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​From notepads to notebooks: The rise of blended learning

All facets of Australia's education system have been touched by technology, but is it really improving the way students learn?

Teachers used to place ticks next to each student's name when they responded with a "here" during roll call, but these days, it's just a matter of clicking a button on a laptop.

Meanwhile, many chalkboards have been replaced by smartboards, interactive whiteboards that use touch detection in a similar manner to the way users interact with tablets.

And classroom excursions to the computer lab no longer need to happen, given that each student now owns a laptop, and uses it for more than just to play Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?

These are the experiences that students and teachers of Melbourne's Methodist Ladies' College (MLC) have come to encounter in their classrooms.

MLC head of mathematics Linda Shardlow explained that the use of technologies in classrooms has in some ways improved the way interactions happen. She said that teaching mathematics, for example, allows teachers to show students the connections between concepts more quickly, and work with larger values that occur in real-life problems.

"It's not about using the computer to do more complicated algebra calculations -- although they can -- it's more about students being able to learn more mathematics more deeply with the appropriate and responsible use of technology," she said.

"They can make and test conjectures. They can work at higher levels of generalisation or abstraction. They can focus on the ideas that underpin the discipline and work with the 'horrible and hairy' numbers, without compromising understanding."

Shardlow also pointed out that technology enables students to make more mistakes, which they can learn from, benefiting them in the long term.

"The immediacy of technology means students can try out more pathways to solution and learn from those that don't lead anywhere. Teachers can help students to see the benefits of taking calculated risks in their learning, reflecting on these, and moving forward faster than we have been able to do in the past," she said.

"Technologies also allow teachers to communicate much faster and more readily with learners. We can give feedback on a learning task, and we can email our students' families about their child's progress."

In realising the growing importance that technology plays in classrooms, the New South Wales government recently committed to spending AU$148 million to upgrade nearly 60 secondary schools, including Canley Vale High School, Hawkesbury High School, Taree High School, and Granville Boys High School.

This is part of the NSW government's AU$1 billion "Innovation Education, Successful Students" package that will see the integration of technologies encouraging greater student-teacher collaboration.

"We are rethinking how schools work, how teachers teach, and how students will learn in the future," said NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli earlier this year.

But not everyone can agree that technology is beneficial for a child's learning in class. Shardlow said there will always be some teachers who believe that having computers in the classroom can sidetrack students' focus.

"I think that there will always be, and have always been, aspects of a classroom that can distract students from their learning purpose. It is the teacher's role to engage, monitor, and re-engage, if required, students in their learning. Student engagement is the motherload of teaching," she said.

From front to back

It's not only student-facing technologies that are getting a revamp. The way technology is being used in the back end of school systems is also seeing similar changes, with data progressively playing an instrumental part in the way teachers teach.

At the Gartner Business Intelligence, Analytics, and Information Management Summit earlier this year, Queensland Department of Education and Training CIO and acting associate director Mark Hind spoke about how the government views the state's education system as a "data mega factory".

As part of the department's digital strategy for 2014-17 (PDF), one of the key focuses will be around improving local decision making by using student performance data and analytics to improve attendance, retention, attainment, and transition. For instance, the department has given teachers access to real-time data to help track student performance across cohort and year levels.

The ability to give teachers access to the information is through the department's own design of a "one-stop shop" portal of a single student record system. The portal provides an overview of each individual student in the state's school system, including their academic performance, attendance, and National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results. The identity management portal is also connected to the state's curriculum, full finance systems for schools, report cards, and a student's medical information, such as any known allergies they may have.

Hind explained that with access to such information, teachers, for instance, have the choice to begin tracking students who are performing at the bottom of the class and understand where they need help. At the same time, in a separate set of analytics, teachers can identify the top performers and how they could potentially be further challenged in class. Hind said the idea is to eventually allow teachers to create individual learning plans for students.

Forest Lake State High School in Queensland is one such school, which Hind said had an "epiphany to perform its own micro-data experiments" on its 1,300 students using the data portal to improve class performance over 18 months. Hind said that as part of the experiment, using the student data they had, teachers divided students into 1,200 cohorts, which allowed them to assess, plan, and learn where missed opportunities existed.

