Saturday, March 17, 2012

Where technology stops and learning begins

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Spatialworlds website
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Australian Geography Teachers' Association website
'Towards a National Geography Curriculum' project website
Geography Teachers' Association of South Australia website
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Going past the “wow” and "GLAT" factor with technology!

As teachers in 2012 we are faced with a brave new world that is very different to what we expected in the 1970’s when many of us set out on our teaching career. How many of us in those distant days would have believed the nature of the world we now see as the norm. A world:
* where we can communicate by pictures and words across the world by the click of a mouse or the touch of a pad!
* where workers spend all day staring at a screen to earn their livelihood.
* where watching cricket on TV would more often involve watching computer simulations and GPS plots of ball trajectory and pathways than watching the real thing.
* where full length movies plus can fit on a 12cm disks.
* where going fishing would become a high technology activity using global positioning systems.
* where people would go everywhere from the golf course to the toilet with a telephone.
* where one can talk to a screen/pad and words appear and where words on the screen can talk back to us.
* where a computer the size of a coin can store and process data many times in excess of the computers in the 1970’s that filled rooms.
* where young people leaving school are likely to have a multiplicity of jobs and even professions in their working life due to rapidly changing technology

These technological developments are not isolated from schooling but have some dramatic implications for how we do what we do in the classroom. These emerging and evolving technologies of the past 30 years have left us with some fascinating conundrums as educators. The world of technology is all a bit like a fantastic toyshop full of wonderful playthings for us to hope for next Christmas. As with the toys in the shop we know that the toys of technology come at considerable cost, that they can be dangerous, they can be of limited usability, they break, we have no idea how they work, they take a while to learn how to use or build and can waste our time when we should be doing something more “useful”. Despite our reservations there is a “wow” factor that can overwhelm our reservations and drive us towards engaging in a particular technology. This engagement can be the result of a good news story from another school, a conference experience or just an advertisement floating through our staffroom pigeonhole. After due consideration we decide that the investment in the technological software and/or hardware will enhance student learning and we take the plunge. The magic gear arrives and with a sense of excitement we start playing with the purchase. In some cases it can almost be like Christmas morning with all the expectations and excitement of getting a new toy. After getting over the personal enjoyment of playing with the new purchase, one needs to turn to the reason the technology was primarily bought, not for the teacher’s enjoyment but to enhance student learning. Here is where the conundrum begins. As an individual it is easy to see the useability of the technology but how can it be turned into a meaningful educational tool. Yes, fun is not a dirty word but you have just spent half of your year’s budget on this technology and you assured the Principal that it would revolutionise education in your school to be a world never before seen. Moreover how do we make the technology go beyond the several lesson “wow” period and turn it into a long-term educational experience to enhance learning, as was the original intention. Having set the scene for the arrival of the technological wizardry in schools I would like to move onto my own experiences and to the issue of when the toyshop turns into a classroom of “good educational practice” or rather where does technology stop and meaningful and extended learning commence.

My story relates to the use of Geographic Information Systems in the teaching of Geography. GIS, as it is called, has been around since the mid 1990’s as a potential classroom technology but for me it all started back in 1997 when I visited the Geography Department at my old University with my Year 12 students. Looking forward to showing my students the light tables and cartographic drawing tables that we all slaved over in our undergraduate days, I was in for a rude shock. Instead, the Geography Department was room after room of computers. What the goodness was going on! Remember, personal computers had not been invented when I was at University in 1972. Whilst these white boxes dominating the Geography faculty did not surprise my students, I could see them thinking, aren’t we doing Geography at school? If so, why don’t we ever visit the computer rooms at school when it looks like “real” geographers use computers all the time? As a committed Luddite I was somewhat perplexed by the experience and went back to school the next day with a challenged perception of Geography in the classroom. In essence I was still teaching Geography the way my favourite teacher taught me in the 1960’s. Wasn’t it due to his influence that I decided to do Geography, so if it worked for me surely it was fine for my students? Despite

