Factors affecting educational reform in W.A. schools

An essay on recent trends and opportunities in "educational computing".

Martin Dougiamas

14 September 1998

 

MS Word version of this paper.

 

Outline

Introduction

Factors holding back development of schools

Limited funding

Established school attitudes

Lack of professional development

Cultural attitudes

Factors promoting the development of schools

Business in the information age

Technology costs are dropping, capabilities are rising

New methodologies

Learner-centred education

Curriculum Reform

Personalised tools

Home computing

Conclusion

References

 

 

Introduction

Successful schools help young people learn the skills to succeed in a personal way within the framework of society. However, society today is rapidly changing, and in some aspects that change is accelerating.

Technologies and philosophies taking advantage of technology are becoming widely dispersed and often fundamental to many aspects of western society, such as business, research and home life. However, Schank and Cleary (1995) have argued strongly that up to now our educational systems have not been developing these essential skills (Harper and Hedberg, 1997). Technology skills have been left mostly to post-secondary schooling and "learning on the job".

However, recognition of the problem is growing, and in Western Australia, like many other western societies, there has been many calls for educational reform from business, government, parents and students. There is strong evidence that the situation is improving as these calls are slowly being acted upon, and that the lag in recent decades of educational systems behind other areas of society will be reduced.

Against a background of technological change, this essay will examine the factors that have been preventing educational reform in the recent past, the factors that are now promoting educational reform in our schools, and their relationships. (See Figure 1).

 

Figure 1 — relationships between factors affecting schools

 

 

Factors holding back development of schools

Limited funding

During the last few decades, while business was forging ahead with development and utilisation of technology, school education was constrained by limited funds. The purchase of a mainframe and terminals, or a multimedia computer, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars was simply not as cost-effective for small schools as it was to hire several new teachers.

The situation is worse for schools situated in remote and sparsely populated areas, of which there are particular many in Western Australia. These small schools are usually further behind in technology than their city counterparts because of reduced funding and increased costs due to the distances.

 

Established school attitudes

During the eighties, the potential of computers for education was beginning to be glimpsed by pioneering teachers, and many of them introduced early computers to their schools. However, despite initial optimism, these early computers did not radically change the school culture in any way. They were invariably forced into specific computer labs, where "computer studies" could be taught in computer classes. Papert (1998) describes it like this: "The system, the administration, the ministries now began to take charge, so the computers were no longer in the hands of the visionary teacher but were in the hands of the administration. And, in principle, the bureaucratic administration has a deep, vested interest in maintaining the status quo."

In the early eighties, a consortium of schools in the northern suburbs of Perth managed to build a shared network of simple terminals accessing a single time-shared computer in Mirrabooka via early modems. At my high school, we manually encoded simple BASIC programs on punch cards and sent them off to Mirrabooka to run and produce a printout. Many of the programs we wrote had an administrative flavour (for example, a report writer) which reflected the main uses that computers were seen to be for. The computer was not available to students outside of these limited programming classes.

Shortly afterwards, many schools did purchase a few limited home computers (TRS-80’s, Vic-20, BBC Micros) but again, use of these was limited to learning about the machines themselves (how to run a program from a tape drive and so on).

 

Lack of professional development

During the late eighties and early nineties, computers began to infiltrate more and more into workplaces, homes and school computer labs. Yet use of them was still constrained.

One of the main reasons for this was, and is, a lack of knowledge among the majority of teachers about using the new technologies for teaching. In an 1997 survey, 80% of teachers cited "insufficient teacher training" as a major obstacle to Internet use (SPA, 1998). The initial learning curve can be quite steep, and it takes some effort to get past the mechanics of operating the symbolic machinery of a computer and using it as a tool to teach and think with. This situation is not helped by the lack of exposure to current technologies in schools that are often restricted to old equipment.

In my own teaching of high-school teachers for professional development, I’ve found that my initial expectations of what the course could cover have had to be brought right back to teaching the most basic concepts of using an Internet-connected computer. Kessell (1997) outlines similar experiences. Teachers feel overwhelmed by the amount of new things to learn and the very limited time they feel they have to learn it, a situation inflamed by the fact that children learn much quicker than teachers!

 

Cultural attitudes

Almost all adults today have been to school. As a result we all have ingrained ideas about what a school is and what it should be for our children. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to research competing educational theories in detail or even to realise that schools are struggling to keep up with societal changes — they understandably assume the schools know what they’re doing.

These attitudes are reflected in voting behaviour in elections, which affect governments and thus school funding. They are also reflected in the choices of schools that parents make, and the types of support they give children at home.

Even early attempts at educational computer software reflected these attitudes, centering on drill-based programs, quizzes or page turning exercises.

 

Factors promoting the development of schools

Countering the depressing effect of the factors outlined above, are a number of factors pushing for educational reform in schools, including business, technology, methodology and use in the home.

Business in the information age

Highly competitive and complex global business environments and the compound effects of education developments of the past century are pushing our evolving technologies to be cheaper, more effective and ubiquitous in the workplace, the home, and now the school.

