Part of the series: Investigating International Edtech Issues (Australia)
A very personal view of some of the issues we face here in Australia in integrating technology into education (ie in fitting widget A into socket B). Firstly, I am not a school teacher but a lecturer in Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector. However, I know from teacher colleagues in my Personal Learning Network that many of the issues we face are similar, and that universities also have the same barriers to overcome. My own context in a regional TAFE (Training and Further Education college) in the Wheatbelt of Western Australia (WA) is as different from many of my colleagues across Australia as it is from those of you in other parts of our global village. So it would be totally inappropriate for me to generalise with respect to Australia as a whole. The catchment area of my college is 155,000 square km (that’s around 60,000 square miles for those of you who still use them) with a population of only 72,000 people.
Having said that I don’t intend to generalise I’ll now do just that! Because of its size and its thinly scattered population, there is a history of distance education for those in the regional and remote areas of Australia.
Many educators across the world will have heard of the “School of the Air” and will know that Australian children in the past who were isolated from their peers by the sheer size of the country “went to school” through two-way radio. This was often linked to correspondence material, and sometimes, periodic visits from a teacher. Thus a blended learning solution integrating the technology of the time is not a new idea for Australian educators. In WA, I know that the School of Isolated and Distance Education (SIDE) now uses virtual classroom technology, and Learning Management Systems.
Just to round out where I am coming from – I have a background in science, equine studies (including teaching horse riding) and in the transferable/ employable skills (English/maths/IT/teamwork/study skills). This means I have had a very broad teaching profile and although I enjoy working with students in English/maths/IT. I really miss my sciences.
I currently teach across the Certificates in General Education for Adults (CGEA). The curriculum focus is on developing literacy and numeracy skills in adults and in the past participants have mostly been culturally diverse, mature age adults from both English speaking and non-English speaking backgrounds. There have been occasional students from the 15-19 age group for various reasons. However in the last three years the demographic has changed dramatically because WA is raising the school leaving age quickly to bring it more into line with other places. This has resulted in a high number of “Youth at Risk” participants who either refuse to attend school for some reason or who have been excluded.
There are certificates at 5 levels ranging from minimal functional literacy to that which would be expected from a student just finishing high school. Because of the low population density we rarely get a group of students large enough to run a class at any one level so the usual delivery pattern in my college is for all levels to be in class together with one lecturer and (hopefully) a Learning Support Person. This is in itself a challenge that has been exacerbated by the change in group composition. For me an essential is access to online resources as this better enables students work at their own pace to follow at least a partly individualised pathway.
The Edtech Dimension
Firstly, what do we mean by technology? I know (as does anyone who visits Edublogs’ sites) that there are schools all over Australia and globally with teachers who have dived with huge success into blogging with their students and using a large range of available voice applications, images and image editing to take the concept way beyond what most of us understood by blogging a few years ago. Others are using mobile technology in the classroom and achieving great results.
Some of us are using Virtual Classrooms (VC) (not to be confused with Virtual Worlds) and still have recourse to the “old hat” Learning Management Systems (LMS). Our interpretation of technology can mean any or all of these and other hardware and software.
In this discussion I am trying to avoid drilling down to barriers that relate to specific hardware or software and to look at those issues that impact more generally on all Australian educators who are trying to use technology to give their students a better learning experience.
OK, so what are the issues/barriers that my colleagues and I encounter in integrating technology into our learning environment? Perhaps more important do we know of and can we adopt any strategies that reduce the impact on the quality of learning. The issues are many – too many to cover here, so I will focus on a few issues that in my personal opinion have the most impact, here goes – in no particular order:
In my context there are several technical barriers to getting technology integrated into learning these include:
This is an issue for much of regional and remote Australia. In my workplace we have a “narrow pipe”, shared with the local high school, that links to the Education/Training Department’s server. The limited bandwidth impacts on learners in face-to-face classes or working in the library who are using the Internet in any part of their course. This is particularly so if they need to access bandwidth hungry resources such as video or interactive content – the very ones that we choose as being most engaging. Much of my own delivery even in face-to-face classes is self-paced and flexible so students often use the LMS course in the classroom. They are often frustrated by slow connections and failure of links to load – made even slower by their own preferences for listening to online music through YouTube as they work.
There is also an impact on lecturers and other staff. Lecturers seeking useful content links to make available for their students in face-to-face classes and/or through the LMS find the slow connection a barrier to success. The VC that we use (Elluminate) works well and is not excessively bandwidth hungry (can be used with dial up) but it can be problematic from work at times when bandwidth is already overloaded by other on-campus use. The result of these issues is often an increase in lecturer reluctance to adopt blended solutions that integrate technology.