As a result, Hind said school results improved, including better NAPLAN scores and higher overall positions (OPs), which moved from an average of 72 to 115.

"For a school that was middle of the road, they took a significant amount of students from mid level up to high performing," he said.

"The most interesting thing was the decline in behavioural issues. The unintended consequence was students were more engaged, students were more valued, students were involved in their learning through cohorts. So imagine where we could get with 1,200 schools," he said.

Hind said the next phase will be to see the results of a current trial being run by 100 schools across the state. The trial involves giving parents access to the Parent Portal, a platform that houses the information of their child's performance at school.

"Everyone is centred on using a large, single portal. Our students move schools so often, and what we can do with the system is move them from one school system to the next, and provision them. We can do the same with teachers," he said.

Taking it a step further, principals can now track the performance of teachers in the classroom. A system developed by the Association of Independent Schools of NSW, known as Appretio, allows teachers to establish goals and align that with whole-of-school strategies to enable teachers, as well as principals, to reflect on performances.

The brain behind the system, Sharon Cheers, the Association of Independent Schools of NSW teacher development and review director, recently said at the Qlik Visualise your World event in Sydney that Appretio was designed to provide a way for schools to measure and monitor the performance of teachers. She said Appretio allows tracking through a teacher's professional growth; supporting that with mentoring and feedback; and reviews based on observation, classroom practice, and evidence of student engagement.

"We wanted to quantify the unquantifiable. There has been a massive push in education on the development of teachers, because we know they are the variable that makes the most difference to student outcomes," she said.

While it's currently being used by 60 schools nationally, predominately from NSW, Cheers said the platform was designed to be a service platform for all schools nationally.

To further assist teachers, there are plans to see electronic marking be introduced for NAPLAN, which is sat by students in years 3, 5, 7, and 9.

Minister for Education and Training Christopher Pyne said the government is committed to delivering NAPLAN results faster by taking testing online from 2017 over a two- to three-year period. Schools will be able to trial online testing from next year.

"NAPLAN online will provide better assessment, more precise information on students' strengths and weaknesses, and much faster turnaround of information," Pyne said.

Stanley Rabinowitz, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority assessment and reporting general manager, said that instead of results taking three months, they could be delivered within two to three weeks.

"I think when people receive results faster, the impact is more imminent," he said.

When NAPLAN goes online, there are also plans for a computer-adaptive testing platform to be designed, which means every test will be created to suit the individual ability of each student, depending on their performance during testing.

From a distance

Another aspect of Australian education that has recently received attention from the federal government has been distance education.

Distance education can refer to students who live on remote properties and receive all their education at a distance, much of it delivered through the computer over satellite broadband. It can also be students who attend a small country school, and are taught face-to-face for some subjects, but are taught other subjects through video over broadband with downloaded learning materials, mainly because there are no appropriate staff members available.

Currently, the Australian government contributes more than AU$60 million a year towards distance education, but believes that when the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is completed, students living in rural or remote parts of Australia will be the real winners.

Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Communications Paul Fletcher, who kickstarted the initiative to discuss ways of using long-term satellite to provide service for distance education, told ZDNet that he firmly believes the NBN will significantly improve the learning experience for distance education students.

In Queensland, for example, more than 7,800 students receive distance education, with 59 percent being school based, 11 percent classed as geographically isolated, 11 percent home based, and 15 percent receiving distance education for medical reasons. Meanwhile, there are nearly 1,000 distance education students in the Northern Territory.

"I think when people receive results faster, the impact is more imminent."

— Stanley Rabinowitz

Currently, NBN Co offers an interim satellite service, which delivers 6Mbps peak speed down and 1Mbps peak speed up. However, when the long-term satellite launches, speeds are expected to reach 25Mbps peak speed down, 5Mbps peak speed up, Fletcher said.

"With the interim satellite service, there have been congestion problems, and the significant measure goes back to mistakes made under the previous government, when the interim satellite service was launched. They said there was a capacity of 50,000, but in fact there was only capacity for 48,000," he said.

"We've taken steps to try mitigate that as best as we can, but the main focus is what the long-term satellite service will be able to do."

The rollout of the satellites is expected to take place during the second half of this year, and to be commercially available by mid-2016.

