Listen2Learners 1: Melbourne 11th October 2010


A couple of months ago I caught up for lunch with Peter Dawkins whom I’ve known since my time at the BCA – which is to say since 1997 when he was running the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. He’s now head of the Dept of the Victorian Dept of Eductation and Early Childhood Development and seems to be doing a great job judging by the things the Department are up to.  He told me about ultra-net which is a very ambitious project which has just started running and is intended to essentially link all students and teachers – that is any one with any other – in the Victorian education system. Anyway we spoke about lots of things and I got a few things off my chest.

Like how the curriculum seems to be moving at glacial pace while the world around us accelerates away, how we barely use the obvious tools that are successors to the slide-rule and the calculator, namely the spreadsheet in maths education.  How we don’t teach our kids computer skills and on and on.  I impressed upon Peter the extent to which the online world of web 2.0 is one in which people are just doing it for themselves, with all all the tools available for free onine – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, widgets, mashup platforms like Google Maps and on and on. And that doing things like building mashups on Google Maps or learning stats by competing for Dream Team points could really turn kids on.   But I went on to say that the worst thing one could do if one agreed with what I was saying would be to spend time and money skilling up teachers to teach this stuff.  They wouldn’t want to – or many wouldn’t and they wouldn’t be any good at it.

I suggested instead that those students who were enthusiasts could teach others, and spread things that way. Of course if one wanted to take it seriously you’d give the ‘student/teachers’ in this situation some credit for what they were doing – giving them credit for a unit.  But the details can be worked out with serious and good intentions. I didn’t really go to the lunch intending to download a list of ‘everything I always wanted to do in education’ but Peter was intrigued and asked me to come and speak to some senior people in DEECD, which I did just last week.  Then this week Peter was kind enough to invite me to a roundtable with Professor Stephen Heppell who is an educationalist and IT guy from the UK.

We had a great lunch discussion with all sorts of people from the world of Victorian education. Then we went downstairs – we were in the State Library – to Experimedia, a large exhibition space where the library was hosting the first Australian event in the image of Heppell’s brainchild which is a kind of showcase for kids doing it for themselves in IT in the education system. Heppell calls his program BVA (for Be Very Afraid!) which is a hoot. In fact it was a sufficient hoot that the Victorians performed a hootectomy on it, toned it down and called it Listen2Learners (though if you look really carefully, you’ll see little red lettering giving away L2L’s provenance. It reads BVA 7 with Steven’s outfit BVA having run BVA1 through to BVA 6.)

And it was fantastic. All these kids working on great projects, hooking up with kids elsewhere and doing great things. But I only really engaged with two groups – amongst around ten or so – because there was not much time after lunch – the event closed at 2.30 pm and I got talking to the guys at Western Heights College – App Happy. This was the blurb on their poster for the event.

Inventive and resourceful students from western heights college have created an application that helps users develop numeracy skills. The app can even be customised to ensure the learning matches an individual’s skill levels. The project involved learning a programming language, creating the graphic interface and solving a range of problems related to achieving formal approval of the app by Apple. It is now available to anyone with an iPhone, iPod touch or iPad to download free through the iTunes app store. This success has spurred the students on and now they are developing their programming and teaching each other and their teacher the skills needed to produce more apps for skill-building in other learning areas.

I got talking to Ben and Cameron. Ben had taught himself to program and been instrumental in building the app and getting it past Apple’s gatekeeping and onto iTunes. The picture is Ben, Cameron, Ben’s brother Jack and Steven Heppell. In any event, I’m afraid (be very afraid) this got me excited.  I spoke to Ben and asked if he’d like to teach other students how to program, as he’d helped teach this group.  It was obvious that he’d love to. So I said “Just wait there, I’m going to get the Head of the Dept of Education” and hightailed it off to Peter Dawkins who was circulating somewhat more systematically than me. I dragged him over to meet Ben and Cameron and suggested that we all see if it would be possible to get some peer to peer instruction in building apps going. Peter liked the idea, as did Ben and there was general enthusiasm for seeing what can be done. Indeed he immediately got his Director of Innovation over and said to her words to the effect “can we make this happen, and can we start tomorrow”.

