Saturday, February 5, 2011

Setting the bar

I was fortunate to attend the recent Inspired Impact conference in Palmerston North. There was a powerful line-up of keynote speakers (including Sir Ken Robinson and John Edwards), and some really practical and inspirational workshop sessions. The theme of the conference was Nurturing Creativity, which possibly doesn't seem immediately relevant to someone working in a School of Nursing, but there was wonderful food for thought.

Despite the international big names, the highlight of the conference for me was a session by Albany Senior High School Deputy Principal, Mark Ambrose, on e-portfolios. Of course, e-portfolios are the flavour of the month, but this school has been using them with both staff and students, for several years, so not only are they pretty far down the road of ironing out hitches, but they have a deep understanding of how e-portfolios can be used to enhance the student experience AND improve staff self-management. They've taken e-portfolios from being the latest pedagogical buzzword, and made them work in meaningful and understated ways.

This school also has scheduled classroom-free days called 'Impact Days', in which students work on self-designed projects. The limits of the project are that they must be designed to develop the students' knowledge, and they must benefit the community. So a group of students worked together and built a jet engine. They organised engineers and lecturers from the Albany branch of Massey to come and give guidance, and they built a fully functional jet engine. Along the way, they didn't just learn about engineering, but they developed professional networks, project management skills, research and collaboration skills, and a practical understanding of health and safety regulations! Another group is doing research into the restoration of a piece of indigenous bush near the school, including biodiversity studies, species counts, etc.

All students are required to maintain a reflective journal in their e-portfolios which they document their learning from their Impact projects. The level of introspection in some of the posts was truly impressive, and without a doubt those students have learned skills way beyond anything that could have been taught in a traditional classroom.

At a completely different level, my older son has just started Intermediate, and is enrolled in a laptop class at Ross Intermediate here in Palmerston North. Of course, school has only been running for a week, so I may be speaking too soon, but I am excited by the way he has already been completely hooked by his teacher.... She is dealing with students with a range of IT skills, and I have been so impressed by the way she is measuring their levels of understanding without them even knowing. For example, her class blog contains all sorts of bits of information which the kids need to evaluate in order to decide whether they are relevant to the blog, or should be tidied out of the way. Without noticing, my son has watched a video clip explaining digital narratives (in words he understands, of course) and he has evaluated a series of educational games.

This all begs the question... how are those of us who work in tertiary education preparing to meet the expectations of these students? Do we truly understand the level of the innovation that is moving through the school system, and are we really ready to meet it? Does the traditional (archaic?) structure of tertiary institutions, with its accompanying mass of committees (and we all know the story about camels and committees) condemn innovation at tertiary levels to always being slow and behind the times?

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