Technology in schools

| 06/08/2008

(CNS): When Students return to government schools in September, they will find the Cayman Islands’ education system rapidly catching up with available information and communications technology (ICT), a necessary step if it is to fully prepare Caymanian children for the ever-changing and technologically driven world in which they must live and work.

This is the second major attempt to integrate ICT into education here and much has, apparently, been learned from previous mistakes. In 2002, under the UDP administration, then Education Minister Roy Bodden launched ITALIC (Improving Teaching and Learning in the Cayman Islands) for government-funded schools.

This was an ambitious programme that ultimately achieved very limited success. However, a comprehensive review undertaken at the request of the Ministry in 2006 mapped out weaknesses in the initiative – basically, a roadmap of what not to do. It was an expensive learning curve. According to the review, at the end of March 2006 the total expenditure on the ITALIC project for a K-12 school population of 4,322 was estimated at 12 million Cayman dollars. The average expenditure per child per year between 2002 and 2006 came to CI$1,157, compared to CI$ 97 in the UK in the same time frame.

“This phenomenal expenditure on ICT in our schools should deliver extraordinary results for our students, not to mention world-class support service structure second to none! Unfortunately, neither of the claims can be made for the ITALIC project!” the report said. The review, it should be noted, was conducted by former UCCI President Dr Hassan Syed, who left the islands suddenly under a cloud of financial irregularities. However, according to the Education Ministry’s Chief Officer, Angela Martins, the report was based on solid data and the Ministry stands by the its findings.

Although Syed’s report listed some positive impacts, such as raising awareness of ICT, a lowering of student to computer ratios and a high percentage of teachers with laptops, criticisms of the programme in the 105-page report are relentless. It was particularly critical of the reliance on external consultants, as opposed to using and developing expertise within the education system, and the seemingly total lack of financial accountability. Technical support from the consultants, it appears, was woefully insufficient, the network was unstable, and oversight of the programme negligible. But the most damning criticism was that it did not achieve its fundamental objective.

“Although all the associated literature on the ITALIC program emphasized that teaching and learning, rather than technology, were at the heart of the initiative, in reality and especially as the system struggled to recover after Hurricane Ivan, the technology itself appeared, especially to end users, to become the main focus. Operations matters, rather than end-user concerns or teaching issues, dominated the agenda of the Steering Committee.”

As part of a complete overhaul of the entire education system taking place under the current Education Minister Alden McLaughlin, the concept of integrating ICT into the teaching of all subjects is being revamped. According to ICT Teaching and Learning Officer Mark Ray, this includes adding more interactive whiteboards (IWBs) to classrooms to the limited number already in active use, generally purchased through such means as corporate sponsorship or PTAs.

IWBs are already in extensive use in British schools, where a two-year study PDF to evaluate their use with Year 5 and Year 6 students found significant positive impact, concluding, “The observations confirm that there were significant differences in patterns of classroom interaction, both as the teachers learned to use the technology and a year later as IWBs became more embedded in literacy and mathematics lessons.”

There are several different brands to choose from, notably SmartBoard Promethean, and mimio. The first two are very similar in that they include an actual physical board, whereas mimio is an interactive kit that attaches to a standard dry erase board and converts it into an interactive board, says Ray. The latter is significantly cheaper – around US$700 as opposed to around $2,500 for a Promethean or a SmartBoard. What you pay for with the more expensive boards is bundled software that gives much greater functionality, enabling teachers to create interactive multimedia teaching and learning activities in minutes, or go to the brands’ own website and download a pre-created activity. The mimio, on the other hand, is portable and therefore might cut down on the number needed, and it utilizes existing equipment.

Initially, to keep costs down, the Ministry has plumped for the mimio brand and 50 will be installed across the schools system, incorporating existing projectors that will be installed on classroom ceilings with the help of Computer Services. The Ministry will be paying attention to feedback, says Ray, to decide which hardware to go with for the new schools coming online in two years. All teachers have received training on the use of IWBs, but this will be followed up with training in how to develop lessons. The appropriate use of technology in classrooms is encouraged and teachers tend to make use of it according to their comfort level and competence – which in some cases is extensively, Ray says, adding, “We want to get to where technology is no longer remarkable – it’s just like any other tool in the classroom.”

Technology in schools is, as the ITALIC report underscored, not much use without the appropriate support. So for the 2008-09 fiscal year there will be a systems administrator in each the DoES learning communities under the direction of ICT Manager Steven Durksen, whose job it is to keep the whole system running and maintain the educational software, servers, desktops, laptops, interactive whiteboards and other education technology.

“One of the biggest challenges is the stability of network,” he says. However, this will be improved as Cable and Wireless sets up a fibre network between all the schools and increases the bandwidth. Migrations of the school networks to a stable centralized new domain will continue and be completed during 08/09, and the core services will be delivered from a new data centre at Prospect Primary, which has its own generator and is considered the best location, notes Durksen. In addition, there is a back-up site at the Education Standards and Assessment Unit (ESAU) and data is replicated at each school.

All teachers will now have their own email. The pattern is: first initial and last name @ school abbreviation.edu.ky. So for example, John Smith who teaches at Cayman Brac High School will have the email jsmith@cbhs.edu.ky. The principals will continue to have firstname.lastname@gov.ky

The improved infrastructure enables the introduction of a new portal for students, launched at the end of the summer term, called Studywiz, an online space for teachers, students and parents to collaborate in the earning process. Come September every primary middle and high school student have their own log into http://caymanislands.studywiz.com/ , which will provide much more than websites for schools but will be a collaborative space for posting homework, blogs, discussion groups and downloading podcasts, says Durksen.
“Every year, we will be adding a number of computers in the classrooms, making sure there is equity among schools,” he says. Over 500 teachers have laptops, some a legacy of the ITALIC programme, with some of the older laptops having been refreshed. 165 new laptops have been purchased to replace oldest ones, says Durksen, emphasising that this was done by tender. (The ITALIC report noted concern over the lack ofclear documentation of public tendering of the project.)
Technology will also be used more effectively in administration to keep track of student data (such as achievement, attendance and behaviour) with the SIMS management information system (MIS), the most popular student MIS in the UK, which will be implemented across the Cayman system in September. The data, which will have various appropriate levels of access, will reveal, for example, trends in school performance and any particular problems, which will help indicate necessary intervention. In addition, it will keep track of the physical addresses of students – a valuable resource for planning new schools. And, as Durksen points out, the information collected from SIMS will provide a national database, from which national reports can be produced.

And while administrators worry over data, middle and junior primary students might be learning science, engineering, technology and math playing with Lego Robotics, or finding a video in their e-locker to use to produce a PowerPoint presentation for homework – a far cry from their parents’ school experience.

“The majority of teachers are enthusiastic and want to use technology; they generally see the benefits,” says Ray. “We have an ICT curriculum but it can be done in an integrated process with other subjects. We want to be able to use technology to engage students – which goes back to the SmartBoard. Teachers have to have an understanding of what’s available and what’s possible, and then get comfortable with that.”

What’s also needed, given the lessons learned, is continued openness from the Education Ministry in this and future administrations about costs, as well as fair assessments, which are then made public, about schools’ and students’ progress in the information age. However encouraging the signs of advancement in technology in our schools, the $12 million four-year failure can never be allowed to repeat itself.
 

Category: Special Reports

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