Helping students go digital
Education Matters speaks to Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria President Melinda Cashen about her vision for digital technologies in Australia.
What is your background?
My career began in 2000. I started off as a teacher working in regional New South Wales. My first school had a total of 30 children in it.From 2005-2009 I went on to work for a primary school in Essex, in the United Kingdom. This was just as they were starting to put computers in and they were further ahead than Australia at that time. The school I worked for had rolled out students’ hubs, which included interactive whiteboards and trolleys of computers, so that’s where my interest in digital technologies began.
What in particular inspired you about that school’s use of digital technology?
I was not necessarily inspired about the technologies themselves, as they were in their infancy, but the possibilities and endless opportunities. We weren’t working with advanced technologies, so it was really about making those first mistakes and learning from those. This was essentially the catalyst for change.
When I came back to Australia in 2009, we were just starting to put interactive whiteboards in classrooms and technology hubs.
The Ultranet in Victoria was another catalyst for change. The online learning management system was developed for the Department of Education and phased into schools between 2006-2010. Each student received a login where they could access curriculum content and learning activities. The system provided a reporting system for teacher and student, staff and school records. While this technology failed to take off, it was an opportunity for teachers to experiment and instilled a sense of urgency that change was on its way.
Where are you working now?
I am currently working at Princess Hill Primary, located in Melbourne’s north. We have 450 students and work a little bit differently to most public schools. We run a full inquiry program, which is focused on posing questions, problems and real life, rather than presenting an established path to knowledge.
Our school looks for ways to incorporate digital technologies all throughout the curriculum into rich learning tasks – focused on fostering student creativity and critical thinking. Students are discovering how they can present their work not just as a piece of artwork or writing, but digitally.
Because we focus on larger projects, we often look at the systems of digital technology and adopt this into our thinking. This holistic approach to analysis means we focus on the way that a system’s various parts interrelate and work over time.
Last year, our Year 3/4 students were building museums at school.
When we started to look at how students engage visitors, we looked to digital technology to provide an engaging experience. The students honed their creative skills to develop audio guides and augmented video realities. They developed a program that allows visitors to place their iPad up to a row of pictures – a video pops up and explains what the monument is and its history. In this way, our students are looking at how digital systems fit in real life and how they can be used.
How did your role as President of Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria come about?
In 2014, I won the outstanding educator of the year award with VITA, which used to be one of two organisations for digital technology associations in Victoria. VITA was secondary-teacher focused and ICTVE was a junior-focused association, they both merged in 2014. After that I got talking to people and they suggested I be on the committee. I was still in regional Victoria at the time so I used to Skype into the meetings. The ability to meet with people who shared the same passion and drive for digital technologies was exciting and I took over as president in May 2015.
What’s been your greatest achievement in the two years of being president?
The biggest thing we’ve been able to do is set some direction for our members and for our organisation to progress, so those strategic drivers have really been the deciding factor. Taking that opportunity to look at who our members are and what do they want has been enlightening. It’s put us in a position to partner with the state government and offer back to the community.
One of the projects we’re working on is with the Department of Education Victoria, delivering $10,000 grants to secondary schools, and working through a professional learning program about using different digital technologies.
How do you support educators in their professional development outcomes when it comes to digital learning?
We offer a few different levels of support. For example, we hold monthly webinars for teachers and our next one is on special education and digital technologies. It’s really easily accessed by anyone no matter where you are. We’re also trying to develop a regional workshop this year, so we’ve been visiting cities such as Sale, Bendigo, Warrnambool, trying to get out to areas where they don’t have the same professional development opportunities.
We also host DigiCon, our annual conference which features more than 600 delegates over a two-day period. It’s an opportunity to showcase and highlight the great work happening in Victoria, but we also have keynote presentations which discuss areas such as STEM, the Digital Technologies Curriculum and more. We put a lot of work into the network and community feel of the event.
Are we doing enough to teach digital technology in schools?
For a lot of teachers, digital technologies are new and they’re still learning. Its pleasing to see teachers starting to reach out with questions. Each time you run a workshop with teachers, you see significant improvements.
That being said, I think there’s some different challenges for primary and secondary teachers. We find primary schools teachers are taking more risks, which allows them to learn what works and what doesn’t at a faster rate, but they also don’t face the same challenges as secondary teachers.
Many secondary schools are tackling how the Digital Technologies will look in their school and incorporating digital technologies into subjects across the curriculum. Different schools will have their own teaching methods, but in my experience cross-curricular digital education is of great benefit and we are starting to see great examples of this in secondary schools. While having a standalone subject for digital technologies can be effective, I think digital technologies have a role to play across the entire curriculum.
We understand you’ll be attending next year’s National FutureSchools Conference. What will your involvement be there?
I’m chairing the Teaching Kids to Code conference. I’ll be looking for examples of systems thinking and systems in action, as well as design thinking. I think they’re two highly relevant areas we forget about, so I’m looking forward to seeing the work there.
What are some of the challenges that lie ahead for Victoria and the nation?
I think we’re stuck in this space where we think of digital technologies and we go straight to coding.
We’ve got this vision in our heads of kids putting out code. Our challenge at the moment is to incorporate digital technologies into our lives on a greater scale, we need to be more big picture about it.
Digital technologies encompass more than coding. There’s problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and design thinking. Sometimes we get caught up and don’t move with the times, so we need a balance of taking calculated risks, while keeping our students safe.
Meet Melinda at Australia’s largest education event for schools – the National FutureSchools Expo. Held at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre over 21-22 March 2018.
Digital Learning and Teaching Victoria is a professional teachers’ association that provides leadership and innovation in digital education to an extensive membership group. The organisation aims to provide support to teachers, working across the breadth of curriculum offerings, including Digital Technologies and ICT capabilities. Its members include primary and secondary teachers, principals and school leadership teams, specialist information and multimedia teachers.