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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

In New Zealand / Future-Proofing the Curriculum

A tour of the Tapawera Area School shows how teachers and students are thriving, not just surviving, in the information age.

Tapawera Area School is a small rural school in one of the first European-settled areas of New Zealand, at the top of the South Island. How is technology affecting how we go about the daily business of teaching and learning?
Three years ago, a single telephone line connected our school with the outside world. We had an illogical assortment of ill-matched computers, used infrequently and with great trepidation by our teachers and staff members, for publishing children's work, playing games, and keeping the school accounts. Technologically speaking, we were wandering in the wilderness, and if one applies the evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest,” we were surely on the verge of extinction.
Knowledge of new developments in information technology and distance learning has forced itself on our consciousness, and here we are in 1995, technologically inspired and keenly heading toward the virtual classroom. Although we still have an assortment of computers, they are no longer an illogical jumble.
In addition to the Apple IIs and the IBM clones, we have added 10 Macintosh Classics and SE 30s, two Macintosh LC2s, a Macintosh LC3, three 486 computers, a suite of 20 Unisys terminals networked in four clusters (mini-networks of five machines, each containing a file server), and equipment for distance learning via telecommunication. The school is now served by three telephone lines, plus two dedicated audio-graphic lines, which connect us to other TOSItech (Top of the South Island Technology) schools, 16 phones, and 1 fax machine. What are we doing with all this equipment? To answer that question, we need to take a look around the school.

First, a Few Basics

Before starting the tour, we should explain a few things about schools in New Zealand and our school in specific. New Zealand schools have 13 levels of learning. Levels 1–6 are New Entrants to Standard Four (for children 5–10 years old). Levels 7–13 are described as Forms 1–7 and are for students from ages 11 to 18.
Area schools, like Tapawera, are established in rural areas with insufficient students for separate primary and secondary schools. Made up of several tiny local schools, they offer more specialized facilities and serve students from 5 to 18 years old.
At Tapawera, pupils at levels 1–6 are taught mainly by one homeroom teacher. Each room has a Macintosh Classic; for additional access, students can change rooms or computers can be moved. Students in levels 7–13 (or Forms 1–7) have specialist teachers, often in specialist rooms including one computer network/language classroom and one computer suite available for computer studies students and for cross-curricular purposes. Almost all day long, entire classes, as well as individuals and groups working independently, spend time in the computer suite.
Distance education students may spend up to four hours a week in the small distance education room, which has telecommunication facilities and other computers. The room is also available to other senior students.