So we’ll see what happens. But I think fantastic things could happen. Let’s hope so.

Anyway, the whole thing made my day. I’m afraid education really is a lot more exciting than economics!

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6 Responses to Listen2Learners 1: Melbourne 11th October 2010

  1. conrad says:

    “Like how the curriculum seems to be moving at glacial pace while the world around us accelerates away, how we barely use the obvious tools that are successors to the slide-rule and the calculator, namely the spreadsheet in maths education.”

    There’s a good reason for things moving at a glacial pace. The most obvious being that Victoria already has a good curriculum when measured in terms of outcomes (and that’s certainly the best measure, rather than just hyperbole!), and so there’s no real reason to change things without being very systematic about it. The other reason is that education is subject to fads, and you don’t want to change the system simply because something happens to look good (usually to adults, and often ignorant ones — at least for very early childhood education, the types of teaching methods that work the best are often entirely non-obvious. Think about the Wiggles, for example. All kids love them but they’re cringe-worthy to adults, and so they’re a good example of people that really thought hard about non-obvious aspects of early childhood behavior before they created what they did. The telly-tubbies are another good example).

    The spreadsheet idea in maths provides a good example of how complex it is. As it happens, I happen to like it because approximation is the basis of an early system that you later use to do advanced maths with. But I like it for really young kids. If you give it to kids in high school, which is what is done now with graphical calculators, then what you’ll find is that many don’t learn a whole pile of stuff to do with calculating minimas etc. that we all once used to learn (perhaps some of the people teaching economics can confirm this — people are now often reliant on these calculators whereas two decades ago people could simply visualize graphs in their heads). Now maybe that’s a good trade-off, since it would free up time to teach something else, but it’s something you need to consider very hard before doing it.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for the comment Conrad.

    Perhaps one needs to throw sand in the wheels just because people are so silly that they’ll head off in all sorts of stupid directions – fads as you call them.

    I guess you’re right in that ‘computer literacy’ has often been stupid things like teaching kids to use things that they can work out for themselves, like word processors etc.

    But I think it’s a great shame that it’s not easy for kids to learn programming – either in the maths curriculum or in languages. And of course one would integrate that with them building apps of use – and tweaking apps.

    But a lot of it isn’t curriculum anyway, it’s just using one’s sense in allowing kids to use all the tools that are available. And right now the idea of teachers being all trained up to learn this stuff and then impart it is self-evidently not going to cut it. We have to find ways of getting access to the expertise within schools (mostly with kids, but also of course the odd enthusiastic teacher) but also outside schools in local IT businesses etc.

    But of course these things are easy to say. Although it’s easy to get pretty annoyed with the time servers that are in any system, it is genuinely hard for a large system – or even a smallish one like a school – to rearrange its tried and tested routines to embrace these opportunities. But the online world is so exciting we really have to do this.

  3. Jess says:

    You might be interested in what’s happening in Queensland with the new Learning Place
    In response to Conrad, there is ample evidence for a shift to eLearning practices, Listen2Learners and BVA being an awesome example.

  4. MikeM says:

    Moodle is an open source course management system that facilitates collaborative learning communities for primary and secondary schools and universities. It was originally developed by Martin Dougiamas in Perth and now has more than 36 million users in 210 countries. It runs on various flavours of Unix and Unix-like systems including Linux, also on Windows and appears to be highly scalable:

    Universidade de Brasília has 34,000 users, San Francisco State University (SFSU) has 34,000 active users, The Austrian Federal Ministry of Education has over 110,000 on their site and the UK’s Open University has well over 180,000 users. There are plenty of other less than 30,000 user institution systems officially using Moodle.

    I had never heard of it until I noticed yesterday that students at the local high school (Newtown, NSW) have Moodle accounts. Apparently though it wasn’t suitable for Victorian government requirements.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Mike, I was asking Google just the other day whether there was a Google Education just as there is a Google Health. Apparently not, which is a pity – for us and perhaps for Google.

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