential to support student learning, is to contextualise computers within the schools and classrooms where they have been placed. Let’s not rely on the rhetoric about what computers are able to do. We need to shift our focus to thinking about and planning for how computers might be used in ways that are meaningful to our students and our teachers within today’s schools.

Joanne Orlando is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

NAPLAN testing, teacher bans, and the prospect of ‘league tables’ May 1, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics.
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from Associate Professor Steve Wilson

The temperature is rising as both the Australian and NSW governments insist that the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing should go ahead in May. This is despite teacher union threats to ban teacher participation in the testing because the test results, published on the My School web site for the first time this year, have led to the construction and publication of school rankings or ‘league tables’ in national print media.

 So, who is right? Our governments, which are committed to making school performance data public through the My School government web site? Or the teacher unions, who cite overseas experiences of how ‘league tables’ are used in a misinformed way to denigrate the performance of schools, teachers and students in low socio-economic status communities?

 The answer is that they are both right, but that ultimately there is a higher principle to be considered which strongly suggests that teachers should not impede the national testing program. This principle relates to the availability of information in a democratic society, and the right of the public to access data of all sorts, including data about schools and student academic achievement.

 Clearly, ‘league tables’ are simplistic (they only report results in basic literacy and numeracy, and clumsily attempt to rank schools on a simplistic and narrow construction of academic quality). Because of this, schools that have more students from educationally advantaged backgrounds inevitably look better in these tables. ‘League tables’ are open to misuse and abuse when their limitations are concealed or remain unexplained. Additionally, the NAPLAN tests do not capture many of the outcomes schools strive to achieve and which are very valuable to young people – creativity, their physical and emotional development and so on. However, though it could clearly be improved, the current NAPLAN testing regime is internationally applied and accepted, and it is quite correct for governments to conduct these tests to have some measure of educational outcomes. After all, we make a huge investment in our education systems, and all young people rely on its success to secure their own futures.

 Some of the concerns about the most recent ‘league tables’ published in Australia will be overcome by the  fact that, in future, the My School site will publish student ‘academic growth’ data – the progress students have made – rather than simply comparing performance data in which the most advantaged schools and students often do well. This is a welcome improvement as it will enable the recognition of every poor school which adds value to its students’ learning. From now on, any media outlet which continues to publish ‘performance’ tables, and ignores ‘improvement’ data, will be discredited.

Irrespective of this, we do need to defend and support the NAPLAN and My School systems, which allow us to have access to valid data about our schools and to make our own judgements. Teachers should not try to force the government to stop the media publishing results from the My School site. It would be far better if they contributed their energies to making the public more aware of, and more critical of, the dangers of simplistic ‘league tables’. Teachers should help empower us to effectively interpret educational data – not obstruct our access to it. We need to be educated – not subject to censorship. This is the key principle in this debate.

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