The New South Wales Department of Education and Communities is reviewing the strict internet filtering used for schools in the state, and is eyeing opening up access to social networking sites for students.
Internet filters in schools have always been a sore point for students. In New South Wales, students are blocked from even being able to access social media sites like Facebook on their school network.
Despite the block, director of Public Schools at the NSW Department of Education and Communities Dianne Marshall told the Adobe Education Leadership Forum in Sydney today that students still managed to get to the sites.
"Social media is obviously very, very important. Unfortunately at the Department of Education and Communities we have it blocked [but] the students are very, very good at using their phones and at home as well," she said.
Marshall said that she saw social networking playing a key role in education in the future, adding that it was a passion of hers to get the department to relax its block on social media sites. This year the department has issued a survey in schools across the state on whether the filter should be relaxed for students. One audience member at the Adobe event said he had seen the survey and said it suggested easing restrictions for Year 11 and Year 12 students, with changes possibly to be implemented as soon as December this year.
Marshall said that no definite timeline had been set yet and that it was important to get the setting right for opening up social sites to school students.
"People are working very hard at getting a safe environment which allows students to have access to all of the right social media sites but still [protects students]," she said.
"This is an area, I think, that is going to become increasingly more important because that's where our students live and operate."
Laptops in schools
Marshall told the forum that watching the year nine students who received Lenovo laptops in 2009 use them in the classroom daily in the three years through to year 12 had taught the department a lot about how students learn using the technology.
Marshall said students had become highly individualised learners, with their own personal learning style, and were choosing learning activities to match that style. She said that students now did work on a 24/7 basis, completing tasks and handing in assignments whenever it suited them. This did lead to problems for some.
"We have to start looking at our policies for handing in assignments. You might say [that] midnight's the deadline and students will get them in two minutes before midnight, expecting to have feedback before the next day's test."
Students were able to learn anywhere, at any time, and would often use their laptops in breaks of their after school jobs. Through programs like Audacity students were picking up audio editing skills, and were presenting assignments in multiple different formats, for example as a podcast or a piece of music.
While Wikipedia and Google were still heavily used by students for research, many more students were now turning to video sites like YouTube and Marshall said that in general research was much more in-depth and students were starting their research earlier.
Assessments were becoming more of a constant conversation both between the students themselves and the teacher, she said.
"Students are starting to be a lot more collaborative but they do expect feedback now and they expect it to be useful feedback not just a tick and a smiley stamp," she said.
This constant feedback was allowing students to polish up their work a lot more, leading to the students taking a lot of pride in their work.
She rejected the "digital native" label for school students today, saying not all students come to class with computer skills. While some do improve over time she acknowledged that teaching with laptops may not work for every student.
"We've got to be able to adapt for all the students in our classroom and not make them one size fits all," she said.
Laptops in schools doomed?
An audience member at the event wondered what would happen if government policy changed, leading to the end of the laptops in schools program. This could mean that students would have to go back to traditional learning methods without the laptops. Marshall said she thought the program would be difficult for the government to roll back.
"Let me assure you, in the background there's a lot of people who are making sure that we can continue. It's very difficult to stop something like this in government," she said.
"We definitely don't want to go backwards and I don't think it is possible to go backwards. I think we've had now four years of roll-outs. We're definitely fine for next year. There will be another year of roll-outs."
The department was also looking at other initiatives such as bring-your-own device programs, and adopting tablets, but Marshall said that the department was "very pleased" with the Lenovo laptop set for this year's roll-out.