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Promoting academic excellence through digital learning


Pedagogical understanding of the reasons for student-centred tasks that allow students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding in contemporary ways is at the heart of digital learning, writes Philip Callil.

Schools in societies around the world are grappling with change bought about by the new opportunities afforded by digital technologies. While schools around Australia have been quick to embrace mobile devices for learning, it’s fair to say that not all teachers are convinced of the efficacy and benefits of digital learning. We know that for professional learning to make a difference to daily practice in the classroom, teachers need to have more than just skill development. Pedagogical understanding of the reasons for student-centred tasks that allow students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding in contemporary ways is at the heart of digital learning.

Yarra Valley Grammar is a co-educational independent school of 1200 students from K-12 on the outskirts of Melbourne overlooking the Yarra Valley. Our journey in transforming our curriculum is one of evolution rather than revolution. Our academic focus is preparing our students for the VCE years and the school is committed to this with a number of strategies designed to enhance student outcomes at the senior level. From an ICT perspective, Years 10-12 have a BYOD program while students in the Middle School and Years 5-6 participate in a one-to-one iPad program. Students are permitted to bring mobile phones to school but are restricted by minimum specifications from using phones as their sole device. Our internet pipe is a 500mb link and wireless coverage is strong throughout the school. After a devastating fire on the first day of school three years ago, in which a third of the school was lost, a new Mathematics and Science building was opened by the Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove and the Anglican Primate of Australia, Archbishop Most Reverend Dr Philip Freier, in February. The new building is a state of the art learning space that is technology rich with multiple digital panels in many rooms and hearing augmentation in all rooms.

Clearly we have the technology – but how does technology translate into improved student learning? Yarra Valley Grammar has had an iPad program in place for three years now. Like all schools that have iPads, our challenge is to extend what we do with iPads from consumption, word processing and research to the creation of original student work. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror; we walk backwards into the future.” Creating with iPads may be one way to implement change in the direction of student learning to make it more active and less passive but if seen in isolation, it is not enough and unlikely to make a change if not accompanied by a deep understanding of the need to change. Such a vision for academic excellence through digital learning is one that will allow curriculum teams to meet the challenges of today and the next few years without walking backwards into the future.

The diagram outlines six components that contribute to a vision for digital learning. All are equally valid and no less legitimate than the others and cannot be seen in isolation. This provides a framework of a three to five year plan for evolving the curriculum to prepare students for a future where the only guarantee is one of rapid change caused by technology.

At Yarra Valley Grammar, our Vision Statement for the use of digital learning heads our three year ICT Strategic Plan. This plan sits underneath our five year 2015-2020 Teaching and Learning Plan which is available on the school website. While the Teacher and Learning Plan provides certainty in our direction, our IT Strategic Plan can only forecast plans for the next three years to allow for changes in educational technology.

Our focus this year is to promote collaboration and problem solving at both the teacher level and through the curriculum. Our challenge is to work collaboratively on matters related to learning in order to promote creativity and engagement. A Future Foundation survey of 3500 employees in companies in the UK, France and Germany, Japan and the USA found an 81% correlation between collaboration and innovation. Teachers have not necessarily always valued sharing and schools have traditionally fostered cultures of containment sometimes at the expense of collaboration in order to preserve hierarchy. We know that good schools with strong resilient cultures collaborate to stay on top, have skilled practitioners who are generous with others, share knowledge and skills freely, think big and embrace calculated risk to welcome positive curriculum change to ultimately benefit their students.

Collaboration in the classroom means student-centred work that allows students to study in different sized groups to solve real life problems. Learning space design can either facilitate this or actively discourage this. Think of your own school – are the classrooms teacher-focused spaces in rows or student-centred rooms in clusters or pods? Are there breakout spaces that are used regularly? Can the desks be easily reconfigured? Is there one panel or multiple digital panels for group work? By shifting the culture of student passivity to a culture of student empowerment and action, students have more ownership in their learning. It also moves the use of digital devices from consumption to creation. As Kohn (1999) wrote in the The Schools Our Children Deserve, “When interest appears, achievement usually follows.” A 2013 Australian study reported in the British Educational Research Journal found that children’s interest and engagement in school influences their prospects of educational and occupational success 20 years later, over and above their academic attainment and socioeconomic background. The more children felt connected to their school community and felt engaged, rather than bored, the greater their likelihood of achieving a higher educational qualification and going on to a professional or managerial career.

In the Year 9 English course I teach in, our focus this term is to promote choice and creativity in the current unit of work by varying the options available for students to demonstrate their understanding. The unit of work is a text study on Lord of the Flies. Assessment tasks are weighted 60-40 with formative assessment making up the former while a timed class based written response is the latter mark. Formative assessment incorporates 15 marks for note taking (using Google Docs for teacher access) and three assessment tasks worth 15 marks each. Students have 12 possible questions to answer with one question to be chosen from setting, characters and themes. Ten apps have been identified as promoting multi-modal literacies in shaping students responses through the use of video, images, audio and text. These apps are categorised from easy (e.g. Book Creator) to medium (e.g. Binumi video editing) to advanced (e.g. Touchcast Studio).

Varying assessment options allows students to participate in decision making to personalise their learning. While a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach standardises learning, personalising learning for students allows students to take more ownership and responsibility for their learning. We believe that by shifting the culture of student passivity to a culture of student empowerment and action, students will have more ownership in their learning. It also moves the use of the iPad from consumption to creation. Using digital learning to allow choice is a key way to tap into the engagement of how students like to learn. Our premise in this unit of work is that digital learning assessment that is well structured is likely to lead to greater understanding and higher achievement. This is also a considered response to the SAMR [Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition] model in that students’ tasks are moving out of substitution and augmentation to modification and, in one or two of the more advanced apps, tipping into the redefinition classification where digital learning allows for the creation of new tasks previously inconceivable (e.g. augmented reality using Aurasma). Our goal for this unit of work is to provide a template for other year levels and subjects to follow. While it still follows a traditional approach to subject-based learning, the more opportunities students have across primary classes and the middle school to use digital learning to promote creativity and engagement, the less technical obstacles will be experienced as familiarity leads to proficiency. The role as teachers becomes even more central in that students need guidance in the framing of their responses to ensure that originality and depth is encouraged rather than superficiality and shallowness that can often characterise the use of technology.

The above unit is one strategy we are focusing on to encourage creativity and engagement through the use of digital learning. A number of key teachers identified for their ability to innovate and push the boundaries though their use of digital learning have been asked to join a group to examine how apps for creating can be promoted across the curriculum. The same list of apps is also being trialled in our Gifted and Talented program for Years 7 and 8 students. Our professional learning day this term will continue the focus on familiarising teachers with the apps discussed above. Through these strategies, our goal is to heighten awareness of the need to keep pushing towards a student centred curriculum where students have multi modal choices to make about the way they engage in their learning.

In this article collaboration, creativity and engagement have been discussed with illustrations of how Yarra Valley Grammar is meeting the opportunities afforded in a technology rich school. The next two articles in this series will focus on learning management and teaching methods and assessment and accountability to move towards an achievable vision of academic excellence through digital learning.

Philip Callil is the director of IT and eLearning at Yarra Valley Grammar School.


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