Reflections on our e-learning start-up

This year was our biggest step so far in exploring the possibilities of digital technology in relation to student learning.

Of course we have been using this technology for many years now, but the shift towards e-learning as a key element of our curriculum has gathered pace and so has the pressure to embrace such an approach in our school. So what have we learned from our first year of ‘bring your own device’ at Green Bay High School?

Perhaps this is best summed up by a conversation I had with one of our teachers earlier in the year. She had spent many weeks preparing the teaching programme for her incoming Year 9 students. She was looking forward to making effective use of digital technology to strengthen her own teaching and the quality of the learning outcomes for students in her Year 9 classes. When I asked her how the first term had gone she commented that her classes seemed very engaged, despite some early hiccups related to the start-up logistics, and she hoped that their results would reflect this as the year progressed. At the same time she felt she did not know her Year 9 students as well as in previous years, at least not at the end of the first term. Somehow the devices had created a barrier to establishing the relationships that are so central to a quality learning environment. As the year progressed her concern about this diminished but so, too, had the amount of time she allocated to ‘device only’ learning.

And that is the most important lesson for us as educators – and for our wider community also. We cannot assume that using digital technology is a replacement for all those strategies that we know (and the evidence reinforces) support positive outcomes for learners, especially when it comes to the significance of effective learning relationships between teachers and students.

In fact, the evidence is clear from the latest OECD report, published in September this year. The use of computers in schools, in and of itself, is not well-correlated with improvements in student achievement.

So why are we bothering with this approach to learning at all?

Obviously, it is not the learning tool that makes the difference. If we substitute the word ‘pencils’ for ‘computers’ there would be no suggestion that using pencils is the most important ingredient in successful learning. The crucial ingredients are teaching practice (pedagogy), and student engagement and application. At the heart of these, relationships are critical, and cannot be substituted with anything else.

That said, it is clear that anyone expecting to join the labour force needs to develop skills to work with intelligent machines. Gabriel Zinny, writing for the Brookings Institute, quotes Tyler Cowen, author of Average is Over, who claims “workers more and more will come to be classified into two categories. The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you?”

We are all learners at Green Bay High School, both students and staff. Engaging with, and becoming confident in using, digital technology. This is a feature of our schools system now and won’t be going away. This is well understood and we have been strongly supported by our Board in terms of this challenge. The willingness of a dedicated, professionally focused staff to embrace such change, but not at the expense of relationships, means that your local community high school is in good hands.

Morag Hutchinson – Principal