this rationalisation in defence of teaching in the past I realised that things had to change, and fast, if I was to really be teaching Geography for the good of my students and their future prospects. So at that point my
life changed and it never has been the same since! Now GIS dominates my teaching experience and hopefully has enhanced the quality of my teaching. However before finishing my story I need to relate the complexity of events that have led to my present contented state.
The journey has been torturous and painful but well worth it. The first step was to go to the toyshop or rather software providers and get the required GIS software. Believe me it was everything one could dream about as a Geographer! As map lovers, Geographers get extremely excited by normal maps but this toy called MapInfo enabled one to make personalised maps of a high quality using copious and varied data. No wonder the light tables had gone! This brave new world of mapmaking was unbelievable! Night after night of “playing” on the computer followed but I was still not ready to take it into the classroom. The learning curve for a non-ICT person was steep and easy to follow classroom orientated materials were not available. However I had financially and professionally committed myself to use GIS in the classroom. So what was needed was a “GIS for dummies” and I was the perfect dummy to write it. After a few false starts the document was ready to launch on my students. The first lesson was genuinely scary. As teachers we expect to be in control of process and content. My struggle with the technology meant that I was in a position of vulnerability. The students I was teaching were more technology savvy than me by far. What if I couldn’t help them when they were stuck? However what evolved over the next weeks was the most liberating teaching experience I had ever had! Although the facilitator of process I wasn’t the technological expert. I can genuinely say much of my “GIS for dummies” teaching course was developed from the question “how did you do that?” That was me asking that question and not the students! We were underway and the process went smoothly and the students learnt how to use the programme and gained the required GIS software skills. Tick to the technology part but had I enhanced their spatial learning. Wasn’t that the reason for the financial investment and the late nights? Rather I had to ask myself had I just bought a toy, played with it and now will I want another toy with all the new bells and whistles. Herein lay the conundrum. How could I turn this great technology that my students had mastered into a meaningful educational experience for their spatial learning. Had I used technology for the sake of it or could I turn it into a means to an end.
In review I had noticed some interesting by-products of the skill development process. Firstly the students had worked together extremely well in groups and peer tutoring was the norm for the class. Secondly the students no longer saw me as the source of definitive knowledge but a fellow learner with some useful spatial perceptions. Thirdly I had sensed a feeling of empowerment and ownership of learning amongst the students as a result of their mastering of the technology. As a result of these observations I decided to set in place a learning model for the use of GIS and the associated spatial learning that built on these quite unexpected student outcomes. If I was to make the use of the technology an educationally meaningful experience I needed the students to develop some relevant and achievable tasks to apply their skills. Before this stage of application a contextual stage needed to be delivered that transferred some of my spatial expertise to the students. Basic geographical skills and perspectives had to be taught before the issue to be explored was developed. Such traditional content was delivered via some good old fashioned map interpretation exercises and the use of the wonderful inter-active CD Roms and websites now available to the Geography teacher. However the GIS application topic that was the core business of the next stage had to be developed by the students. Topic ownership and relevance was crucial if the technology used was to be meaningful. Much to my surprise the students came up with some very creative ideas. As a teacher, normally being the provider of ideas, it was at times a painful experience watching the students try to come up with original ideas. But one thing was assured, when the pressure was on, all groups came up with something unique. They now had the skills, the spatial context and the idea. Once the parameters of the application studies were set, the students went out into the community to gather data and then back into the computer room to develop their spatial representations or rather maps. From there the final stage was to analyse the spatial representations in line with the original problem developed. Real, community based and relevant learning had happened via the use of the “wow” technology! As a Geography teacher, wasn’t my goal to teach students about the spatial world in a meaningful and enjoyable way?
In fact, the GIS process met this goal way beyond my expectations. Students had become involved in:
* Developing a geographical question and hypothesis.
* Selecting an area or site to conduct the fieldwork.
* Deciding what data was required.
* Going out and collecting original field data and acquiring data from organisations.
* Creating their own databases in preparation for map making.
* Creating a spatial representation of their data.
* Making valid analysis and conclusions about what the map showed in
relation to the question/problem established at the beginning of the project.

