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.