The percentage of employees dealing almost solely with the analysis and manipulation of symbols is rising rapidly (Reich, 1991) while the percentage of people working in primary industries and production is dropping due to technological effects such as automation and economies of scale. Toffler (1980) has written persuasively about the "Information Age" as a third wave after the Agricultural Age and the Industrial Age.

In addition, employees at every level are being asked to demonstrate advanced levels of problem-solving skills to retain their level of employment. Crucial skills include learning to think critically, to analyse and synthesise information to solve problems in a variety of contexts and to work effectively in teams. (Bransford, Goldman and Vye, 1991)

Increasingly, work can be defined in terms of constructing a solution to a problem. Work that is repetitive and requires no problem solving (aspects of primary and secondary industry, as well as many forms of service) is often seen as an opportunity to implement automation and gain competitive advantage through efficiency.

To be successful, our educational systems need to change to keep up with the business of our society and allow new generations to develop the skills they will need to be successful in a dynamic and rapidly changing environment. The people of tomorrow’s society should be able to look upon new technologies as an opportunity, not a problem.

Schools are feeling the pressure of this demand from society, and business is increasingly looking at school education as an opportunity for sales and development. (SPA, 1998)

 

Technology costs are dropping, capabilities are rising

As a primary result of research and development by government and business, technology costs for any given capability are coming down dramatically.

Capabilities that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1985 (if they existed at all) are available today for hundreds and thousands: and continue to drop. Networks, servers, mainframes, groupware, and today’s personal computer all started off being well out of the reach of educational institutions and home users. At the same time, these systems are proving their value above traditional classroom and paper-based technologies.

The cheaper technology also allows students the opportunity to own their own hardware, which is important. Not only does this save costs for the school, and allow them to spend ‘computer lab’ money elsewhere (on a good server or professional development), but it also allows some important changes in methodology (see next section)

One particular interesting area of technology is software. While many commercial packages are still expensive, equivalent versions are emerging as "free software" or shareware. This can happen for two reasons: first, the increasing development of well-written modular software (for example, Linux, and World Wide Web), and secondly, software delivered over the internet has zero manufacturing costs, zero distribution costs and a global marketplace. The final factor in producing software is software design, which is an extremely competitive area and getting cheaper all the time.

The new technologies allow people to do more work in less time. They can also do new work that never existed before, almost exclusively in the growing fields of symbolic manipulation. This ensures their further development in a competitive workforce. It seems likely that a large number of today’s small children will grow up to do work that hasn’t been designed yet (Papert, 1998).

 

New methodologies

Ubiquitous information technologies allow effective implementation of methodologies that would be much harder without the technology, such as learner-centred models, curriculum reform, tool personalisation.

Learner-centred education

A growing number of theorists and practitioners agree that it is the learning models based on constructivism which best optimises the potential of technology in the learning experience. These theories have been in development for many years, yet so far have not made great inroads into school education.

Constructivism is the belief that knowledge is actively constructed by learners on the basis of their existing knowledge (with the corollary that knowledge is not transmitted directly from teacher to learner). von Glasersfeld's (1993) 'radical constructivism' adds the idea that knowledge about the world serves an adaptive function, rather than yielding objective truth about an observer-independent external reality - a perspective shared by the many other forms of constructivism.

Constructionism is an educational method based on constructivism (Papert, 98) which says that students will be more deeply involved in their learning if they are constructing something that others will see, critique, and perhaps use.

Hannafin (1997) writes:

Constructional design focuses on the creation of environments that enable and support individual construction or building by engaging in design and invention tasks; the design task is to provide a learning environment within which individual construction is facilitated, not one in which concepts are explicitly taught. [..]

Similarly, problem-based learning activities (Savery & Duffy, 1996) require learners to draw upon technological, cognitive, and social resources in order solve complex, open-ended problems which serve as orienting contexts for interpretation as understanding and skills are constructed and refined through use.

This was always possible, using libraries and teachers, but computer networks combined with the content of the Internet provide an environment that is not only richer, but more current, faster, and cheaper than previous solutions — making it feasible to implement in schools on a wide scale. Successful implementations of new systems based on these philosophies are described at Trinity Kew College (Howell, 1995) and Brewster College in the U.S. (Bain, 1996).

Other examples can be found in the business world, particularly those areas with ubiquitous technology access for the past twenty years or more, where they have been developing for decades. One of the leading examples, due to its innately high level of symbol manipulation, is IT systems development. In developing such systems, for example, employees frequently work on a project basis with specific or open-ended goals. There are usually many different ways to achieve the same goal, depending on changing technologies and the current environment. Effective employees are able to work with others in a team, yet also act autonomously to research new techniques and tools to complete a project. In these cases, the Internet has proven itself as a rich and useful resource and communications tool to support the self-learner.

Examples of other professions that benefit from access to large amounts of information include teachers, financiers, lawyers, managers, researchers, technical support. Such highly symbolic professions benefit from a good general understanding of systems to guide on-the-spot research that enables appropriate decision-making exactly when and where it is needed.