An interesting perspective on the use of GIS in the classroom and the associated spatial learning is the identification of the “good” spatial learner in GIS classes. The “expected” student achievers are not necessarily the ones who are the stars in the GIS class. In many cases the students who achieve the extraordinary spatial learning are those who struggle in the normal academic classes. It seems that the use of GIS unlocks the ability of students to employ their spatial cognition skills that have not previously been required in their learning. Conversely some of the more “academically” able students find only moderate success in the GIS class. It is interesting to explore the proposition that the use of GIS and the associated spatial learning is often neglected in the classroom. That is, a neglect of the area of spatial literacy that sees students developing a perception and understanding of their place in space. Maybe GIS is the vehicle to help teachers to develop and expand these skills that are not just innate but can and should be taught for a person to become an effective member of the global community. One could say that such a spatial skill is incredibly relevant to the concept of “Globalisation” that we as citizens are grappling with at the present moment. As one commentator observed:

“spatial thinking is an holistic system where all knowledge is interconnected in space.”
Quote from

Surely such a quality of learning and knowledge is desirable for young people needing to have a worldview and a spatial perspective to their everyday life and experiences.

The actual technology was merely the tool of learning and a means to an end and not an end in itself. The learning model gave a framework to structure the classroom experience but more importantly the students had become empowered by learning the technology and could do things that were only dreamt of back in the days of light tables. GIS projects exploring recycling rates in the council area, Streetscapes around the local areal and water quality in West Lakes have all won National environmental Spatial Industry awards over the past three years. However one shouldn’t just talk of the award winning projects. In the eyes of the majority of students their own original research was as important and impressive as those gaining community recognition. The GIS research work detailed below gives an insight into the originality, community orientation and diversity of content facilitated by the use of GIS technology.
Groups of students studying Geography in my classes have successfully investigated the spatial problems of:
* Where in the local area would the environmental health be the best?
* Where would be the best place in the local area to locate a Multi-Purpose Complex that included a health centre, cinema and restaurant?
* Whether there is a correlation between crime statistics and unemployment statistics.
* Where would be the suggested location in the local area for a family to build a house with specific requirements such as being within a kilometre of a high school, accessible to public transport but at least 2 kilometres away from public highways, within a kilometer of a park and within .5 kilometre of shopping facilities.
* Would the community facilities provided in a high socio-economic area be better than those offered in a lower socio-economic area?
* Whether the rubbish bins around the school are located to optimise collection?
* What are the football allegiances (AFL and SANFL) across the local area?
* Whether there is a difference in health and lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, food intake and exercise habits across the different socio-economic regions of the local area?
* Whether there is a difference in household energy consumption across the local area?

These examples show how GIS can develop high-level analytical skills amongst students by the exploration of some rather everyday local area topics. Not bad for students generally considered as not academic and/or not positively engaged in learning! What then did these students have going for them to make the conceptual “learning leap”? Basically, I consider that they had a technological skill that gave them a sense of empowerment and a strong sense of ownership of the learning process. In turn this enabled them to be pro-active in their learning by the using their surroundings to apply the skills of GIS.

So in conclusion, where does technology stop and learning start? One can summate that it is when the toy turns into a tool or rather when the “wow” factor of using the toy is replaced by the “wow” factor of discovery and relevance engendered by using the tool. To my surprise I am not visiting toyshops any more because the GIS toy has turned into much more than a toy but rather one of the most enjoyable classroom experiences that myself and many other Geography teachers across Australia have experienced. The blackline master is being left behind as Geography reinvigorates itself and hopefully students will perceive that Geography is more than just drawing maps on light tables but a very real experience relevant to their everyday life.

By the way, GLAT stands for, "Gee Look At That!" The enemy of the meaningful use of technology in the classroom.

Here is a challenge! How can we move this site of amazing 360 degree images from GLAT to meaningful learning!

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