The digital education revolution: New South Wales science teachers' response to laptop ubiquity

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University of Wollongong Research Online Faculty of Education - Papers (Archive) Faculty of Social Sciences 2012 The digital education revolution: New South Wales science teachers' response to laptop ubiquity
University of Wollongong Research Online Faculty of Education - Papers (Archive) Faculty of Social Sciences 2012 The digital education revolution: New South Wales science teachers' response to laptop ubiquity Wendy Nielsen University of Wollongong, Alex Miller University of Wollongong, Garry F. Hoban University of Wollongong, Publication Details Nielsen, W., Miller, A. & Hoban, G. F. (2012). The digital education revolution: New South Wales science teachers' response to laptop ubiquity. AERA Annual Meeting 2012 Research Online is the open access institutional repository for the University of Wollongong. For further information contact the UOW Library: Title: Laptop Ubiquity: A Case Study of Science Teachers Response to the Digital Education Revolution Authors: Wendy Nielsen, Alex Miller and Garry Hoban, University of Wollongong contact: Abstract Since the introduction of laptop computers across Australia for all Year 9 students, teachers have sought to make meaningful use of the learning potential represented by the introduction. This study uses a lens of cultural historical activity theory to explore how teachers have responded to the ubiquitous presence of student laptop computers during the initial implementation. This paper reports a one-year case study of two highly qualified and experienced high school science teachers that considers their efforts to implement laptop computers in Year 9 and Year 10 science classes. The study shows that these teachers are committed to developing and delivering technology-rich lessons and furthering the learning potential represented by the computers in terms of engaging 21 st century learners. There are, however, several tensions and contradictions that represent significant barriers to developing the learning potential and teachers continued engagement with this activity system. These include: 1) classroom and school connectivity along with computer durability and availability for classroom activity; 2) student reluctance to engage with the computers as a learning tool amid generally low levels of cognitive engagement; and, 3) unanticipated changes to classroom management due to the laptop introduction. Now, more than two years into the introduction of laptop computers, teachers are still very much in a transition period from before laptops to after laptops. Background In August, 2009, then-minister of Education in New South Wales [NSW] Verity Firth announced that students will be able to access more learning tools than ever before. They ll be more computer literate and in the long term more competitive in a global market (Ministers Media Centre, 2009). The Minister was on hand as the first laptops were delivered to students at Fairvale High School in Sydney on August 26, 2009, and she laid out lofty goals that parallel national initiatives to provide all high school students with laptop computers (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009). As of February, 1 2012, the federally-funded, $2.4 billion project called the Digital Education Revolution [DER] has delivered laptop computers to students currently in Years 9-12 across Australia to use for educational purposes across all of their subjects (Commonwealth of Australia, 2012). In this cultural and historical context, classroom teachers became responsible for guiding students in using the laptops as tools for learning. It is thus reasonable to ask, as did Barowy and Jouper (2004), how are teachers managing and adapting to these conditions? Barowy and Jouper were looking more broadly at the uptake of educational technology, but the current study takes as its focus the significant educational change of the ubiquitous presence of laptop computers in the science classroom. The project reported here looks at a small piece of this issue as it explored how science teachers have implemented the use of laptop computers as learning tools in their classrooms. Teachers have responded to the introduction of laptop computers in a variety of ways, and the reported research draws from sociocultural perspectives of teachers activity in the classroom to gather and analyze observational and interview data. The state and national initiative of the Digital Education Revolution represents a major shift in educational policy, alongside a significant resource commitment, the implementation for which can be viewed at the level of the classroom and teachers goal-directed activity to develop the learning potential of the one-to-one laptop program. One-to-One Laptop Programs A new environment of schooling has been emerging over several decades of the 20th Century, stimulated by a new economy, new technologies and new understanding about learning. In today s interconnected, technology driven world, learning typically takes place in physical, virtual and remote places. It is an integrated, highly-technical environment in which learners learn. The new learning spaces incorporate technologies, engage the learner, creating new learning possibilities, enhancing achievements and extending interactions with local and global communities. (Australian Policy Online, 2011) Moving into the 21 st century, contemporary views on learning in schools include creating such environments for students to engage them in learning and prepare them for their lives after school. Placing laptop computers in the hands of learners is consistent with this view and part of a strategy by the Australian Government, through its Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR], to provide laptop computers and associated digital technologies to Australian 2 schools to prepare students for further education, training and to live and work in a digital world (Commonwealth of Australia, 2011, para. 1). Interestingly, the current strategic plan that outlines goals and strategies for the national initiative of the one-to-one laptop program makes little mention of student achievement (DEEWR, 2008), even though the initiative purports to be about improving learning. In a recent review of literature for the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, Stavert (2010) found mixed results and much variation in student achievement after the introduction of several large-scale laptop computer projects around the world. Key to student success seemed to be the depth of the professional learning for teachers prior to the introduction. While the current study did not concern itself directly with teacher