3G phones put NZ ahead in education tech

Web 2.0, advanced technology for handheld digital communication and a willingness to innovate in education places New Zealand at the forefront

New Zealand cellphone calls may be expensive, but we are further into the third generation of cellphone technology than many Western countries, including the US, says Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, an educational technology specialist from Virginia.

Nussbaum-Beach was keynote speaker for the Tuanz education conference last week.

She says the confluence of Web 2.0, advanced technology for handheld digital communication and a willingness to innovate in education places New Zealand at the point of a “perfect storm” for new uses of digital technology in education.

The internet, and particularly Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs and social networks, has given this generation of young people a new outlook on information and learning, Nussbaum-Beach says. It will no longer be possible to teach them in traditional ways that rely on the teacher as the font of all knowledge and memorising as one of the chief elements of learning.

There is little point in committing a huge number of facts to memory when they are immediately available, with latest updates, in response to a simple web query.

Emphasis will, rather, be on the creativity of the student; what they can achieve by combining and interpreting information from different sources — including their fellow students and other people accessible online.

She cites the case of a student who uploaded his draft research paper to Wikipedia as an article, watched while knowledgeable people corrected his mistakes and added further information and pertinent references; then downloaded the result as the final version. A conventional teacher would have said “do your own work”, she says, but it’s hard to draw a firm ethical line between this kind of interaction and the normal process of consulting authoritative sources.

Web 2.0 will bring to the fore both an increasing range of instruments, such as 3G cellphones, for using the internet and a variety of software agents, tailored by the user to scan the internet continuously for the latest information on a particular subject. Agents will also take the form of “avatars”, representing the users themselves, and relating to other avatars in virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Skype is “an amazing tool for the classroom” Nussbaum-Beach says, allowing a class to bring in an author or expert to discuss their book or field of study with a class. She demonstrated this at the conference, calling a mathematics teacher in the US, who demonstrated how he interacted on problems in trigonometric functions with his students, giving them the grounding for a study of calculus.

The idea of a teacher being put out of work by a computer may be passé, but teachers who fail to embrace the opportunities offered by digital technology are likely be put out of work by teachers who do, Nussbaum-Beach says.

New web tools are fine but what about access?

Gillian Eadie of Wellington’s Marsden College put the Tuanz audience on the spot by asking them to figure out how to give a New Zealand school access to technology within the allowed Education Ministry budget.

Delegates — mostly from the education sector, with many current teachers — were split into small teams, given a price-list, a budget and a plan of a hypothetical school with some existing computer equipment, and asked to evaluate their priorities, draw up a “shopping list” and recommend ways to bridge gaps between expenditure and funding.

Economising strategies included use of $360 handheld computers, rental of equipment at one-third the price of purchasing it all in one year and use of thin-client machines.

Government-financed laptops for teachers would inevitably be redeployed for student use, say participating teachers, even though there is an explicit directive against this. Some teams recommended breaking up the computer lab, thereby regaining a classroom and spreading the computers around the school, but Eadie says this is likely to bring objections from parents, who like to see a dedicated IT facility.

Most teams claimed to have come within budget with their plans, though with inevitable deferrals of some equipment for a future year.

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