Because most of our students are external/distance students bandwidth can also be an issue for them if they are studying using their home computer. Small country towns may not have broadband so access is restricted to dial-up or sometimes satellite. This has implications in download times, cost, frustration (try it when every video you want to watch downloads much more slowly than it plays).
Any possible solutions are really in the hands of the politicians and are dependent on economic factors. As a country we have a small population for our land area. We also (particularly in Western Australia) have huge distances – a 3-4 day drive from the South Coast to Broome on the North Coast of Western Australia, with only one large centre of population after you leave the south west and Perth about a fifth of the way. The economic reality of this is high infrastructure costs and a small tax paying population to pay for the necessary infrastructure. Also only a small proportion of the population lives outside the Perth Metropolitan area and the South West corner so their voice is small.
2. Computer configurations
This is a problem that is mostly restricted to distance/external students, however, Australia has many of these and they are not all highly technically competent. Also with increasing globalisation of education as a way of providing anytime, anywhere access to learning this will become more significant.
When working with remote students I have found that their own system, available applications and configuration is one of the main barriers for them in: accessing their online content from the LMS; joining the VC; and uploading or sending their own work to their lecturer. From the student perspective difficulties often arise in initial access to the resources, LMS or VC. In my experience these usually relate to the type and operating system, browser and/or security that they are using, or to a lack of necessary plug-ins.
The range of configurations is also a barrier for lecturers/teachers who are not themseves reasonably technically competent and who are not familiar with a range of systems. They often lack the skills and experience to provide phone support and “walk through” the necessary processes with students. A further problem for lecturers is that they are usually locked into the organisational choices with resepct to applications. In my organisations this means Windows and MSOffice. They are often not really aware of the implications of using MSOffice documents for those with older versions or with a different OS such as Linux or Mac. Neither do they know how to use any alternative applications. These issues then provide a further barrier for lecturers in integrating technology.
A specialist lecturer who helps students in getting online and who can also mentor and support other lecturers is a solution that was working well in my organisation last year (with myself in that role). However the college has decided to abandon that approach and has not really replaced it with anything specific. Having a lecturer/teacher in that role is important because students and colleagues often need to be coached through the processes, and IT staff should not be expected to have the necessary teaching skills.
On a personal basis I am trying to make all of my resources available in web-accessible form (either using HTML or using one of the Rapid E-learning Development tools that are available) and I think this is the way that all lecturers need to go. However converting/re-writing many pre-existing resources is a large task so I still have MSOffice documents. However if I have a student without MSOffice or with an older version I convert resources at need. Most of my colleagues cannot do this, and indeed many do not want to know how to as they fear it will give them more work. Unfortunately it is not just an admin task as it needs someone with the skills to design the resource and activities.
A barrier of huge significance at the moment for teachers worldwide is that of institutional blocking of websites. It is an issue that is raised almost daily by members of my Personal Learning Network on Twitter and also during nearly all of our Edublogs Serendipity sessions (Fridays GMT 01:00 in this Elluminate room). It is a barrier that is faced across all sectors of education in Australia including my own organisation. We have had a situation where lecturer’s computers had more blocking than those on the student network! Thankfully this situation has been somewhat rectified recently so our access to potential resources has improved. However there is considerable blocking on the student network at the moment – this is to a large extent because of our limited bandwidth & the propensity of most students to have YouTube running continuously so that they can listen to music during class.
It seems that the only real solution to this is education of everyone involved! Educate IT departments and managers to see that cocooning students from the real world is not an answer; educate educators about the value of good digital citizenship and about how to encourage it in students; and educate students – from a very young age – in digital citizenship and Internet safety.
There is still a perception among many managers that integrating technology and using online solutions is a cheap option for providing learning opportunities. This pervades many institutions and often means that teachers/lecturers are not given sufficient time or resources to develop and implement high quality blended solutions that integrate technology. There is still a feeling from managers (in my organisation) that all that is necessary in terms of using educational technology with our distance students is to upload existing Word documents and PowerPoint presentations to some sort of repository – preferably an LMS so that the resources have restricted access. Students are then told when to download and print these.