 

Curriculum Reform

Western Australia is currently undergoing a reform of the state-wide curriculum (Curriculum Council, 1998) with the recent design of a new complete curriculum framework for K-12 education. The framework brings together statements of key principles and desired learning outcomes in eight broad learning areas, based on five desired core values.

It sets out what all students should know, understand, value and be able to do as a result of the programs they undertake in Western Australian schools. In general it encourages more learner-centered methodologies as outlined above, and sets a clear and forward-thinking path for educational reform in this state.

All schools are obliged to modify their activities to achieve the framework’s learning outcomes over the next five years. How a school structures learning opportunities in terms of time and the range of courses and programs provided remains the school’s responsibility, but this is still obviously a great pressure on the schools to reform.

 

Personalised tools

Technology that is cheap enough to become truly "personal", such as lap-top computers or smaller information appliances allows further benefits to the information-literate individual — both as a personal information manager and as a "tool to think with". Papert (1998) talks about two sides of personal technology, the constructional side (project and goal-based learning) as the driving force that motivates a student to use the informational side (resources and communication). Computer labs operate under the implicit assumption that every computer is the same, rather than a project to be worked on.

In the past decade, educational software often focussed on custom-designed drill-based software to teach specific outcomes. Now, the trend is moving toward using open-ended packages and non-content specific applications such as "office" applications, databases and programming languages, in order to stimulate "higher-order thinking" and problem solving (Smyth, 1997).

An adaptable and powerful computer that is with you all the time truly becomes a tool to think with (Bain, 1996) (Howell, 1995), if you can you develop and construct it to your own needs. Again, in business, this has been the norm for a long time. Many workplaces supply each employee with their own personal computer that is used all day long. Over time the employee will customise the machine to suit their needs.

Modern computers are becoming increasingly portable, customisable, and open, consisting of many pieces of software, some bought, some written by the user and some downloaded from the Internet. The current growing trend of open software development delivers and promises free access to world-class software by anyone. In the near future these systems will probably evolve more agent-like abilities so that they themselves learn from their owner and configure themselves more automatically.

Compare this scenario with current computer labs in many schools where each computer must be refreshed nightly from backup to actually remove customisations by students so that different students can use them the next day, and you can see schools will be under pressure to develop further, no matter how many computer labs they have.

In addition to computer literacy, the idea of using a computer on an ongoing basis as a thinker’s toolkit promotes information literacy. A good description of information literacy is published as part of the IT policy document at John Paul College, in Queensland. In part, it reads:

Information literacy is the critical thinking process necessary to seek, gather, evaluate and apply information in all formats; to look beneath the surface of the visual, the auditory, and the textual; to solve problems; and to identify possible solutions.

An information literate person:

An information literate person evaluates information:

An information literate person uses information and:

(John Paul College, 1998)

This type of critical thinking combined with today’s technology allows a student to make real use of resources like the Internet to solve whatever problem they may have. For children growing up with the Internet as a ubiquitous fact, they will need very strong critical skills to deal with the wide amount of conflicting and possibly dangerous information available.

 

Home computing

An often-overlooked pressure on schools to change is that from the students themselves. The technologies and methodologies outlined above are not only making their presence felt in schools, but are already well on the way to be coming ubiquitous in the home.

Papert (98) cites that 60% of homes in the U.S. with school-aged children have computers. Some of these computers would have been bought for parents to use for work and entertainment, but many of these are now bought specifically for personal development of the child . Some children at school now have had computers at home since they were born. Based on the amount of word processed homework being submitted to some high-school classes I have been involved with, I suggest the situation for many Australian children is comparable to the U.S.

According to Papert (98):

[…] those who at home had these richer learning experiences with the computer are beginning to appear in school as a kind of a nuisance because they are demanding from school--"Why aren’t we doing here what we know how to do at home?" So these children are beginning to produce a pressure on the school from within, a kind of subversive force coming into the system, not only demanding change but most importantly offering to help in that change.

They are offering to make available a degree of technical knowledge and mastery not only of the computer as a machine but of the use of the computer as a research instrument and in many other ways that the teacher may not, in most cases did not, have the time and perhaps inclination to learn.

 

Conclusion

The past decade or two have seen criticism of the way schooling has kept up with wider society. Reasons include: the lack of funds in schools for expensive technology; inadequate teacher education in new technologies and methodologies; and the difficulty of radically changing the perceptions of established bureaucracy and the wider cultural view of schools.

However, there is reason to be optimistic. A number of strong pressures are starting to make themselves felt on today’s schools in Western Australia and elsewhere in the world, and they are encouraging fundamental educational reform to cope with the different needs of our students to help them take advantage of the opportunities of our future.

The entwined forces of a changing business world, new technologies and new methodologies, boosted by government support in the form of new curriculums, and the widespread acceptance of these new technologies by students at home, seem set to help education start catching up, although there’s a lot of work to do yet!

 

 

References

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