Back to school in the digital age

This week marks the start of the 2015 school year, with more than 1.1 million students across NSW returning to the classroom.

For parents, it’s no longer a matter of buying shoes, uniforms, hats, books, lunch-boxes, pens and pencils – tablets and laptops now appear to be essential items on the list.

Parents are not the only ones needing to come up to speed with these new technological devices. Teachers also need to be highly engaged – and highly engaging – online leaders. Dr Kathryn Holmes from the UON’s School of Education is helping teachers gain expertise and confidence as they connect with technology in the classroom.

The academic and former high school mathematics teacher is helping to provide the next generation of teachers with the expertise and confidence to embrace the digital technology that is revolutionising education.

“It is an interesting time in education because the whole idea of knowledge and access to information has changed,” says Holmes, a Senior Lecturer and researcher in the School of Education.

“Technology changes the nature of teaching from straight delivery to more of a problem-solving approach. So it is not just the use of technology that teachers have to get on board with but how they structure their lessons in this new environment.

“What we as teacher educators need to do is gear up our student teachers to more effectively use technology in the classroom and improve the capacity of our lecturers to teach with these resources.”

Holmes is immersed in research projects that promote what she and her colleagues call “21st century learning”.

She co-leads a team engaged in the Innovative Teaching and Learning (ITL) Research program, an international project funded by Microsoft and government partners in seven countries that is investigating effective teaching techniques in the computer age. Newcastle is the only Australian university involved and is undertaking its research in conjunction with the NSW Department of Education and Communities.

“We have about 22 schools involved and we have been working with them, looking for evidence of innovation in the way teachers are using technology,” Holmes says. “We are also looking at things like whether they set up learning activities that are collaborative and allow students some form of self-regulation.

“We are analysing those findings and the next phase will involve professional development in schools.”

Another project in which Holmes is taking a leading role is the Teaching Teachers for the Future study, a federally funded program to support the rollout of technological resources in schools under the government’s Digital Education Revolution.

As part of the research, the technological component of teacher training in maths and history teaching courses at the university has been enhanced, with lecturers employing tools such as Web 2.0 information-sharing technology and mathematical data visualisation as well as the use of iPads and interactive whiteboards.

“The aim is to develop pedagogical training that brings our Education students up to speed with new technology, so they go into the workplace knowing how to use it,” Holmes explains.

“There is an assumption that people born after a certain date are automatically digital natives. But being able to use Facebook and YouTube doesn’t necessarily mean they are proficient in the skills required to teach in a modern classroom.”

As she helps her students navigate this brave new world of computer-enhanced education Holmes’ advice to teachers new and old is to open their eyes to the possibilities that digital technology offers.

“The principles of good teaching are still the same as they always were – they don’t change just because you have different tools,” she says.

“But technology offers so many opportunities to engage with students in new ways and I think the only way for people to overcome their inhibitions is to dive in and use it.”

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