A Tour of Our School

  • Freedom to write. In the language room, which contains the networked clusters of computers, 13- and 14-year-old students are doing creative writing. Having listened to the opening chapter of “The Ironman” by Ted Hughes, they are continuing the story where they left off, with the Ironman's mechanical parts strewn over a lonely beach.Next, everyone is having a go at writing a story at his or her own terminal, even those who usually require special assistance with reading and writing tasks. This is a liberating experience. Caution with regard to spelling and punctuation can be thrown to the winds. Now they can get on with the much more exciting business of telling their stories imaginatively.At a later date, when the students move to the next stage of their writing, they seize on the spell checker. One student tells the others, “It doesn't have Maori words. You have to add them to the dictionary.” Paragraphing makes their stories a lot easier to read, and dialogue is no longer a hassle. The teacher can help here, or perhaps a neighbor. They read and discuss one another's work. Does it make sense? Not really. Perhaps that part should come before this bit. What other words could you use? The interaction goes on student to student, teacher to student. (The teacher is trying to write her story too, but is too busy to make much progress.)
  • Learning across the miles. In the distance education suite, three students seated at the 486 computer are using a graphics tablet, on which they can write or draw and have the result appear on the screen where they are working, as well as at all linked distant sites. Beside the scanner sits the Polycom, a hands-free telephone/microphone device that allows anyone in the room to converse with the distant teacher. Prior to going online, the students have scanned the graphed results of their light ray experiments into the computer and transmitted these as color slides to their teacher. Producing these is fun. The students play with the multicolor capabilities on the Macintosh computers and then import them to the 486. They learn to talk to their computers, to rely on them as they rely on pens and paper in more conventional lessons.The students watch the screen they are drawing on while listening to their distant teacher. After calling up a scanned drawing of an object reflected in a concave mirror, the teacher draws in color on her screen to illustrate her points. In response to a what-if question, Jeffrey uses the stylus on the graphics tablet to show what he thinks will happen. Discussion follows. At the end of the online session, Warwick prints out the diagram along with all the annotations arising from discussion for later reference. Although online time is short, the rapid technology makes efficient use of it. No more laborious copying from the chalkboard while the teacher walks around the room to check the neatness of your diagrams!
  • Older students teaching younger ones. Learning these techniques is not restricted to distance education students. The Form 7 computer studies students are learning to use them too, as well as becoming confident in sending e-mail and fax modem messages. Computer studies is an optional yearlong course at Forms 6 and 7 for four hours a week. These 17-year-olds appreciate the ease of sending faxes by word processing the text and then transmitting it directly via BitFax. As part of their own learning, they are going to teach a group of Form 1 and 2 students how to use the equipment. They are taking applications for their communications course and are joining with the younger students' teacher to select suitable trainees.
  • Communicating with another school. In a social studies class, the teacher wants her students to correspond with another school as part of their program. The theme is civil defense. About an hour away, Murchison Area School is in a locale that was once the site of a devastating earthquake. Because Murchison is also a TOSItech school, we will be able to set up an audio-graphic link to supplement other forms of telecommunication.A visit to Murchison, where the landscape so plainly shows the force of nature and a museum bears witness to human vulnerability, will conclude this study. How would our link stand up in another such quake? Maybe a cellular phone is a good idea. In the event of another earthquake, the telephone lines that we installed to save us from technological extinction may be extinct themselves.
  • Student as teacher. Continuing our tour of the school, we find students as young as 9 using sophisticated computer programs. Adrienne, for example, is using HyperCard to produce a local map linked to text and graphics that tells about her home and family. Having earned a computer license by demonstrating specific competencies, she is taking a machine from the computer suite to her classroom to show other students how to use it. They find it much more exciting than using the old Apple IIs to simply word process their stories. License holders like Adrienne earn other privileges, such as using the computer unsupervised at lunchtime and, on payment of a hire fee, taking a computer home.
  • What the youngest students are doing. A few doors away in the New Entrants room, however, the 5-year-olds find the Apple IIs are quite challenging enough for the time being. Like their older counterparts in the network room, they are enjoying the liberation of being able to make lots of mistakes without making a big mess. This gives them the incentive to keep on trying.
  • What the more advanced students are doing. At lunchtime it is the turn of the very keen, who have earned their computer licenses, to work unsupervised. Michael has created a house in HyperCard, and can open doors and windows at the click of a button to reveal new views of the interior he has designed. Like Rosemary and Rachel, Michael has advanced more quickly than the teacher can find time to teach him, so he is working directly from the manual to explore the full potential of the package. Clearly, these students, currently in Forms 2 and 3, will have no use for the computer studies course currently offered in Form 6.

Keeping Up with Technology

As we try to future-proof our curriculum delivery, how will the teachers ever find the time to keep at least one step ahead of the children? In some instances the answer has to be, don't even try. Let the students teach the teachers. Warwick, a senior student, is working through the Computer-Aided Drafting tutorial. He has managed to get the plotter and printer up and running. The teacher, accepting the idea that this piece of technical wizardry will soon be a vital part of his teaching, is prepared to admit that it has some good points.
The school day is over, but the technology is still in use. Warwick, Sarah, and Meredith—who are preparing to take the external Bursaries Examination this year for entrance to a university—come to collect computers to take home to work on their biology assignments. Some of the class did computer studies last year and share their spreadsheet and database skills with the rest. They all agree that using the computer is the only way to go. They can spend the time saved by not doing the work manually to analyze data and to test hypotheses.
Teachers are also benefiting from the new advances in technology. Instead of driving to professional meetings, often many kilometers away, they use audioconferencing to stay in touch with colleagues, share ideas, and plan the next step in the battle for technological progress and survival.
Where to from here? We have progressed so quickly that practice has outstripped the development of theory, and the possibility of problems due to “speed wobbles” are inevitable. We will continue to capitalize on every opportunity, but we will be reviewing our students' progress very carefully, trying to define more specifically the skills students are developing, how they are using them, and how teachers can best continue their own understanding of the amazing world of technology.
End Notes

1 TOSItech is the name our group of schools chose to describe our linking together by distance education—currently through audiographics, but we may soon be able to video-conference as well!

2 Primary schools serve students in Levels 1–6 or 1–8; intermediate schools, levels 7–8; and secondary schools, either levels 7–13 or 9–13.

Dawn Coburn has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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