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How Sydney Drives Twenty-First-Century Learning From a Nineteenth Century House

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August 31, 2011 06:21 pm


A visit to the Sydney Distance Education High School (SDEHS) in the city’s Woolloomooloo section shows the evolution from distance learning to digital learning with new challenges emerging. SDEHS traces its roots back over a century when simply getting a textbook to much of the new South Wales remote population was a challenge. The school developed correspondence courses which, as technology developed, were incorporated into radio broadcast classes.

Today SDEHS combines its earlier practices with meeting modern students’ demand for digital learning. Many students still periodically come to the brick and mortar location to take exams and for special study days where they work directly with teachers. The student demand has changed somewhat from offering an entire course of study to 40 percent of students taking a course that is not available in their regular school. The school also serves a population that cannot be in traditional schools, whether because of vocational activities, illness, behavioral challenges, or other reasons.

SDEHS is a Florida Virtual School (FVS) only about eighty years older. Indeed, Relieving Principal Julie Kennedy reports that SDEHS and FVS communicate and explore ways of working together. The main difference is that FVS started to bring online learning; SDEHS brings the long history and some traditional means of operation to its modern-day mission.

What SDEHS personnel stress –and this is the challenge for all digital learning efforts– is to bring personalized learning to each student, including higher-order thinking. Happily the Internet offers opportunities for developing student team work and collaboration that were largely impossible using earlier distance learning techniques. Students in a correspondence school cannot physically interact with peers possibly hundreds of miles away, but that’s not a problem when everyone can interact digitally.

Digital access for all New South Wales students increased sharply several years ago when the government’s Digital Education Revolution gave netbooks to all ninth graders. This large-scale initiative is worth following because providing an Internet access device is important, but it requires an educational strategy supporting it.

SDEHSWalking through the SDEHS campus, one sees a variety of operations supporting the school’s longstanding mission. There is the mailroom where kits and boxes of materials are mailed to students, especially for science students. In one classroom, eleventh graders are taking a required exam. Across the yard is the digital center. And, in the true symbol of Michael Horn’s definition of blended learning—digital learning taking place in a brick and mortar school—the E-Learning office is housed in an early nineteenth century stone house with foot-thick walls. How representative of modern education—-the schoolhouse may look essentially the same, but what takes place inside is markedly different.

Back at Parramatta Marist High School, the influence of digital learning, particularly in a blended setting, is quiet, but obvious. In the opening conversation, Executive Director Greg Whitby stresses his first emphasis is on pedagogy, not technology. But, as one administrator notes, “technology is all pervasive, assumed, and under the radar.” So the strategy is combining quality teaching with technology that creates student engagement. “Students understand technology,” one educator tells me, “and it is an engaging medium.” The test of success for whether teaching and technology is working,” he continues, “is when students don’t want to go out for lunch.”

At both the Catholic Parramatta Diocese Schools and SDEHS, there is a constant push for teacher collaboration and quality, personalizing the learning experience, and ensuring that digital learning imparts deeper learning skills. Determining the success of these efforts requires additional data and evaluation, both into outcomes and success of various educational practices, but what both experiences, different as they are, demonstrate is the importance of quality teaching joined with quality technology.

Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. For more details on his trip to Australia, follow him on Twitter at @all4ed_BW .


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