professional learning, measures of student success are generally taken from standardized test results. The Australian education system operates in a high-stakes standardized testing environment, and National tests are administered in Years 3, 5 and 7 and then High School Certificate exams are proctored in Year 12. These high stakes tests are a significant influence on teachers work, the use of which has been critiqued widely (Hardy & Boyle, 2011; Lingard & Renshaw, 2009; Ravitch, 2010). In Maine, USA, variation of student results after the introduction of a one-to-one laptop program was attributed directly to the uses to which the teachers put the laptop computers (Silvernail & Gritter, 2007). Teachers ability to use the computer as a pedagogical tool was a consequence of the quality of their professional learning. Other research has quantified levels of technology integration (Moersch, 1995), including eight levels ranging from nonuse to refinement. The higher levels of Moersch scale parallel aspects of 21 st century learning: students collaborate to solve problems; use digital technology seamlessly; their work is student-centered and focused on questions and inquiries of personal relevance. The teacher s role at these higher levels of integration involves creating opportunities for experiential-based learning and utilizing an array of digital resources and technologies that engage students in complex thinking, problem-solving, reflection and production. But, as Howard (2009) points out, teachers perceive a risk related to technology implementation, more particularly to student achievement, as measured by standardized tests. Digital technologies, including laptop computers, are intended to be tools for both students and teachers (DEEWR, 2008). As a new tool, the meaning of the laptop computers depends on the relationship between it and the prior culture of those who use it (Lin & Hatano, 2003). In other words, the existing set of tools, beliefs and practices are highly influential in the extent to which the activity 3 system enables the teachers to negotiate this complexity. Cultural Historical Activity Theory Cultural-historical perspectives (Cole, 1991; Engeström & Miettenen, 1999; Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985) of classroom activity include consideration of social, political, institutional and technological forces and how these are significant influences on teachers work, and thus, cultural historical activity theory [CHAT] is a framework within which the current research can gain insight and understanding of teachers approach to their work in the context of a significant educational change. Recently, CHAT has been used as a framework to understand design principles for educational technology (Amory, 2010), such as e-learning (Benson, Lawler, & Whitworth, 2008); to explore how learning technologies have changed practices in different subject areas (Scanlon & Issroff, 2005), including tensions and contradictions (Kahveci, Gilmer & Southerland, 2008); and, to explain and critique contextual details of the phenomena of educational technologies in various settings (Oliver, 2011). In the current paper, how teachers are implementing the educational technology of laptop computers can be explored through a macro lens of the activity system, and through a micro-analysis of aspects of the system. Identifying the activity system then allows for exploration of the tensions and contradictions that are part of this educational change. Internal contradictions can be of four types (Engeström, 1987; Roth, 2004): (1) within each constituent component of the activity system; (2) between components; (3) juxtaposition of the object of activity with the object of a more culturally advanced activity; or, (4) between each entity of a dominant activity and entity-producing neighboring activity. Engeström s (1987) model of an activity system is shown in Figure 1. The top half of the triangle is Vygotsky s basic triangle (Cole, 1996; Cole & Engeström, 1993) that offers a graphic depiction and structure to theorize mediated action. Vygotsky was attempting to explain human development through the triangle, but the subject-object dialectic has also been applied to many other systems related to learning (see for example, Benson, Lawler, & Whitworth, 2008; Cole, 1985; Karpov, 2003; Wertsch, 1979). In Vygotsky s triangle, the subject could be an individual (or individuals) involved in an action that is mediated by social others, tools, artifacts or prior knowledge as directed toward some goal of the activity, which is the object of the system. Engeström (1987) built on Vygotsky s definitions to expand the triangle to include three other components that include the 4 sociohistorical aspects of the activity system: rules are constraints or guidance to the subject about procedures or interactions that the community deems acceptable (Engeström, 1993); the community includes the subject and others who are members of a similarly oriented social group and motivated by the same object (Leont ev, 1981); and, division of labour describes how work or tasks are shared within the community. As shown in the lines that crisscross Figure 1, in Engeström s (1987) activity system model each of the components of the system mediate for the subject and object, but also for each other. Within the activity system, tensions or contradictions can arise as attainment of the object is hampered or constrained by one or the other of the components of the system, and possibly creating conditions critical to the other components in the system. The components interact dynamically, and thus, exploring the tensions and contradictions offers insight to instabilities as well as resiliencies within the system, which is pertinent in the current study that explores a significant educational change. INSERT FIGURE 1 ABOUT HERE In the activity system explored in the current study, teachers are agents (Sewell, 1992) and thus, subjects of the system, and the activity of the system is captured in their goal-directed and motivated implementation of laptop computers in response to the NSW DER policy initiative. Teachers individual and corporate motivations, goals and actions are cultural resources (Roth, Tobin, Elmesky, Carambo, McKnight, & Beers, 2004) and dynamic aspects of the system to be explored because these are the bases out of which teachers implement educational change (Evans, 1996). As the teachers goals and motivations mediate how the activity of laptop implementation is negotiated in the classroom, exploring other components of the system allows consideration of the dynamic context of the large-scale educational change. Teachers mediate rules established elsewhere, such as the Department of Education policy or Digital Education