One school that has been leveraging the use of the interim satellites is Bendigo Senior Secondary College, as part of the distance education initiative the Victorian Virtual Learning Network (VVLN).

Hosted on open-source platform Moodle, the college is able to deliver Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects, including maths, chemistry, physics, and legal studies, to students. As part of the program, students are provided with full instructional and interactive lessons. Meanwhile, if students are in need of support, they communicate with teachers via either Microsoft Lync or Skype.

"Bendigo Senior Secondary College is very keen to move into the use of technology, and look at how digital technology could be used to deliver courses. With the support from state and through the federal government through the last couple of years, we've explored how broadband into schools could be used to deliver courses," said VVLN project manager Rob Hallisey.

Going up higher

The use of virtual learning is not only for distance education; tertiary educators have embraced it in their classes, too. Referred to as flip learning, tertiary educators are providing students with recordings of lectures online, so that when class takes place, it means the time will be spent focused on problem solving and deeper class discussions.

TAFE Petersham head of ICT training Bala Subra said this gives students the opportunity to learn anytime they want, and come back to the notes as many times as they need to.

Similarly, Peter Nikoletatos, La Trobe University chief information officer, said this form of blended learning plays a key role in the way students are being educated.

"Students can download content and recorded lectures as part of their program," he said. "Works well for students who want a flexible learning environment. However, equally, students who want an interactive experience struggle with video conference where it is used in large groups."

To support and meet the "reasonably high" demand in interactive learning, as well as the different applications that lecturers are using to communicate with students, La Trobe University recently announced plans to move completely to the cloud by the end of 2015.

STEM education

A large issue that the IT industry is currently facing is a shortage in specialist skills, and this is mainly reflected in the declining numbers of engineering students doing tertiary education.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently admitted that the education sector has gone backwards, revealing that the number of students taking up science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning has dropped significantly.

"Of our 600,000 workers in ICT, more than half work outside the traditional ICT sector. Seventy five percent of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills, but only half of year 12 students are studying science; that's down from 94 percent 20 years ago. That is really a retrograde development, and we have to turn that around," he said.

In efforts to amend this, there is currently a large push by the industry to introduce STEM learning earlier in the school curriculum.

Tasmania is one state that has already taken the initiative to introduce a coding curriculum to primary school classrooms as part of a partnership between Code Club Australia and the Tasmanian government.

The curriculum will involve two terms of teaching -- HTML and CSS, before students learn Python -- using Scratch, a free open-source learning program that was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Similarly, Melbourne-based Froebel Bilingual Early Learning Centre is one of 350 education and care services across Australia that is introducing preschoolers to STEM skills as part of the Little Scientists initiative.

Recently introduced from Germany, Little Scientists is an initiative aimed to foster preschool children's curiosity in STEM skills. The initiative has already been adopted by 27,000 German kindergarten classes.

The initiatives mirror Telstra chair and Business Council of Australia president Catherine Livingstone's recent call to introduce computational thinking and problem solving to children as young as four years old.

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) CEO Suzanne Campbell concurred, indicating that more support needs to be provided by the federal government, and a national strategy is needed, rather than just visionary leadership from individuals in the industry.

"The first problem is students haven't undertaken the pre-requisite in place. The second problem is that students are very comfortable consuming ICT and using apps. However, they're not thinking about the career opportunity that sits behind it," she said.

Campbell highlighted that support also needs to be provided to teachers.

"The other problem is teacher education and training. We see teachers often in the situation where they don't have training on programming, or they don't have a level of familiarity, so as a consequence their lack of training more often [means] consuming, not creating, STEM."

From the opposition benches, Labor leader Bill Shorten has pledged that if he becomes prime minister, Labor would wipe the university debts for 100,000 STEM students. Additionally, Labor would boost the skills of 10,000 current primary and secondary school teachers, as well as train 25,000 science and technology graduates as teachers.

"Coding is the literacy of the 21st century, and under Labor, every young Australian will have a chance to read, write, and work with the global language of the digital age," Shorten said.

"Digital technologies, computer science, and coding, the language of computers and technology, should be taught in every primary and every secondary school in Australia, and a Shorten Labor government will make this a national priority. We will work with the states and territories and the national curriculum authority to make this happen."