Plugged into learning
Technology is changing the way our children learn. LAUREN HAYES takes a peek at what's happening in Invercargill's Waverley Park School.
In the swinging sixties, The Jetsons predicted what a 21st century classroom might look like.
At the cartoon's Little Dipper School, teachers were replaced by talking robots who used chalkboards to impart their lessons, and report cards were clunky cassette tape machines.
These days, the Hanna-Barbera future of learning looks a little dated.
Chalkboards have long been absent from our classrooms, and today's reports are much more likely to be distributed by email than on cassettes.
But while we might not be educating our kids in the futuristic world The Jetsons anticipated (at least, not yet - we still could re-embrace cassette technology, after all), classrooms have changed immensely in the past few decades.
Information and computer technology is everywhere. Teachers talk about a paradigm shift in education, a slow but steady undercurrent washing through the schoolyard.
These teachers talk about the shift positively, about the vast opportunities it can offer the next generation of learners.
A glimpse of this future can be seen in Waverley Park School's room eleven, one Wednesday morning.
A small group sits on the mat with the teacher, school journals open around an iPad. They're discussing a particular phrase in a poem, consulting an online thesaurus and Google for help with the tricky parts.
The rest of the class has been left to their own devices - literally, in most cases, as almost every pupil has a laptop, iPad or iPod in front of them as they work.
Surprisingly, the children are actually working.
The teacher is busy, and these are 10- and 11-year-olds with a million computer games at their fingertips.
But they're working.
There's a burbling calm across the room. One girl is finishing her athletics assessment. Another is creating a flowchart on a laptop, while the boy beside her is updating his class blog.
The classroom doesn't feel like a classroom.
There's an inviting couch, where two kids are lounging, clutching iPads. Others are lying on the floor, or leaning up against a wall, or working out in the corridor as they complete their tasks.
It's almost unbelievable.
Deputy principal Helen Kennedy, who teaches in the class three days a week, explains how the system works.
Every pupil signs a weekly contract, setting out and prioritising all the tasks they are expected to complete. Every morning, every pupil plans how they are going to organise their own day, using the contract to work out what they should prioritise.
It's a very adult way of conducting things, a system clearly not possible without the help of modern technology.
In this classroom, information and computer technology is woven into the fabric of the curriculum.
All subject areas utilise the equipment in some way, whether it be composing a blog entry to test literacy skills or watching a photo slideshow to examine art techniques.
A few doors down, Sharon Witheford, the teacher in charge of ICT at Waverley Park, talks through the benefits of a digital-based classroom like room eleven.
The mechanics behind the idea are uncannily like those of an old-fashioned classroom.
Every senior pupil has their own Google Drive account, a virtual storage system which acts sort of like a traditional school desk.
Inside the "desks", every pupil has a range of folders, one for every subject, where their contracts and week's work are housed.
However, unlike a traditional desk, the work inside can be accessed by pupils and teachers 24/7, meaning children can finish work at home, or hypothetically, continue working in a makeshift classroom following a natural disaster.
"Christchurch taught us that," Witheford says. "If the world falls down around our ears, we can still carry on."
As well as the techno-heavy senior classes, the school runs weekly enrichment sessions, opening up new avenues of utilising technology.
In these sessions, pupils as young as seven experiment with technology to create e-books, movies and art, with Witheford on hand to give pointers when needed.
Even a small sample of what these pupils can create is dauntingly impressive.
Millie shares something she's whipped up on the iPad during five minutes' free time.
It looks like the beginning of a cult noir comic - she's drawn the sun setting over skyscrapers and penned an opening paragraph describing the mysterious adventures of a young cityslicker.
Toby has used the iPad to create an animated short, featuring his disembodied head talking with a wise-cracking squirrel.
"Do you go to school?" Toby's head asks the squirrel.
"Of course not, I'm a squirrel," comes the reply.
It's a lot of fun, sure, but there will be some who doubt the educational value of the flashy gadgets.
Witheford is aware of the need to keep things focused, stressing every app used in the school has an authentic purpose.
"It's wonderful having all this gear, but it has to be functional as well."
One of these functions, she says, is breaking down barriers for children who struggle, physically, with writing, getting them engaged in and excited about the process.
It also helps those who find it hard to concentrate and need constant stimulation.
From its vantage point in Wellington, the Ministry of Education has also recognised the powerful role ICT can play in the modern education system.
Deputy secretary student achievement Rowena Phair could be referring to Waverley Park's room eleven when she talks about the "more personalised, relevant and engaging learning opportunities" technology can offer.
Almost $10 million has been earmarked for initiatives supporting the use of digital technologies and technology leadership, Phair says, and the ministry expects pupils to develop "broad technological literacy" while at school.
A revamp of the New Zealand curriculum in 2007 reflected these modern expectations, while in 2011, standards in digital technologies were introduced into the NCEA framework for the first time. However, the ministry leaves it largely to the discretion of individual schools to decide how technology is incorporated.
At Waverley Park, the computers and iPads seem to be around for keeps.
In the staffroom, an entire wall is plugged full of chargers, ready to revitalise the dozens of devices used across the school every day.
It's quite an impressive sight.
At least, it is for an outsider. Those in the staffroom don't give the wall a second glance. The technology is so ingrained here, it's hard to imagine the future of learning without it.
The Southland Times