Educators Need To Do More Than Just Tinker At The Edges In The High School Space


I want to begin this article with reference to the latest findings of the 6th annual NMC Horizon K–12 Edition that was released recently. I have referred to this report each year in my own work and the latest edition, announced in a special session at the annual ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, provides some timely reminders.

The 2015 NMC Horizon Report K–12 Edition describes emerging technologies that are likely to have the most impact on teaching and learning. Key themes in the annual round-up by the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) involve students moving from passive recipients of information to active participants and collaborators who need new types of support and opportunities. It describes six key trends in K–12:

  1. re-thinking how schools work; for example, it notes that the overly structured nature of the school is hampering learning
  2. shifting to deeper learning approaches; for example, students working on local and pressing global problems
  3. increasing the use of collaborative learning approaches
  4. shifting students from consumers to creators; for example, citing cases of students creating stop-motion animations to help other students understand abstract concepts
  5. increasing the use of blended learning
  6. the rise of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) learning.

The full report details what it deems are significant but ‘solvable’ challenges, including creating authentic learning opportunities, integrating technology into teacher education, personalising learning, scaling teaching innovation, teaching complex thinking and re-thinking the role of teachers.

There are a number of challenges identified from time to adoption and the report cites BYOD (bring your own device) and Makerspaces, 3D printing, adaptive learning technologies, wearable technology and digital badges as key contests. It also estimates that the blended learning designs currently on the rise in schools will reach their maximum impact in the next one to two years.

Furthermore, there are three meta-dimensions that impact schools: policy, leadership and practice. In my experience and based on research conducted over the past decade or more, it is action to seriously adopt “deeper learning that includes models such as project- and challenge-based learning, which connects curriculum to life outside the classroom”. This learning approach must become mainstream. Leadership in schools needs to focus on “innovative learning approaches that may require removing limitations of traditional bell schedules and assessments while encouraging the creative application of technology”. In the report, Finland is cited as the country that is “emerging as a leader in rethinking how the school day is structured”. Both dimensions of policy and leadership impact teaching and learning practices.

As I thumbed through the 2015 NMC Horizon Report K–12 Edition I kept nodding; so much of what I read is reflected in findings of the High Possibility Classrooms research (Hunter, 2013). However, I also feel a sense of disquiet since finishing this latest account of where the education sector is at in the ‘tech space’ in 2015. It is only one report, but it is often a point of reference for education jurisdictions, both nationally and internationally.

Over the past six weeks, I have spent significant time in high schools doing research and technology-enhanced learning projects with teachers and students. What high school students are saying is important and they concur with the findings in the latest NMC Horizon Report. I conducted focus groups that included 164 students in years 7–10 in four diverse high school locations in NSW. Students talked about what they like about using technology in their learning in classrooms and how it does/does not enhance their learning – including their favourite lesson/s. Data from this work is research ‘of the particular’, but it is rich and revealing.

For some time now, many primary schools in NSW generally have been doing a terrific job of ‘stepping up’ and using technology to enhance student learning – teachers collect data on what works and they review their practices. There has been a real shift in the minds and practices of many primary school teachers, especially in the past two years. They are using technology where pedagogy is the focus and various devices and apps enable more interesting, engaging and creative classroom learning. Students in these classrooms are achieving excellent results and positive outcomes from more technology-rich teaching, as reflected in standardised tests and school-based assessments.

Teachers must stop talking at their students in 2015 – for every lesson and for the whole lesson (there is too much of this happening). Students told me repeatedly that they “do not like it”. There is nothing wrong with explicit teaching of concepts from time to time, but when a teacher stands at the front of the room and talks at their class for 40–50 minutes, it is not okay.

High school students love opportunities to do projects focused on real issues and problems. They want their work to count, but everything starts to shift in late year 9 and into early Year 10 in their minds because of the big test – the Higher School Certificate (HSC – final year of secondary schooling in NSW). This test is a significant impediment to accelerating the uptake of technology-enhanced learning in high schools across most key learning areas.

As Professor Eric Mazur has so convincingly researched and then argued at EduTECH a few weeks ago, “Assessment: the silent killer of learning”. Assessment is killing what technology-enhanced learning could look like for high school students, especially in the senior years. This is where good, savvy education policy must come in – the kind that is being advocated in the 2015 NMC Horizon Report K–12 Edition.

There are plans underway in NSW by the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards NSW (BOSTES) for online HSC versions, but until that happens, the preference for note taking and writing with pens and paper, and stand and deliver from teachers, will remain in the later stages of schooling. Students in many of the focus groups reflected this view, “We are worried we will not be able to write fast enough in our final exams, so we have to get ready for that.”

One group of Year 10 students reported how much they liked science because their teacher used Kahoo. A science teacher in another school used Verso. These are both new apps that are highly interactive and motivate content learning (Ying Shao Hsu, 2015). Other students in Year 7 for example, liked opportunities to do meaningful week-long projects.

In terms of BYOD, many students in this sample reported that they are only using their devices for 30 percent of the school day. Many students do not bring them to school and some reported that teachers actively ask them to put mobile devices away and write with pens. Students recognise mobile devices are distracting to their learning at times and they all reported using the ‘alt screen tab’ to quickly hide off-task activity. But, they want teachers to notice this and help them limit this kind of behaviour – they also want teachers to assist them to be better information searchers. “We do not know how to search well,” said many of the students across all year groups. And, when teachers do set research tasks using technology devices, the links provided must take students to sites where they will find relevant and useful information.

This is just a taste from recent research and projects in high schools on technology-enhanced learning. It is complex. However, in view of the NMC Horizon Report K–12 Edition just released, it is worth sharing. The Handbook of Research on Teacher Education in the Digital Age has terrific ideas from recent research to support technology-enhanced learning in schools and universities and is a great starting point for pre-service and service teachers.

No matter what, education leaders and teachers have to do more than just tinker at the edges in technology integration in high schools. Pre-service teacher education must do more in universities in preparing the next generation of secondary teachers, and all teachers in all school contexts must step up – they owe it to their students.

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Jane Hunter

Jane Hunter

Senior Lecturer, School of Education at University of Technology Sydney
I am a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education conducting postdoctoral research in STEM, with a background in secondary and primary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past I have held leadership roles as a head teacher in secondary schools, in government bureaucracies in education policy and in large-scale technology projects including the Teaching and Learning Exchange, the Connected Classrooms Program and Quality Teaching. I taught in teacher education at the University of Sydney for six years where I was seconded to the Interim Committee for a NSW Institute of Teachers and the Australian Government Quality Teaching Program. In 2010 I joined the staff in the School of Education as a Lecturer in the Master of Teaching program at Western Sydney University where I also completed my PhD in 2013. Throughout my education career in both universities and ‘outside the academy’ I have circulated findings of my research in book chapters and scholarly papers. I also enjoy writing for public forums like The Conversation, I have a blog and find Twitter @janehunter01 an important place to engage with education colleagues more broadly. In March 2016 I was a keynote speaker at the Future Schools Conference in Sydney.

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