by Rebecca Merrett

Virtual reality, mobility driving future of learning at Port Macquarie school

Jun 04, 20146 mins
Cloud ComputingEducation IndustryInnovation

The days of school students copying notes from a chalk board and reading straight from old textbooks are long gone. This is the view of Matt Richards, director of e-learning at St Columba Anglican School, who is using technology to change the way students learn and interact with teachers.

The Port Macquarie school is using Google’s Chromebox for Meetings and Connected Classrooms to connect with other schools and speak with subject experts around the world.

Connected Classrooms allows students to attend educational field trips or excursions virtually, and records the sessions so that students around the world can watch online at a time that suits them.

Chromebox for Meetings is a videoconferencing technology that the school using for students to virtually participate in shared lessons with other schools through an interactive white board or large monitor or TV screen.

“A really good one I did recently was with Underhill Primary School in London. I had a primary class at the time and we were exploring sustainability. I was lucky enough to get my kids to come in after hours because of the time zone differences – I got 80 per cent of my class, which is pretty good,” said Richards, who is a speaker at this year’s EduTECH event in Brisbane.

“The kids literally asked each other questions. One of my students asked, ‘Do you guys have water restrictions?’ And the kids in London had no idea what water restrictions were. Coming from London, that’s not something they think about.

“I think the next phase of education 3.0 is going beyond the boundaries of our country, and realising there are experts and innovators out there who are more accessible now through technology. We should be utilising them in the learning process.”

Richards said he is also interested in using Google Classroom, as part of the Google Apps for Education suite, which is to be released this year. Classroom is a learning management system for teachers to set up different folders for each class and student, and allows students to conduct work and submit their assignments online and receive feedback.

This follows on from the school’s 2012 Google Apps for Education deployment, along with 250 Chromebooks for students. The school also allows students to bring their own devices as long as these devices have at least a 7-inch screen and are capable of holding a charge for a day.

When it comes to security, Richards said the school keeps its data in multiple locations. “So we’ve got it in the cloud in two locations, we’ve got it locally onsite and we’ve also got it in another remote Australian site. We don’t keep all of our eggs in one basket; we mirror all of our content in multiple locations.

“We are also really happy with Google’s final statement about privacy with student data,” he said.

The Samsung Chromebooks wipe students’ Google Account details when they shutdown, with their work saved in the cloud, making it easy to share the notebooks between different classes.

Richards is also going through a revamp of the school’s library. He is trying to “Google-fy” the library so it looks more inviting and fun for students, where they can work more collaboratively using a range of devices and technologies.

“Learning doesn’t have to be a quiet ‘hush’ activity in the library. Learning can be fun and sometimes it can be loud. I’ve been trying to do it for a couple of years and we finally had the money to do it,” he said.

Read: Budget 2014 – Education changes, research cuts a concern for ICT sector.

A ‘makerspace’ is being developed as part of the library revamp for students to tinker with computers and create their own projects.

“Kids can experiment and put together Raspberry Pi computers and play with the Oculus Rift – basically be makers. We are using some [Chromeboxes] in that space, so the kids can log in and have a computer to muck around on if they want to,” Richards said.

“I’m utilising the Oculus Rift, virtual reality, with my Year 9 information software technology class. They are building virtual maps of our classrooms and they are building games for virtual reality or the Oculus Rift. They are now are working with virtual reality headsets, building something that’s amazing that people on the other side of the globe can experience and give them real-time feedback.

“We don’t need kids to repeat the same knowledge of previous generations; we need innovators. So the way to do that is by giving them ‘green fields’ to innovate; a place where they can be creative and feel like they can work outside the box.”

Read: UTS’s library revamp.

Richards has also set up a group of student ICT experts who assist teachers and other students in learning how to use new technology introduced in the school.

“We call them ‘tech ninjas’. The thing that’s great about it is that it challenges the old paradigm of teacher and student, and it makes teachers realise that it’s OK to learn from the kids. Most of the time, they know more than the teachers anyway, so why not utilise that skill to enhance the entire learning community.”

The student ‘tech ninjas’ have their own badges or stickers on their device for people to recognise them and call for assistance if needed. Richards said this also gives the student group a sense of pride and recognition among their peers.

“It gives me a real kick, the most fun I have in my job is working with those kids. They are super excited. And I just wish school was like this when I was a kid,” Richards said.

He said in 10 years’ time, school is going to become more of a place for collaboration to build upon the lessons conducted through online platforms.

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