tdt@wab: How technologically rich is the learning environment in the HS?

We are now in Week 3 of the Digital Teacher course (tdt@WAB). This week’s face-to-face focus has been to look at how technology is used in the teaching and learning process in each school section.  My piece was to give an overview of the use of technology in the High School. Here’s an overview:

Setting the Scene

Firstly I want to set the scene by presenting some of the of some factors, challenges and parameters under which we operate:

Curriculum:

The end goal for the vast majority of our students is to pass the IB Diploma. This means that students typically take 6 subject-based courses (3 at HL and 3 at SL), Theory of Knowledge, the CAS component (Community, Action, Service) and the Extended Essay, an independent 4,000 word research paper. Subject selection is limited to one from each of the first 5 groups: Language A, Language B, Humanities, Science, Maths and either a second one from Groups 1-5 or one from Group 6, the Arts.

For each IB Diploma course, typically each student is required to study a large body of content to which they apply through the entire gambit of lower-order to higher-order thinking skills: from knowledge & understanding, application, analysis, evaluation & synthesis and the ability to present substantiated opinions. So learning content that leads to critical thinking, perhaps.

Assessment:

With the exception of the Group 6 subjects, the Arts, where the assessment is mostly portfolio-based, the assessment for the majority of the subjects in Groups 1 – 5 comprises a possible mix of 70-80% high-stakes exit examinations and perhaps a 20-30% internal assessment component. Is this 20th Century assessment in the 21st Century?

Building Effective Relationships:

Over the course of the even the first year of the IB Diploma, students could have a minimum of eight teachers at any one time, if we include the supervisor for the EE, and may possibly have a completely different set of peers in each class. Likewise, a teacher in the High School on a full teaching load and a homeroom, could teach 120+ students. So what are the challenges here? How can a teacher make an individual connection with each student? How do students build relationships with each teacher? What communication tools are available? For example,  if you miss a class or need help with a concept or an assignment, what communication channels are open for the students?

Access to the Internet:

Our access is somewhat limited in terms of bandwidth as access is very expensive here in China compared with costs in other schools in the region. In addition, we are constantly looking for China-friendly tools and resources as many Web 2.0 tools are unavailable such as google apps, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter.

21C Classrooms and the IB Diploma

If we look at concepts that characterise 21st Century learning as promoted by the Partnership for 21 C Skills: collaboration, creation, communication and critical thinking, we can see that there could be a number of challenges when faced with the IB Diploma assessment model. One simplistic observation is: how do we get students to collaborate to construct knowledge in their learning process but NOT able to collaborate in their internal summative assessments and certainly NOT able to do so in their final examinations?

With all that said, what is the blend of 21c skills that we can apply as teachers and students to enhance & maximise students’ performance in order to gain their IB Diploma? What are some of the features of a technological-rich learning environment today in our High School where the assessment model is essential rooted firmly in yesterday’s classroom? How can technology enhance student learning outcomes? In other words, what technology tools can we use to teach the content, thinking skills and prepare for examination which, by the way, are still hand written?

Technology in the WAB High School

1:1 Environment:

All students have their own Macbook laptop computer which should be installed with full suite of software that includes: Microsoft Office, iLife (Garageband, iMovie, iPhoto), Evernote (for note-taking and organising notes), iWorks (for those who prefer Apple’s version of Excel, Word and Powerpoint), data logging tools, the Adobe suite that includes Photoshop and Acrobat professional.

Web-based Resources

As the largest consumers of bandwidth, the High School students have their own Internet pipe, so that their consumption does not impact the access for the rest of the school community.

The web-based technology tools that students tend to use in their daily academic life are:

  • Powerschool to look up their schedule & grades
  • Moodle to access content and class materials, and a space to upload assignments, discussion.
  • Zimbra for access to email and to assessment calendar
  • WAB portal for bulletins
  • Etherpad for collaboration
  • extensive Library databases for research
  • Skype or some other messaging service such as iChat
Moodle: Flipping the Classroom?

Moodle is probably our number one ‘learning’ tool. Each course has a class which teachers, at the very least, build a repository of resources in a variety of mediums. Yes, there are a very large number of word documents and PDF files but there are also links to websites and videos, images, sound files and podcasts. These repositories alone allow students are review work at their own pace and select from a variety of differentiated material. As they can access from home, 24/7, the concept of the flipped classroom – where students study the content before the class – promotes productivity and individualised learning in the classroom. Not only that, Moodle is allows students to post assignments and receive feedback plus have access to a whole range of other collaboration and interactive tools such as the ability to contribute to discussions using forums.

Standardised Classroom

The High School classroom has been ‘standardised’ in terms of access to technology and includes: a common connection box for access to the projector, sound and Ethernet connection for a hard-wired, faster-network connection, great sound field so that speakers are place strategically around the classroom and an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB). In Maths, for example, the Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) is a well-used tool: in class, the solutions of mathematical problems are worked out on the board and then saved as PDF files and made available through Moodle so that students can access and review offline and in their own time.

Consumers or Producers?

One essential observation is this: what is the the mix of tools: consumer, producer or utility? Do we use more consumption & organisational tools than production tools?

In terms of multi-media, do our students ‘consume’ more than ‘produce’? Certainly, students can use production tools as part of the learning process, for example, collaboratively constructing knowledge through tools such as etherpad, which is similar to google docs. Students to do reflect using multimedia, for example in a language class a student might use Garageband or PhotoBooth to record a passage in order to analyse their pronunciation. The media server serves more as a repository for storing video downloaded from external sources than a place where student-created content is uploaded. Due to the assessment model, I would suggest that student create multimedia content as part of the learning process and therefore the product itself, could be ‘disposable’ or a digital ‘record’ and hence, more of a means to an end other than the end itself.

Compared with the Elementary school, and as our High School students are largely more literate [although I am sure we have some very proficient readers in the lower grades], our production tools tend to be more text-based due to the requirements of the formal, summative assessment. In the High School, the word processor is still ‘King’ although students are moving towards Evernote for notetaking in classes and then transfer to Word, or sometimes Pages, to publish and print or publish and upload their assignments to Moodle.

BYOD – Mobile Devices

Mobile devices are a common feature in the High School although these are generally the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model. Most, probably all, High School students carry a mobile phone with the ability to take photos and sometimes video therefore the demand for low-end, school-owned cameras is diminishing. Likewise for headphones, as most students have their own (often multiple) MP3 players, so providing headphones is a challenge we do not have to face. As for back-up devices, the onus is on the student although, thanks to the uploading of assignment feature in Moodle and the seamless syncing (automatic backing up) of Evernote to the student’s online account, many disasters have been avoided!

iPads in the High School?

As I write, the latest iPad has just been announced. Apple CEO Tim Cook noted that the company sold more iPads last year than the number of PCs sold by any single competing computer maker. Apple, he said, is at the forefront of the post-PC revolution. Yes, we are piloting in pockets around the High School but the jury is out and will be for some time. The question that we face is this: as our students already have a Macbook and a swag of their own devices, what value can the iPad add that would justify it’s inclusion in the High School Technical Toolbox?

The bottom line:

Teachers are busy, teachers have to deliver content, students need to pass exams. Teachers will invest time in tools and technology only if they can see the value. The extent to which and how technology is used in the classroom is essentially up to each individual teacher. We can measure exam results but it’s hard to measure the impact of technology. That is not to say that technology is a hard sell – it’s certainly not – ask any teacher or student how they would feel if we took their laptops away. Never!

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