Technology is advancing rapidly with everything from maps to photo albums now having a digital equivalent. Schools are feeling the push to modernize and think outside the classroom box. The students of today are utilizing far more than the simple word processor – their assignments combine a range of multimedia, the Internet makes locating primary sources easier than ever, and downloading lectures from the world’s most prestigious university professors is a mere click away. Education has indeed gone global. beijingkids sat down with Russell Layton, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Director and Rob Cormack, ICT Facilitator, Middle School from the International School of Beijing (ISB) to find out how they’re using technology in the classroom and what they envisage for the schools of 2020.
What new forms of technology is ISB currently using in their classrooms?
Russell Layton: Classrooms are outfitted with interactive white boards, document cameras which allow teachers to put a page under them and then project the [page]onto a large screen, an LCD projector, voice projection systems which teachers hang around their necks to make it easier for them to engage the class (it’s not about volume, but presence). All classrooms have access to a mix of multimedia equipment through a multimedia mixer – primarily it’s a laptop or computer. Also, people retain DVDs, VCRs, iPods, which can then be integrated into [the classroom]. Planning is underway to move towards a true one-to-one [student-laptop ratio] program.
Has technology changed what and how you teach?
Rob Cormack: In some ways the “what” is always the same: basic processes of reading and writing.
RL: And global awareness, other cultures, history – all of those basic principles and tenets remain. The student before might write a piece but their only audience was their teacher and maybe their classmates. Now their audience can be much wider, and in a structured environment [the student]can actually receive feedback about their piece from a much wider audience.
RC: Kids now have to be very thoughtful about what their sources are, whereas before, you’d go down to the library and the sources have already been vetted. That’s something we have to emphasize in class: What’s your source? Who put it there? What’s this person’s angle?
Do teachers have difficulties keeping up with the technology? Especially since kids adapt so quickly, it can be a case of the student becoming the teacher.
RL: Technology is changing rapidly and to a certain extent the opportunities offered by the technology are also changing. I think the major issue for teachers – as well as keeping up with technology – is assessing it. Does this offer meaningful and relevant opportunities in the context of what I’m trying to achieve with students? We have new technology that we’re experimenting with in school all the time, and it’s a very time-consuming and somewhat ill-defined process. There’s been plenty of waste particularly in the field of technology, and we don’t want to jump on every bandwagon when they come along. How does this [technology]add value? Is this really in line with what we’re trying to achieve?
RC: Where the teacher really comes in is not that they even have to be an expert in that [computer]program, but they bring the experience of being the trained professional. They can ask questions that make kids think more deeply. Yeah, kids can get on Google but they often need the teacher’s guidance to sift through and find the quality sources of information. And that’s the value of the thinking process of the teachers.
Is there a limit to how much technology you’d like to see in the classroom?
RL: I think there’s definitely a limit and it takes professional judgment of the teachers and the administrators, and the parents’ consent. There have to be limits, otherwise you don’t get a return on investment, you don’t get appropriate levels of use.
RC: We try not to jump on every bandwagon, as Russell said. There’s a danger of getting the latest gadget and that would be when there’s too much technology. We have to think it through.
RL: I can’t think of any occasion where students and teachers have suffered dramatically because we didn’t pick up the latest technology as soon as it was released.
What do you think the classroom of 2020 will look like?
RL: A lot of learning, I hope, won’t be centered around classrooms. It’s not about the room, it’s not about the building, it’s about a place for people to meet. I’m hoping that a lot of things will happen away from that location by using technology out in the field.
RC: Because of the social stuff we see, because of Facebook and Google Docs and some of these collaborative things, collaboration is going to be needed no matter what. You can [currently download]lectures from MIT and other great universities around the planet – I think that’s just going to continue.
RL: It’s about human interaction and the technology will hopefully enhance – maybe even change – the nature or the way that people interact. Hopefully, particularly from an international perspective, that interaction will actually become richer; more varied and face-to-face [interaction]will not be at the expense of the electronic media. If I’ve got something to talk about, I don’t use e-mail; I’d rather go down and talk to the person. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.
Laptops and smart boards are expensive and come at a cost to students and schools. Do you think a gap will quickly appear between the “have” and the “have not” schools?
RL: The gap is growing now in all sorts of dimensions, and technology is just another one of those factors. If you look at public schools in various countries around the world and you look at international schools, that gap is growing. The flip side of that is: Which are the most important gaps to focus on? And I don’t think technology is the most important gap. If you don’t have books in your classroom library, you shouldn’t be putting your money into technology. I’ve been saying that for a long, long time.
What forms of technology do you consider essential for every student?
RC: This is really boring – the word processor. It’s changed the way we write. It’s so much easier for kids to learn and improve their writing skills. And [following]that closely, it’s the Internet.
RL: With the right guidance, I believe the Internet is incredibly powerful in terms of the opportunities it offers. So, that is the most essential. Laptops give you access to [the Internet]. And the word processor, particularly as they move up in school.
Have you encountered problems with parents not being able to keep up-to-speed with the technology?
RL: We’re very fortunate; most of our families have multiple computers at home. From what I understand, the Internet is accessible [at home and]reasonably powerful.
RC: Understandably, parents sometimes feel that they can’t keep up. Teenagers have perplexed parents for generations – technology just adds a new dimension. Kids are naturally social; I remember my mom yelling at me to get off the phone. Now kids are [socializing]in a different, online kind of way, and there are some implications of that. It comes up every year in middle school.