Economics also impacts in unwillingness (and sometimes inability due to budget constraints) to pay for technology. Edtech often has a low priority, for example computer replacement in my organisation is on the basis of a proportion replaced each year, so computers in some classrooms are several years old. The avidity with which we all seek and share any free tools, resources or access illustrates the constant economic pressure on educators to implement edtech cheaply.
A solution I have adopted in the past is to apply for grant funding. However I am no longer doing this because of: the overwhelming amount of paperwork that my organisation then imposes on me in relation to the funding; the frustration of having seed funding that never lasts long enough to develop sustainability; and the fact that most funding available here in Australia excludes equipment or software purchase.
1. Resistance to change on all sides
Teachers/Lecturers resist change for many reasons. There are few people who really find it easy to move outside their comfort zone. Fear of knowing less than students and consequently of losing credibility with them is also a factor for many who are not themselves comfortable with technology. For a high proportion of teachers and lecturers there is also the worry that adopting edtech solutions will add to their already heavy workloads and that as a result they will do even more work during evenings and weekends.
Managers also resist change for many reasons – including economic presures, fear of the technology and wanting to stay in their own comfort zones. Often too, managers other than those at the very top are the “meat in the sandwich” between their own managers and the teachers or lecturers they manage. So as we would say they are “between a rock and a hard place” this can make them very unwilling to commit to change.
Students themselves resist change. As a lecturer with “adult return to learn” and teenage “youth at risk” students who hated, feared, and loathed school for one reason or another I see this all the time. All of my students to varying degrees at the start of their courses want the learning environment to be like school. Sometimes it is “desks in rows”, sometimes it is “teacher stand in front and write on drywipe board for them to copy”. They want to stay in their comfort zone even if it was a discomfort zone – at least it is familiar.
Just keep “chipping away” seems to be the only solution that works. The old proverb about taking horses to water but not being able to force them to drink always comes to mind in this context, as it does for learning generally. Finding a “hook” of self-interest for those who are reluctant is often helpful. That approach combined with time – not waiting for people to leave but reaching the point in adoption of “the new” when more people are using “the new” than are not. People like to “belong”, peer pressure is one of the strongest motivators to do anything – we all see this in our classrooms every day where our students dress similarly, talk similarly do the same things. Our colleagues are no different once “most people” have adopted edtech solutions it will be those who have not who feel out of the group and so they will eventually join in. Having “champions” who are passionate about edtech, who also have leadership capabilities and can lead by example and mentor are also essential. Again we all see this in class every day where one student who is a leader can sway the rest of the class for good or ill.
Writing this has made me think more about the issues we face in encouraging the use of edtech. It has also made me more aware on a personal basis of how constrained we are in Australia, and particularly regional Australia, by infrastructure and economics over which we have little or no influence. For example these limitations make it impractical for me to even consider using Second Life or even mobile learning with my regional students. When we add the organisational, student available technology and human barriers it is amazing that we make any progress at all, but we do! Four years ago I was nibbling at the edges of edtech – I had barely heard of Virtual Classrooms, now I use them all the time. Eight months ago I had never heard of Twitter, now I have a (deliberately small) global network of amazing people in my PLN on Twitter. Who knows where any of us will be in edtech terms a year from now.
A final thought – we are “getting there” in terms of fitting widget A into socket B but it is a slow process as indeed is the majority of change. We must do it in the same way as we would eat an elephant “one mouthful at a time”. My own personal strategy in exploring and keeping up with edtech is having a Personal Learning Network – my own elephant – it knows all and never forgets. The greatest challenge is always knowing which mouthful comes next!
Originally from the UK now living in rural Western Australia. I have a background in science, equine studies (including teaching horse riding) and in the transferable/ employable skills. Currently, a lecturer in Literacy and Numeracy (with some IT) in the public Vocational Education and Training sector (TAFE). My students are very varied: culturally & linguistically diverse mature age adults; people with intellectual disabilities; “Youth at (educational) Risk”. In a face to face class I have five literacy levels, this combined with the human diversity of my learners makes e-solutions almost essential for me. I also have online regional/remote students. I love to learn myself and have a passion for opening these same doors for learners. I enjoy exploring “e-stuff” immensely and see this as an essential addition to my “toolbox” for engaging and motivating learners. I use Virtual Classroom (Elluminate) a lot and also the WebCT CE6 Learning Management System and have trained and supported other lecturers in my organisation in using these. I can be found in the Edublogs Elluminate room http://bit.ly/17lTIE (usually Friday GMT 01:00am), on Twitter @JoHart (constantly) and on my blog johart1.edublogs.org (when I have time!).