Mapping our way on the e-learning highway

Children’s brains may be developing differently as a result of exposure to digital technology, with profound implications for the education system, says the prime minister’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman.

Sir Peter made the claim to Parliament’s science and education committee, which in May kicked off an unprecedented inquiry into “21st century learning and digital literacy”, examining in particular how schools may need to change in the wake of the Government’s $1.5 billion investment in ultrafast broadband.

The inquiry has pitched progressives, who want to see teachers quickly evolve into tech-savvy new-age knowledge brokers, against conservatives, who worry about the practicalities and believe there remains a big role for traditionally delivered classroom teaching.

Sir Peter argued that schools and parents splurged a lot of money putting computers into schools 20 years ago that “didn’t make much difference educationally”.

But he opened a new front when giving evidence to the select committee on Wednesday – appropriately, via video-conference – saying that today’s children were the guinea pigs in “a new world we don’t fully understand”.

“Anyone who has seen a two-year-old playing around with an iPad knows what I am talking about. The digital world is leading to different ways in which the brain develops, different environments in which we learn . . . and it does seem to be having impacts on cognitive, social and emotional development.”

Sir Peter said neuroscientists and teaching researchers in Britain and the United States were just starting to look at the implications for education but there was a lack of information and it was pointless talking about it being “good or bad”.

“Whether it has any meaning – I think we should be careful.”

He said, for example, that studies had shown that parts of the brains of British taxi drivers expanded when they memorised “the Knowledge”, London’s inner city street map.

But what was evident was that the human race was going through a “radical change” in the way it communicated and achieved knowledge, he said.

“Whereas 20 years ago it was unequivocal [that] parents and teachers were the sources of information, now much information is obtained from the web or other digital media and the teacher’s role is becoming one of helping students interpret what is likely to be reliable or unreliable information.”

New technology, such as the web, could lift education in rural areas and disadvantaged urban communities as well as help New Zealand meet its “moral responsibility” to assist education among its Pacific neighbours, he said.

The Post Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA), which represents 18,000 mostly secondary school teachers, said that although children now expected learning to be “ICT-based”, it was going too far to say that today’s children were “wired differently”.

“The focus on supporting 21st century students who are collaborative, open-minded, life-long learners is important but we are some way from dispensing with content-learning altogether,” it said in its submission.

“There are few signs . . . that either parents, tertiary institutions or employers are ready to relinquish expectations that secondary students will have a sound knowledge in certain curriculum areas.”

The same football is being kicked around in different ways by many of the 90 submitters to the Parliamentary inquiry. Margot McKeegan, learning adviser for the Greater Christchurch Schools Network, which is promoting collaboration between 100 schools in the city, told the committee that she did not believe teachers should be registered unless they had demonstrated they were capable of working in an “e-learning environment”.

But the National Council of Women said it would disagree with that approach. Effective learning had always happened in a wide variety of environments, but the relationship between children and their teachers remained the most influential factor in a successful school, it said.

ECONOMIC Development Minister Steven Joyce signalled the Government had a strong appetite for reform in a speech to InternetNZ NetHui in June.

E-education would be “quite disruptive” and would turn on its head the concept of teaching and learning, changing the dynamics between educators and pupils, he said. “For those that embrace it, it is something that is going to be wonderful for people to be part of.”

The Government will next year begin rolling out the Network for Learning, a $300 million to $400 million “closed” network running over the ultrafast broadband network that will provide secure access to online resources and internet access for schools on centrally-negotiated terms.

The initiative appears to have attracted widespread support, including from the PPTA, which said it was a “reasonable compromise” in tackling the problem that the education system had become “devolved and divided”.

But there are doubts about how quickly the education sector will be able to grasp the nettle, given it remains a “people industry”.

Albany Senior High School deputy principal Mark Osborne told the inquiry a leadership crisis in schools threatened to derail plans to reshape the education system to take advantage of ultrafast broadband and e-learning.

Ten thousand of the country’s 50,000 teachers were approaching retirement and between 30 and 40 per cent of newly qualified teachers were leaving the profession within their first five years on the job, he said.

“We are trying to replace an ever-increasing pool of leavers with an ever-diminishing pool of new teachers.”

An Education Ministry spokeswoman said that although it was true its workforce was ageing, losses had fallen for several years and retention was increasing.

“Baby boomers” were staying in work longer than had been expected, she said. “The ministry has monitoring in place and is planning for the retirement of this group, when it does occur.”

In the meantime, a proportion of teachers and schools are achieving educational stardom by positioning themselves on the crest of the digital wave.

Albany High School turned heads in the information technology industry when it opened in 2009 by eschewing Microsoft software and deciding to use only free open-source software, for example.

That meant the school could then encourage pupils to bring their computers to school, freeing up their own resources to buy computers for those who could not afford them, Mr Osborne said. “Proprietary” software, on the other hand, could not be installed on students’ computers without breaching suppliers’ licensing conditions, he said.

It is in addressing bread-and-butter matters such as this that the Parliamentary inquiry could make its mark.

Mr Osborne said only Albany High School and two other schools had adopted “creative commons” licensing policies that allowed teachers to share online resources they had developed with other schools, without having first to seek the approval of their boards. Other schools had “all rights reserved on teaching and learning resources”.

Open-plan learning spaces that aided e-learning reduced disruptive behaviour, Mr Osborne said, because there could always be three or four teachers on hand to prevent children “taking on” an inexperienced teacher. They also meant teachers could learn from one another, which was important because the difference between the “best and worst” teachers in a school was always greater than the differences between schools themselves, he said.

Sir Peter said it was “fundamental” to put more money into research. “Scientists are no better at predicting the future than anybody else, which means they are bloody hopeless at it. We don’t know all the answers.

“But the inquiry has got to help design the teacher of 2025 or 2040, not 2012.”

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