Pioneering new pathways: iPads at Dominican Convent School

| March 26, 2013 | 2 Comments

By Paul Horn

Giggles filled the classroom, despite the teacher staring down from the front of the class.

Then she broke into a smile as the photo she had just taken on her iPad morphed into her ancestral Homo habilis form, complete with full facial hair. The students in her Grade 12 life science class had just witnessed devolution. After the initial shock, they were able to experience each stage of evolutionary development and note the physiological changes in the human form. By the end of the lesson, both the humans in the class, on-screen and life science curriculum delivery at Dominican Convent School (DCS) in Belgravia, Johannesburg, had evolved. Or had it?

Will ‘taking tablets’ improve education?

It is perhaps ironic that the latest product to transform the classroom is called a ‘tablet’. The tablet chalkboard introduced in the Victorian classroom was hailed as transformational. Filmstrips, overhead projectors, computers, digital projectors and interactive whiteboards followed in the intervening years, with similar bold claims. Each wave of technological innovation brings new excitement, but also brings the associated costs of acquisition, training and support for new devices in the classroom. This places school leaders in the difficult place of balancing risk and reward. Will classroom practice change? Will student results improve? Or will the new technology – like many products before it – end up in the school store room gathering dust?

Show me the money

The question of resource allocation is particularly pertinent in the South African educational context. Education is seen as a key driver of socio-economic development, yet the majority of schools do not have sufficient funds to pay skilled teachers or provide basic educational infrastructure. Other key challenges face our system: emerging research shows that the ability to access knowledge through technology, and to analyse and interpret this knowledge to create new knowledge, is critical in transforming an extractive economy like South Africa’s into a service economy.

For students to be successful at tertiary institutions and in the service sector, they must be exposed to technology from a young age. These issues place schools in the awkward position of pitting technology acquisition costs against lean staff or maintenance budgets. Excuses are common and compelling: “We don’t have enough money to introduce technology into our classrooms”, “We don’t have the staff able to use the technology in their teaching or the money or time to train the staff ”, “Our children won’t look after expensive technology items”, or even the cynical, “We’ve heard these promises about technology before and nothing ever changed.”

Pedagogy and practice

These complaints raise questions, says Marina Burger, head of Dominican Convent High School, about the relationship between pedagogy and practice. The alignment between learning, teaching and assessment is often haphazard, threatened by questionable efficacy, says Burger. “Learner performance at DCS constantly begs attention – the learners are capable, have reasonable work ethics and scholarly skills, but too low a percentage of pupils attain high marks.

If we rely on formal assessments as the sole indicator of learner achievement, then it could be said that DCS learners struggle to achieve academically. Yet high-stake assessments such as the National Senior Certificate (NSC) are limited. These forms of assessment instruments do not allow for the differentiation learners need to effectively demonstrate achievement. Examinations such as the NSC can distort the teaching and learning cycle as teachers inevitably teach to the test.

“The constructivist tenets of the South African curriculum require that learners are active in the construction of new knowledge, using their existing knowledge as a foundation. The learner is not a tabula rasa on which the teacher imparts new knowledge.1 Instructional methods in South African schools have been slow to adapt to this constructivist model, and this is often reflected in learner marks and gaps in knowledge. Learners appear to learn best in environments which promote study in authentic and rich contexts, where the higher-order thinking skills are enhanced and they can create rich and complex knowledge structures.”2 Properly applied, technology can provide such environments, believes Burger. “It can allow students access to adapted, interactive, real-time content from the internet.

There has been extensive research on the integration of technology into the learning and teaching environment.3 Much depends on the implementation of the technology and the appropriate use thereof. Often, the learners’ seemingly natural ability to utilise technology is underestimated. A teenager’s intellectual curiosity is ignited by the presence of technology, as they can often move at their own pace and explore topics beyond the classroom and the limitations of their own physical world. Learners instinctively search for information and develop their higher-order thinking skills as they engage with technology.”

Burger’s looking forward to the future and the possible instructional innovation that technology can provide at DCS. “At the very least, the use of technology may allow the teacher to be more of a facilitator of learning and less of an examination coach, as the mobile learning device allows learning to move in step with the teenagers’ thirst for learning.”

Resource allocation one initial concern

Such positive curiosity was the reason, says Paul Horn, director of information technology (IT), that DCS chose to join other pioneers of the tablet age, despite the school’s position as an independent school for emerging middle-class and low-income families. DCS is located on the edge of the Johannesburg city centre, and offers education to over 850 children. More than 10% of these students are orphaned and vulnerable children, and more than 75% travel up to one hour to school each day from former townships.

When DCS initially proposed a strategy of installing wireless internet service on campus and integrating iPads into the curriculum, staff raised financial concerns. “Then,” recalls Horn, “in January 2012, through a partnership with Aruba Networks4 and school development levy funds, the wireless network was deployed campus-wide. A foundation had been laid for bringing mobile devices into DCS classrooms. In September 2012, MINI and BMW generously donated 60 iPads through the iSchool Africa Programme.5 This donation served as a catalyst for tablet-based learning at DCS from pre-primary school to matriculation. With the network in place, and enough devices for one-one-one learning, the resource issue in technology deployment had been solved. The next step was winning the hearts and minds of staff members.”

Critical mass takes the challenge forward

Initial training was offered by iSchool Africa, and voluntary trainings sessions were offered for the remainder of 2012 by a member of the DCS staff, says Horn. “Only 15% of the staff attended, but they formed a critical mass of advocates eager to experiment with the technology.” Horn and Burger report that after months of training, teachers have begun the new year leveraging the iPads to deliver lesson content in innovative new ways.

Students have created superheroes, witnessed the escalation of the cold war, devolved themselves, researched artistic movements and explored lexical fields in Shakespeare’s Henry V. The basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic have also been reinforced through applications that monitor individual student progress.

“Together with dynamic teaching, iPads are beginning to function as catalysts for learner-centred inquiry,” enthuses Horn. He adds: “Early indicators of success with iPads at DCS include giggles in Grade 12 life science class, gasps of excitement as a previously unknown artistic talent emerged in Grade 8, and a rare silence as Grade 2s became engrossed in their iPad maths quiz.

In these moments, as teachers witness the joy and satisfaction of authentic learning among the children, their hearts and minds are won. Teachers begin seeking new ways to use technology as a medium for selfeducation and, in the process, help our students take their first steps on the road to tertiary success, service-sector employment, and our contribution to the country’s socio-economic transformation.”

To view a video of iPads being used in Dominican Convent School classrooms, visit: http://bit.ly/ipadsuperhero.

References:

1. Mvududu, N. (2005) ‘Constructivism in the statistic classroom: from theory to practice’. Teaching Statistics, 22 (2), Summer 2005.

2. Grabinger, R.S. (1996) ‘Rich environments for active learning’. In Jonassen, D.H. (ed.) Handbook o f Research for Educational Communications and Technology. New York: Macmillan.

3. See, for example, http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/ methods/technlgy/te800.htm.

4. See http://www.arubanetworks.com/.

5. See http://www.ischoolafrica.com/iSchoolAfrica.com/ About_iSchoolAfrica.html.

Category: Autumn 2013, e-Education

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Comments (2)

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  1. Barbie says:

    This school is fantastic

  2. Barbie says:

    In Wow I want my child to go to this school it is soo amazing

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