Teaching the ‘homo zapiens’

16 Dec 2004

Technology in schools is a bit like Christmas — it sounds like a good idea until the time comes to actually do something about it. Then it gets messy. According to Ulf Lundin, director of the European SchoolNet project, there are three phases in the process. The first is to supply the hardware and the connectivity, the second is to link the technology to the curriculum and the third is to progress to a point where you radically reshape the learning environment. The common consensus is that most European governments are still struggling with the first.

Lundin is one of the contributors to Connected Schools, a collection of essays on ICT in education published by Cisco’s Internet Business Solution Group. Edited by Michelle Selinger, an executive advisor with the networking specialist, it’s a rich resource of information where the Cisco sales pitch is kept firmly in the background as the desire to share best practice and real experience is put centre stage.

Particularly impressive are the different perspectives as it moves from learners and teachers at the coalface to policy makers and future thinkers, taking in exemplars of ground-breaking projects along the way.

At the Dublin launch of the book, Selinger was joined by one of the contributors, Jimmy Stewart, director of the Classroom 2000 (C2K) project in Northern Ireland (NI). Both talked about putting pupils at the centre of a new kind of education though Selinger, fuelled no doubt by coming into touch with so many visionaries, was more radical in her views.

She described the children of today as “homo zapiens”, a generation entirely at ease with new technologies and the fast dissemination of information. In the classroom of tomorrow it is only right that they should be enabled to teach themselves, she argued. She said that the role of the teachers would still be pivotal but different, describing them as “the conductors of the orchestra”, helping pupils from as early as primary level to begin to learn “instruments” that they are best suited for.

When asked if an onus on new learning might meet some resistance from those who aren’t convinced enough is being done around the basics — reading, writing and arithmetic — she resolutely defended the approach. “Digital literacy is as important as traditional literacy,” she argued. “It’s all about making learning a wonder again rather than something you have to do.”

Stewart talked of the need for a more flexible, skills-based approach to the 21st Century curriculum but his experiences with C2K make him better informed than most on how to get there. He said that the process of modernisation starts with infrastructure and then moves on to content, but only then can educationalists look to influence practice and create a new learning environment.

Impressively, most of the infrastructure is now in place in NI with a wide area network spanning some 80,000 desktops. All schools are connected to broadband, typically with a 2Mbps link, but infrastructure also extends beyond the school gate. Pupils can dial into NI’s education gateway from home, accessing materials after they have passed through a process of authentication. “There will be networks for every child to get access to his or her resources without the school having to provide every single access point,” said Stewart. “It’s about empowering kids to take some responsibility for the learning pathway they follow.”

The technology also has ramifications that go beyond the act of learning and into the realms of assessment. “Assessment will be about moving away from a single snapshot and league tables,” he said, “and it will move towards creating a single profile that pupils will bring with them.”

In addition to infrastructure, C2K has spent the past 18 months building its content portal, Learning Northern Ireland (LNI), which it will launch into schools in September next year. The portal was developed by Austrian firm Hyperwave and brought into the project as part of Hewlett-Packard’s successful bid for C2K’s managed service tender.

LNI will be used for continuous professional development as well as a channel for the delivery of online curriculum materials. There are four different gateways for pupils from primary to secondary with an additional one for teachers.

As for the content itself, Stewart believed it’s more fundamental than infrastructure. The good news is that it’s easier to source for English-speaking countries with the result that C2K now has some 230 content partners that teachers are happy to use. It falls into three categories: a digital library solely for schools, public library materials and, eventually, European content that will pave the way for collaboration across different countries. He was also very clear about what constitutes good content.

“We won’t take it unless the providers let us re-purpose it and let us break it down for teachers to use,” he said. Treating the library as “digital objects” may be one reason why C2K has found it easier to easier source material from media companies such as Channel 4 and The Guardian rather than specialist players. At this stage he reported that there was no huge cost burden because neither service providers nor content partners were getting hung up on the cost of licences.

Stewart also stressed that digital content was only to be used in conjunction with traditional teaching methods. “The vision is to get a basket of resources to encourage schools to start doing it for themselves,” he said. The onus is to keep the teachers on side, a process, he explained, that has to occur inside the schools. There are 20,000 teachers in NI and with only a refresh rate of one to 2,000 coming through teacher-training colleges each year it’s not practical to tackle the colleges first and wait for the new wave to infiltrate the system. The drive has to be on introducing existing staff to the possibilities of technology.

He conceded that in some instances a significant culture change will be required. “One of the things that depresses me about existing educational issues is that pupils come in with mobile phones and are told to switch them off or they have them taken away,” he said. “I want an environment where we tell them to switch them on.”

Connected Schools is available for €14 from www.cisco.com

By Ian Campbell

Pictured at the launch of Connected Schools were (from left): Mike Galvin, Cisco country manager; Jimmy Stewart, director C2K in Northern Ireland; and the book’s editor Michelle Selinger