Revolution mandates, but also within the classroom and the school environment. Teachers are thus the important local factor wherein the context of educational change is characterized and negotiated (Fullan, 2001). Further, teachers positionalities within multiple communities, such as the local association of science teachers, groups of teacher colleagues at a school or in relation to technical support people are additional meditational influences that can be explored in the activity system. A community of teachers may share tasks on a number of levels, including collaborative lesson planning or individually developed lessons; administration work at the school level or in teacher professional associations; or, as allocated in 5 responsibilities outlined in a Smarter Schools National Partnership (New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, 2010). Assuming that components of the system interact dynamically allows investigation and analysis of the complex interactions and relationships that are themselves situated in social institutions and societal structures (Engeström & Miettenen, 1999). The activity system in the current study enables exploring tensions and contradictions as teachers mediate and negotiate the multiple facets of implementing the particular educational change of the introduction of laptop computers to their classrooms. The study asks How have science teachers responded to the Digital Education Revolution NSW? Methodology The goal of this research was to capture data that would enable us to examine the role of the laptop computers as a sociocultural artifact that was introduced into the research participants activity setting. To fulfil this goal, following Yamagata-Lynch (2003), we used data collection methods that captured data in the three planes of analysis: community/institutional, interpersonal, personal (Rogoff, 1995, 1998). More particularly, we focused on the interpersonal plane, where the data collection methods were targeted to reveal the teachers actions and perceptions of their actions in how they engaged students using the laptops as a pedagogical tool. Naturalistic research methods (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) were used, and further, we adopted a case study approach (Merriam, 1998; Stake, 1995). Data collection methods included document analysis, semi-structured interviews, classroom observations and individual interviews. We observed up to five lessons in each classroom over the 2010 school year. Data Analysis The study generated a rich body of data and analysis was not straightforward. As researchers, we experienced the study participants activities over a school year, and thus, our personal involvement affected the data analysis process. This could be interpreted as a threat to validity. Rather, we acknowledge the subjective nature of both our positioning and interpretations in providing the context, identifying the issues addressed and a rationale for our use of activity theory as an analytic lens. We began to identify an activity system by reading and rereading the data. We first looked 6 chronologically through the data set, then more strategically through observation summaries and identified emerging themes. These were tested through rereading of the data set and thus we identified meaningful activities that we saw as prevalent through our data set. We took this historical approach in order to consider the development of the activity over the studied school year. Through this analysis, we iteratively worked to develop narratives that characterize aspects of the activity system and also identified tensions among the components of the activity system. Research Participants and the Classroom Context In selecting teachers to be part of the study, we wanted firstly, willing participants. Teachers who were willing to allow us to observe them teaching lessons when they used the laptop computers were recruited for the study according to NSW Department of Education and Communities protocols. We also wanted to be able to speak with the teachers before and after what were called laptop lessons so as to unpack and debrief our observations. We held informal conversations with teachers who expressed interest in the study and used a snowball sampling method to find other science teachers who might be interested in participating. From these discussions, we identified our two case teachers, and through developing an understanding of their actions and perceptions, we could begin to understand the activity system. The study took place in the southeast region of New South Wales, and the case involves two highly qualified and experienced high school teachers, Harriet and Mary (teacher and school names are pseudonyms), both of whom were assigned to their schools as high school science teachers. Both teachers have served their schools and school communities as technology consultants and have held leadership roles in the schools where they have worked. The teachers knew each other as colleagues but had not worked together in the same school during their teaching careers. Harriet had worked at Northside High for more than 15 years, and often served the school as a Deputy Principal for varying lengths of time during each school year. The longest of her appointments (during the 2010 school year) in the role of Deputy Principal was three months, a time during which she continued to teach only one of her science classes (upper-level Year 10 Science) while a long-term casual teacher handled the rest of her classes. Even during this 3-month period, it was uncommon for her to be in the classroom teaching during the rotating block for Science 10, as she was called away to manage administrative responsibilities for the school. Harriet was an early adopter of technology applications to teach science. For many years, she had actively sought opportunities to introduce 7 technology tools to her science teaching. She had been instrumental in organizing a school-wide wireless network before the introduction of laptop computers from the DER, and the school had been heavily invested in desktop computer laboratories for many years (three computer labs that operated at 100% capacity). Harriet had attended all of the Department of Education-sponsored workshops and participated in discussions around the introduction of the laptops and the tools available therein. She also led professional learning workshops at Northside for her colleagues. Her focus was on facilitating a wider repertoire of computer-based lessons among the other teachers at Northside. Further, this was a cost-saving measure, as attendance at the Department-sponsored workshops involved fee payment and the engagement of a Casual Teacher, costs that were
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