By Scott McDonald and Jill Margerison
As digital technology continues to evolve, longstanding opinions on best teaching and learning practices have been challenged. Traditional classroom spaces with blackboards and textbooks have not only been replaced in many cases by whiteboards, learning management systems and laptops, but they have also been usurped in some schools by multiple mobile devices, a range of interactive websites with share functions and cloud storage technology. The benefits of these advancements in technology point to greater individualisation of learning. It also means that students and teachers can maximise creativity and critical thinking through greater means of generating feedback via delivery to a wider audience than that of just the teacher. Modern day collaborative technology offers exciting new challenges and incentives for learning and teaching.
In 2016, with the buzzword of collaborative learning at the forefront of our minds, we used a collaborative platform to provide a class of year nine boys with an authentic writing environment. The students at The Southport School (TSS) established a classroom in the cloud using Google Communities. The purpose was, however, not a new one. It was an age-old problem – that of how to further improve teenage boys’ literacy and love of literature. We decided that one targeted strategy towards achieving this aim was to team up with a partner school and allow boys to discuss their reading with teen counterparts online. We envisaged the project as a cross between an international book club and a pen-pal arrangement, allowing for a cross-cultural exchange of ideas on a variety of social and literary issues while allowing the students to get to know each other.
Our class was teamed up with a counterpart class from Pahang, Malaysia. To best facilitate this innovative teaching strategy, teachers firstly met through brief exchange programs in each other’s countries to discuss resources and how to facilitate an online teaching and learning environment. Co-funded by The Asia Education Foundation and the Ministry of Education in Malaysia, both Australian and Malaysian teachers discussed wanting to embrace a participatory approach that supported social discussion, validation and application in real-world contexts. This is the kind of social constructivist approach as suggested by Anderson and Dron (2014). We wanted to make studying literature – poetry and prose – an active process resulting in knowledge and skill development through social interaction online.
Teachers agreed to develop online cluster groups, using the European e-twinning model of collaboration and a combination of applications (which was called app-smashing). To effectively structure these collaborative interactions, the class of Australian year nine boys was divided into three different online groupings, or student hubs, and students were paired with a Malaysian counterpart in one year 11 English language class.
Partnership programs such as this are often fraught with difficulties due to curriculum constraints and timetabling. Yet the technology of asynchronous posting enabled students and teachers in both countries to post irrespective of these challenges. Importantly, from the Australian perspective, discussing the netiquette behind how to write in an academic online community was firstly addressed with the students. This involved a brainstorming session around recognising and respecting diversity, avoiding misinterpretation of comments through being precise and careful re-reading of content. It also led to discussion around the importance of participation online – unlike a physical classroom, in a virtual environment, classmates only have written words to effectively communicate. This prompted the year nine boys to re-evaluate the way that they were writing and reflect upon the significance of peer review. Thus a more authentic audience called for a more precise choice of vocabulary and carefully edited series of responses.
In Malaysia, the teachers explained that their key focus was to work to further embed creativity in the curriculum. They wanted to encourage their students to reach out to Australian students via this bridge program to highlight cultural values and enhance language acquisition through innovative practice. They wanted their students primarily to be practising English as this was their second language.
Whilst technology was an integral part of this project, it was mutually agreed that the integration of digital technology and pedagogy must maximise learning rather than be used as a gimmick or add-on. Professor Michael Fullan, formerly of the University of Toronto, explained that the technology “must be irresistibly engaging; elegantly efficient (challenging but easy to use); technologically ubiquitous; and steeped in real-life problem solving”. Thus, this bridge project was not guided by the technology, but instead by a rigorous four-step process involving the development of trust through online introductions, analytical discussion of poems, excerpts from a Malaysian novella, the creation of texts and personal reflections. Surveys of the students were conducted prior to and following the project to gauge interest, understanding and learning outcomes. The objective was to encourage students to share critical responses that they had voiced during class time, in an online written form. The aim was to develop the students’ self-confidence via a collaborative writing process and an authentic audience provided feedback for their writing, often instantaneously.
As a result of this collaborative project, teachers noted that there was increased curiosity not only from the students but from colleagues across both senior and junior campuses as well. In fact, the implementation of a Google Community classroom led to the development of another project closer to home. This project involved the linking of the preparatory school and the senior campus of TSS in a collaborative writing-buddy program. Over the next term, a class of grade five boys began posting about their unit of work and corresponding with the same year nine class that had established sister-school relations with the school in Malaysia. It was wonderful to replicate the process within our own school body to further engage and empower boys to write and communicate effectively.
Inspired by this ability to reproduce the model, teaching colleagues in other schools questioned whether this model of collaborative writing using an interactive platform could enable metropolitan schools to connect with rural Australian schools or schools with similarities in sporting or cultural fields to develop like-minded communities to connect and share. The project not only met our initial literacy goals, but also contributed to the development of students as global and local citizens.
This project, which began as a targeted approach to improve teenage boys’ literacy using a virtual learning environment, therefore also reflected the tenets of a holistic education – connecting with teens as global citizens, who enjoyed understanding more about culture, language, food and traditions through online conversations.
The education of students is not just about the content in the classroom. It is about the craft of delivery, the awareness of relationships with those in educational communities and the vision that educators weave for the future. Developing collaborative skills will hold students in good stead for their future study. Indeed, the ways in which teachers connect with students, manage the balance of 21st century technologies and collaborate as team members in complex educational organisations seem to be common themes in education worldwide, which echo across the Asia-Pacific region.
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Jill Margerison holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations and has worked in Tokyo as an editor, writer and teacher. She writes on her teacher blog, maintains a teaching YouTube channel and publishes articles on growth mindset, collaborative communities, teenage literacy engagement and constructivist teaching practice. In 2014, she was selected to lead an International Boys School Coalition Action Research project on Maker Culture; an approach inspired by educationalist Seymour Papert. In 2015, Jill was further awarded a fellowship through The Asia Education Foundation to implement an e-twinning project with a Malaysian school in Pahang. In 2016, Jill was asked by the Department of Education to represent Australia as an educational leader on the South-East Asian Education Summit held at Nanyang University in Singapore.
Scott McDonald is a passionate literacy educator and senior trainer of teachers for the Queensland Core Skills examination board. He is the Head of English and Associate Dean of Writing Across the Curriculum at The Southport School on the Gold Coast in Queensland. He is also a member of the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s Learning Area Reference Group (LARG) for English to provide advice to the Senior Review Steering Committee on internal and external assessment and syllabuses and provide advice on consistency of design and approach across the suite of draft senior syllabuses. In 2016, Scott was awarded the Australian College of Educators, Sam Power Biennial Award for Excellence in Literacy Education.