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Reflections from Experience: Renewing the Buzz of Being a Teacher
Author: Michael King | October 22nd, 2009

In Transforming Learning: An Anthology of Miracles in Technology-rich Classrooms, Michael King reflects upon his experience as an English teacher at Bishops, an independent fee-paying school in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1999 the school launched its laptop program, after two years of planning and preparation. He was given a year 9 group; boys aged 14- 15 years old. Below is a summary of his experiences during the first year of the program, as well as an update from King concerning the state of the programme today.

According to Michael, one of the first things that took some getting used to was the destabilization of the usual hierarchy of the classroom. In a traditional set-up, the focal point of the classroom is wherever the teacher is situated. That is, every student is positioned to face the head of the classroom. At Bishops, the roll-out of the laptop program meant that this structure had to be disrupted, permitting the students to interact with one another and use their equipment comfortably. In this new classroom setting, the boys were positioned in six clusters of four. When the teacher needed the attention of the students, half the class had to swivel around to see him/her. According to Michael, this was disconcerting at first to some teachers who felt that their authority would not be respected.

Peer Pressure lesson

By the end of the first year most people agreed that the laptops created extra motivation in the boys. However there were unique challenges that popped up. In one instance, a teacher asked his students to write a passage of a certain word limit. He asked the class as a whole whether or not they knew how to use the word count function, to which the students responded "yes". He then checked individually, and each boy said he knew how to do it. At the end of the class the students left the room with one boy remaining behind. When the teacher approached the student to see why he had stayed, he was horrified to find the boy in tears. He did not know how to use the word count tool, and was too intimidated by the other students in the class to ask how to go about it. For Michael, this story demonstrated first-hand how difficult peer pressure can be, and how students are often more willing to lie than to reveal a justifiable ignorance in front of their peers. Therefore, Michael notes how we must always remember what may seem a basic computer task to some students, may not be fully understood by all; students still need guidance no matter how technologically advanced they appear to be.

Transferable skills

One of the major gains of the laptop program at Bishops was the transferability of skill sets. In his English class, his students were learning how to produce Corel Presentations and web pages centered upon poetry; they were learning how to think laterally with hyperlinks, responses, and multimedia displays. Michael notes how pleasing it was to see the boys thinking, developing these skills, and then transferring these skills from one subject to the next. He remarks that while one may believe this transference of skills is possible in a traditional classroom environment, he states that to his experience English essay or poetry writing skills are not easily transferrable to History, let alone Biology or Chemistry, due to the difference in subject matter. The laptops allowed for some real movement and cross-over of learned skills.

Changing Teachers Notions of Authority

According to Michael, one of the most important transformations in any laptop program has to be achieved in the teachers first, and that is the question of the teacher authority. At Bishops, the teachers had setup specific learning programmes via Intranet which set out its own instructions and rubrics for assessment, procedures to follow for return of the material, and ideally the objectives that the program wishes to achieve. Therefore, a large portion of the teachers authority had been transferred to the software. The class could then respond and take note from the software, leaving the teacher free to play a different role with the students. This encouraged a more one-to-one environment between teacher-to-student, and student-to-student. Thinking back to this class, Michael states that he has very few memories of the class as a group, and more memories of individual encounters. With each boy. This time allotted to teachers for more individualized teaching is aided by the use of laptops and software.

Reflections ten years later

(Michael King's thoughts on the state of the programme some ten years down the line.)

There is a huge difference between setting up a technology rich programme in a school, and sustaining one. The energy that goes with the excitement of setting up something new drops off when the new becomes the common-place, and this is the point where the ‘unconverted’ staff members revert to old practices, and do not engage with the changes needed for transition to technology rich classrooms. There is no doubt that acquiring the skills to use computer technology usefully in and outside of classes takes time, and this is a hurdle which needs to be overcome.

Professional growth, and the enduring need for continual training, experimentation and adaptation becomes more important (rather than less important) the longer the project continues. Schools need to understand the requirement of adding extra staff to the complement, not for teaching pupils, but for teaching the teachers. One must also never under-estimate the needs of new teachers coming to the school, to be brought into the frame of mind of using technology the way one does in a technology rich environment.

We found also that the school needs to invest in ever improving administration processes that capitalize on the technology rich environment, especially where the pupils and parents can also tap into the administration system to obtain information from the school. We have developed an in-house system which uses a central database, which is both a vital instrument for efficient management, and also tangible evidence of the benefits of a technology rich environment.

We in South Africa have struggled with issues relating to bandwidth and costs of technology, coupled with the development of a new national structure of education, but our project launched in 1999 is now mainstream completely for our school. But very few other schools in South Africa have embarked on this kind of saturation coverage of technology although there are constant noises of the need to engage with IT to improve education.

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