Modern Learning Environments and learning technologies

November 2013


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CLAIRE AMOS questions whether ‘modern’ changes to the traditional classroom will really help improve students’ learning and outcomes.

Adjective: Of or relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past.
Noun: A person who advocates or practises a departure from traditional styles or values.
Synonyms: new, up-to-date, contemporary, latter-day, neoteric.

Modern Learning Environment is a term that seems to be bandied around a lot lately. But interestingly, it is rarely defined. The Ministry of Education has a whole section on their website dedicated to it, lots of information and tools, but no actual definition. More online research and still little in the way of a definition can be found.

So what is a Modern Learning Environment or MLE?

It would seem (from what I have gleaned from a number of school visits, and indeed, our own school plans) that this is a generic term that describes a space that may include many things: open and/or flexible learning spaces, breakout spaces, small spaces often referred to as ‘caves’, multi-purpose spaces, technology-rich spaces, and spaces that house ‘modern learning furniture’ such as bean bags, camp fire seats, and a variety of high, mid-height, and low groovy-shaped tables...often on wheels. Interestingly, MLEs don’t actually seem that modern at all. In fact, there is something rather retro and even commune-like about them, and if I am honest, they sort of remind me of a daycare centre – on steroids.

So what exactly makes these learning environments ‘modern’? I guess what makes them modern is the fact that they are different from the older, more common school models (i.e. single-cell rooms), and for many, rather unsettling. Historically speaking, different and unsettling seems to mean ‘modern’, doesn’t it? I guess ‘unsettling learning environment’ was a bit of a hard sell, so ‘modern’ it is then.

But hang on a minute, who said that modern equals good? The reality is that good (and bad) teaching can take place anywhere. I am guessing (and I am hoping) that the MLE will not simply make the teaching and learning better because it is a MLE, but that it will encourage a more open and flexible approach to teaching and learning because as a space it is exactly that, open and flexible. I hope it will encourage all those things we refer to as ‘effective pedagogy’ in the

New Zealand Curriculum. I also hope it might discourage too much teacher-led instruction and encourage a more facilitation style of teaching and learning.

Learning Technologies are a little easier to define. The term simply means any technology that may support learning. For most, this would include computers (desktops, laptops, and tablets), interactive whiteboards, smart screens, and smart phones. Learning Technologies are also ‘not so modern’. I guess what might be deemed as modern is the shift in who owns and uses the technology, especially as ‘Bring Your Own Device’ (BYOD) initiatives see the ownership and power shifting to the student.

Interestingly, while I value and see huge potential in both MLEs and (student-owned) Learning Technologies, I am also concerned about them. I am concerned that the development of MLEs and the introduction of Learning Technologies can become a bit of a smoke screen and can actually create an illusion of modernity when little has actually changed. I worry that the introduction of these physically palpable and measurable objects will be seen as making a change for the better, when the one thing that really needs to be ‘introduced’ is still lacking: the teacher’s belief that the student is capable of leading their own learning. How do we ensure that MLEs and Learning Technologies don’t actually create the educational equivalent of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ with old beliefs and teaching approaches being dressed up in hip and groovy clothing?

MLEs are pointless if the teacher still leads from the front of classroom (even if that classroom has invisible walls). Learning Technologies are pointless when the students have the use of their technology controlled and limited to little more than word processing and the odd Google search. The challenge will actually be to explore how the MLEs and Learning Technologies can be used to genuinely change how and what we have been doing.

So how will we address this challenge at Hobsonville Point Secondary School (HPSS)? (I must add the caveat that these ideas are fairly hypothetical, considering our first intake of students will arrive in 2014.)

There are a number of ways we hope to ensure that both our MLE and our Learning Technologies will be used both thoughtfully and effectively. Our strategies include a curriculum design and timetable structure that challenges the very traditional siloed curriculum areas and subjects often seen in secondary schools. HPSS will look to provide integrated modules alongside more traditional subject modules as well as providing opportunities for significant time to be spent on school-wide and passion projects. This will mean students and teachers will be encouraged to work collaboratively and to share and move between spaces in a way that may not happen so easily in a single-cell environment.

In terms of Learning Technologies, HPSS will provide a wireless infrastructure, a single-sign-on multi-platform LMS (learning management system), a BYOD policy and a focus on developing digital citizenship skills from day one, encouraging staff and students to use technology as and when it is needed.

Teaching staff will also be supported in their use of the MLE and Learning Technologies, through an ongoing focus on Teaching as Inquiry. This will ensure teacher professional learning will be framed by a teaching inquiry which will include a ‘focusing inquiry’ that will look at the needs of the learner and the desired student outcomes, followed by a ‘teaching inquiry’ that will look at how both the MLE and the Learning Technologies can be used most effectively to support the learner needs and to encourage learners to lead their own learning, followed by a ‘learning inquiry’ that will endeavour to measure the effectiveness of the teacher interventions and will inform future use of both the MLE and Learning Technologies. At least, that is the plan!

To paraphrase Robert Burns, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray” and the hard truth remains: changing the environment and introducing tools is the easy part, genuinely changing our thinking and letting our ‘caged’ students go ‘free-range’ ─ now that’s going to be a challenge.

Claire Amos is a deputy principal at Hobsonville Point Secondary School – a brand new secondary school that opens for students in 2014.