Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Physical Learning Spaces in Schools

My last post discussed the challenges Australian schools face as we educate and professionally develop our teachers in the effective use of ICTs. Today I want to discuss what a contemporary 21st Century school learning should look like.
As a university lecturer I still have students who come to the classroom believing that the short period of time we share together in class is the sum total of their learning opportunities. They often come in and sit down and look at me as if to say "well teach me!!" When they walk out the door it is as if the y are ready to concentrate their attentions somewhere else. This is most common in school leavers in their first year of university. Mature age students rarely view their learning in this way and will ask good questions during, at the beginning and end of class as well as using the discussion forums and phone to gain additional clarification. The more mature students have long been out of school and understand learning from a personal perspective.

So in many cases school is about performing for the teacher within the limited time they share together in the classroom. ICTs or elearning technologies offer the opportunity to take the learning beyond the classroom by engaging students to achieve and perform with real world tasks. This may not necessarily mean time online at home, but could involve before and after school engagement in the school grounds. It could also occur in Internet cafes and public libraries, or it could involve a different model of schooling, one where there was more project time for students to engage in individual or group learning. More importantly the structure of the schools needs to support a seamless transition in the use of elearning technologies--a structure that makes the technologies easily available when it is required. Computer labs are a fantastic way to control access to and the maintenance of computers, but they score poorly when it comes to flexibility with teachers reporting difficulties in gaining access when they need it for their students.
There are a couple of options and these involve making a substantial number of Internet ready and connected computers available for use in every classroom, or ensuring that every student has their own computer. Some schools are trialling interest free loans through school fees to fund a basic level of student computing that they can take to and from school, while others are considering purchasing laptops that remain in the school. Both ideas have advantages and disadvantages with regard to 24/7 access and the possibilities of damage, abuse and theft.

The design of classrooms also has an impact on learning. Traditional classrooms where desks are lined up and the majority of learning activities are individual pose difficulties for seamless and integrated learning using ICTs. More flexible learning spaces where teams of students can work together with instant access to the Web that is not highly filtered are more likely to support the kinds of 21st Century learning to which the contemporary education literature refers. A number of schools in the northern suburbs of Geelong have experimented with larger and more open classrooms where the technology is readily available. In terms of learning engagement they have been a success; with regard to academic performance the evidence is not conclusive at this stage.

Overall, learner-centred environments require greater flexibility and seamless access to a large variety of learning resources and technologies. The learning space has a direct impact on the way students engage.

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