Watch out for those computers: they might break down!

I thought it was great to see a Principal of a government school brave enough to come out this week and remind us all how silly it is (in this day and age) that we actually get students to hand-write long (ish)  pieces for important assessment, and call this a contemporary education.

Actually, Michael Phillips from Ringwood Secondary College didn’t need to remind me. I’ve told anyone who was foolish enough to stop and listen that the Year 12 exam must be about the last time many of these students will ever write anything substantial, thoughtful and structured by hand.

And, it’s not as if they’ve been handwriting through much of their school life.  My students, like the students at Ringwood, have been working with computers extensively and in a sustained way for most of their school assessment through years 7 to 10. Then we get all olde-worlde and put the computers away so students can get their pens out. What?

Or more precisely: why? When I’ve raised this with people from VCAA they’ll argue it’s about equity. Not everyone has had access to a computer so no-one can use one in the exam. And, if pushed, they’re worried about security too in a high-stake exam. But what about equity for students who have been learning, thinking and writing with these tools? ‘Put them away sonny, this is important’. Or equity for those students whose hand-eye coordination results in writing that doesn’t look as good as someone else?

The AGE reported that:

SIX weeks before VCE exams, students at Ringwood Secondary College dump the computer keyboards they have used since childhood and start practising their handwriting.

It’s a forced necessity, given students must write three-hour exams in longhand, that has principal Michael Phillips gritting his teeth. ”Illegible writing has become much more problematic in the last few years because kids are used to working on a keyboard,” Mr Phillips said. ”I think it’s ridiculous that in 2011 we are still doing pen and paper testing … It’s holding the learning back at a time when we’re actually saying there are a whole lot of skills they need for university and the workforce, which involve the use of technology.”

By 2000, we should have found ways of doing work differently.”

In 2007, the Rudd government launched its Digital Education Revolution, pledging every year 9-12 student would have a computer by the end of this year. Given this investment, Mr Phillips said there was no reason why there would be insufficient computers in schools for VCE students to sit their exams. He said assessment should be more sophisticated than students regurgitating facts they have memorised in essays. Instead, exams should test how students solve problems and research and analyse information within time constraints.

VCAA’s response was forthright:

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority chief executive John Firth said in order to be fair, VCE exams needed to be sat under exactly the same conditions across the state. He said there were security risks with the use of technology and the possibility computers could break down. However, using computers was certainly an issue that had been raised, and the VCAA was keen to conduct trials using word processors in exams in lower year levels.

”Our strategic plan over the next three years is we want to make some progress along these lines, but we wouldn’t start with [VCE] English,” he said.

Hasten forward slowly!!

Below: ‘Dont use those modern brass instruments!!! They might break down’*

*Okay, not the best tie-in but I was looking for an olde-worlde illustration and this is the best I could come up with!

Tale of two teachers

Above: : I stop at the local hotelier on the way home to relate my marvellous tale.

I met an English teacher from another school at a conference last week, who startled me by proudly stating over coffee that he banned computers from his classroom, ‘I want them writing, not typing!’, he proclaimed as if that was a great line.  I must admit I was nearly shocked and must have showed it.  I asked him why, particularly since his school and the parents  had invested a fair bit of money in ensuring that every student had a notebook computer which they could use in all their subject, except this one of course.

I said all the usual things you might expect, that wasn’t the computer a great tool for writing?, that surely the creative and collaborative opportunities might just interest you a bit?, that this was a tool that students generally enjoyed working with and seemed particularly useful in an English classroom? Wasn’t he interested in student’s blogging, or redrafting easily, or sharing their work with others online? I probably should have let it go but I persisted; what was it about the computer that so offended him that it’s very presence should be cast out?

In the end it seemed it was three things (I simplify):  that a computer is a typewriter and students don’t type their final exams, they handwrite them. That some students were playing games on their computers when they should have been working on their English. That some students were paying more attention to their computer than their teacher (lookatmoi!!!)

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than three nanoseconds you’ll know how well that went down with me and I think I might have even said something like, ‘I wouldn’t want you teaching in a school I was in’ or something to that effect. And this man is probably a good teacher, well liked and respected by his students. We parted company soon after, going our different ways across the biscuits and Nescafe.

I know another English teacher, from another school, who has taken it upon himself to lead and develop the other English teachers at his school. He began using OneNote as an organising tool for himself about five years ago, and then with his senior English classes. He used his tablet PC to annotate and review student work and email it back to them and he started blogging for them, and sharing his blog with students from other schools, gathering thousands of ‘hits’. Late last year he started producing some audio podcasts for his students on key aspects of the course. He’d get the students to download them to their computer and some would put them on their ipods to listen to later. This week he sent me a link to a screencast he’d created using Screencast which was a visual and audio overview setting up the structure of an essay for his senior English class. He’s been playing around with Camtasia too, as a tool for helping students build skills.

It’s not the done thing in the education profession to criticise other teachers. It’s anti-collaborative and just helps to push people into extremes of perspective and hide-out with their ideological pals in the staff-room or the computer room.  (See my earlier post about identity!) Any talk of teacher appraisal or performance quickly has to answer to questions about team-work and the importance of teachers learning together, not competing with each other.

Fair enough too. We’re not cookie cutters and getting into quantifying what a single teacher has contributed to a student’s learning journey is a slippery slope. Still, I know which of those two teachers classes I’d like my own children in.