Learning Spaces/Learning Futures forum at Bialik College

Today, Bialik College hosted a Learning Spaces/Learning Futures forum for their staff and members of other school communities. I was asked to sit on a forum panel at the end of the day and address questions posed from participants. I’d like to thank David Feighan for the invitation; it was an enlightening day and I was able to take away many ideas for our new library that is currently under construction.

Jon Peacock, General Manager, Learning Environments at the University of Melbourne, shared with us reasoning behind new generation designs of learning spaces. Considerations such as social inclusiveness, functionality for collaborative learning, comfort and even retention of students were all factors that have contributed to furniture selection and configurations of space. For someone who has this at the forefront of her thinking at the moment, it was fascinating. Jon shared with us the thinking that the University may not replace desktop computers when they reach a three year turnover if it is evident that students are bringing their own devices with them. They have student interns who act as facilitators to connect devices to networks; they look for students who have strong communication and mentoring skills as they are often catering to international students who are grappling with language barriers. This kind of thinking would bode well in many of our schools today; accept student owned devices for learning purposes regardless of platform, and encourage our student population to offer peer support with technology. An interesting idea was the University’s IT Pitstop, a place where students go to do printing, photocopying, quick searching and charging of devices. Interesting name; maybe something we could utilise. Jon shared with us many visuals of learning spaces at Melbourne University; it’s very impressive, and I’m thinking it will be worth visiting to glean new ideas that we can apply to the space we will be developing.

Dr. Leon Sterling, Dean of the Faculty of Information and Communication Technologies at Swinburne University of Technology, spoke about the changing nature of new technologies and their potential impact for education. He drew heavily from the Horizon Reports from the the last three years and made some interesting comments about opensource courseware like that provided from places like MIT. Leon was unsure that students would access such resources. I’m pretty sure they will, but I don’t think they’re going to stumble on these kinds of resources without being alerted to them first. I recently came across Khan Academy via a twitter link, and think I’ll be pointing students towards it. Here’s what it says on the site;

The Khan Academy is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) with the mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere. Despite being the work of one man, Salman Khan, this 1600+ video library is the most-used educational video resource as measured by YouTube video views per day and unique users per month. We are complementing this ever-growing library with user-paced exercises–developed as an open source project–allowing the Khan Academy to become the free classroom for the World.

Interesting philosophy, one that marries quite well with the intentions of Students 2.0. I ran a series of sessions in that space about the tools of social networking, but we failed to see student participation. Is it just that the kids aren’t interested, or is it that they just don’t know the possibilities that exist for self directed learning today?

Leon mentioned that Swinburne University will possibly be offering a Graduate Certificate in Teacher Technologies, designed to assist teachers in getting up to speed with new ideas for teaching and learning. A great idea, and something so necessary today. This was something I discussed in the forum at the end of the day. My concern lies with the human capital we have in our school systems today. Many of us dealing with new technologies are the product of self directed learning. We have skilled ourselves up without being sent to expensive professional development. We have immersed ourselves in learning communities and many of us are attempting to educate others by sharing our knowledge. But how many people are there like this, and is the spread enough to ensure the school system has access to this kind of skill set? My bet is there aren’t too many, and this is the challenge facing our governments who need to ensure we have workers armed with the skills necessary for working successfully in a knowledge economy. Something like what Leon was suggesting will be worth it, but how much will courses cost, and will our systems fund teacher participation? I’ll be very interested to see the outcome of upcoming election. My hope is that a Labor Govt. is returned. I want to see the vision they have for the digital revolution unfold, and a large part of what is promised is teacher professional development. It is key if we are to see real change realised.

Dr. Scott Bulfin, from the Faculty of Education at Monash University, spoke about rethinking the approaches to new media in schools today. Scott spoke of some challenging research he has conducted across 25 schools about the use of technology in education. His research saw students engaging in unsanctioned technology practices at school, and students complaining of being bored with school authorized work they were doing with technology. My take on this relates to my forementioned point. Teacher professional development is key if we are going to see teachers using the technology meaningfully in classrooms for teaching and learning purposes. People need to be exposed to a range of possibilities and make discerning choices about what they think may work with the students they have.

Mary Manning from SLAV was with me and the aforementioned speakers in the forum discussion at the end of the day. Questions from the audience were well considered, and saw us debating content knowledge necessary for VCE study, versus the skills needed for learning beyond the school years. It’s a vexed issue, considering that University entrance in Australia is underpinned by scores based on students ability to know content. Leon Sterling raised the idea that universities will move to interview format and teacher feedback to determine university entrance. How refreshing would that be, and wouldn’t it be the linchpin that could change the focus of education at the senior years of schooling.

I found the day very worthwhile, and applaud Bialik College, David Feighan and the school’s Principal, Joseph Gerassi, for organising some wonderful speakers and proactively thinking about what is important for students today. On their school website, Joseph talked of their foremost priority as being, “… to educate tomorrow’s leaders, by infusing them with the life skills to master the challenges posed by an ever-changing world.” Today was evidence of a school actively seeking to make that a reality.

Mary Manning- a beacon in the Teacher-Librarianship world

I’ve just returned from a dinner meeting of our local SLAV (School Library Association of Victoria) group. Mary Manning was our guest speaker. She was talking about library spaces and design and was making reference to Susan La Marca’s book ‘Rethink’. But she was doing so much more than just that and I don’t know if she knew it.

Mary is an engaging and ‘real’ person.  She’s the kind of person you feel comfortable around, and that’s a compliment. Mary speaks from the heart and makes you feel comfortable about the direction Teacher-Librarianship is headed in. At least, I felt comfortable about it, I can’t speak for all. She provides the wake up call we all need. The understanding that we have to be proactive and move with where education is heading and our libraries have to reflect this in all ways. Our spaces need to be comfortable and inviting; let’s face it, with so many online resources who needs to visit the library for research purposes? I love the Chip and Dan Heath term, ‘sticky’. We have to make our libraries sticky so that people want to be engaged with the learning we can help to provide. We are trying to do this with connective activities that make our kids feel positive about the library environment. Comfy couches, knitting, quizzes, Book Club. We’ve even got our interactive whiteboard hooked up to TV reception so that the Olympic games can be viewed by our students over the coming two weeks. I have a wonderful staff who work hard to enable so many of these activities to happen. (I even have a wonderful Mum, experienced knitter Barbara, who has been coming in over the last couple of weeks to help our girls learn the finer points about knitting!)  

Much of Mary’s talk tonight was laced with the need to respond to technology and how it can help to transform learning. SLAV have been running the 23 things program with Library staff around Victoria and are going a long way towards helping make the shift happen in our schools.  I had an engaging conversation after the event with teachers about Powerful Learning Practice, the initiative developed by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson that I am helping with here in Australia. We are setting up a global cohort and Australian Schools will be involved. These teachers could understand the capacity building model this program offers. It’s like the extension of the 23 things program; it offers teachers the opportunity to become immersed into learning communities, enabling connections and transformative learning opportunities for students. They were excited by it and so am I. I feel a bit like an evangelist right now – I’m so excited by the possibilities and want everyone else to catch the fever! I realise it’s going to take time, but with people like Mary speaking to Teacher-Librarian groups in Victoria, we’re headed in the right direction.