Tuesday 25 November 2014

Disrupting boundaries: how digital devices became a resource for transformative change in a time of crisis

If there has been anything like a ‘silver lining’ to emerge from the tragedy of the Canterbury earthquakes, it’s the opportunity to start afresh. Christchurch’s Pegasus Bay area took theirs and technology to get their learning communities looking forward again.

The Pegasus Digital Devices Project saw the integration of 600 digital devices into 11 primary schools from the eastern Pegasus Bay region of Christchurch – an area devastated by earthquakes. The initiative came about after the community made known their concerns that students could be further disadvantaged at school by their traumatic experiences.
In response to this plea, the Greater Christchurch Schools Network (GCSN), with funds from the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust (CEAT) and the Ministry of Education, provided digital devices, covers, and software for all 11 schools at a ratio of one device to every four students. The GCSN also ensured all these schools had wireless networks functioning before the project got under way, and the package included funded professional learning and development (PLD) for schools throughout the project.
PLD support was provided for schools participating in the project through the
Te Toi Tupu Digi Advisor programme, managed by CORE Education. The project ran from February to November 2013, with data being collected concurrently with the PLD on offer. Data was used to examine the impact of the project on student learning and a community recovering from crisis.
The stories of the Pegasus Bay community were viewed through a transformative lens, with the aim of supporting equity and 21st century learning. Feedback from those involved indicated that the initiative was able to provide some small hope and respite from the effects of the earthquakes.
The initial set-up was a huge undertaking, but once completed, teachers and students began to learn together differently, which resulted in many shifts in teacher pedagogy and student learning. The positive changes that occurred were possible because teachers were willing to think and act in new ways.
Seeing with new eyes
Because the community of Pegasus Bay had experienced ‘great environmental change’, many of the traditional boundaries defining community, school, teaching, and learning had already been disrupted, which provided a context for teachers to think and practice differently; the introduction and use of digital devices intensified this change process. Transformation in teaching and learning began as teachers determined not to go back but instead find new ways to work with students. One such shift was a move away from the traditional binary of teacher/learner to a more cooperative and interdependent learning relationship. Students were no longer dependent on teachers for direction, as in some instances, they knew more than their teachers about how to use the devices. Teachers and students learnt alongside each other, finding new ways to access, create, and share knowledge together.
As the roles of teacher and learner merged, some teachers reported seeing their students differently, noticing what students were capable of and what they cared about in ways they had not previously. ‘Seeing with new eyes’ then changed how teachers responded to students, which engendered a change in work habits and output.
Learning without limitations
Digital devices offered multiple learning pathways to achieve learning goals, and so students were no longer restricted from achieving due to learning difficulties or because they preferred to learn in non-traditional ways. Students were no longer bound by their abilities or limitations. For instance, one very artistic child who was restricted by their ability to draw was able to use the device to create something from their ideas. For this child, there was a real sense of accomplishment when their visualisation became a reality before their eyes. There were other instances where students who had difficulty writing with a pencil used the devices to get their thoughts down, which made a huge difference to their confidence.
The devices enabled students to edit and share their work more easily, and as a result, there was an improvement in both the quantity and quality of work produced. Furthermore, there was a reported difference in self-assessment, peer assessment, and cooperative learning, with students readily making suggestions to each other about how work could be improved. Students commented about how easy it was to correct their work and the ‘provisionality’ (Simpson, 2012) of open ended applications (apps) meant more risk taking, experimentation and creativity in work produced.
Playing to learn
More value was placed on play as a valid way to learn, which encouraged negotiation, problem solving, and cooperation. The bell no longer signalled the end of learning and the beginning of play because when learning was fun students ceased to notice the separation between the two. This project was a reminder that learning through play and fun continues to be effective – no matter what the age.
This more playful and experimental learning had an impact on student engagement – many teachers involved attest to this outcome. While the new enthusiasm for learning could be attributed initially to the novelty of the devices themselves, after a settling-in period there was notable change in the work of previously disengaged and reluctant learners, particularly in writing. The devices broke old habits as students re-entered learning with new enthusiasm and explored contexts that were important and relevant to them. This maintained interest and supported meaningful learning, which helped to ensure school was a more positive experience for previously disengaged students – a key prerequisite for achieving success at school (Finn and Kasza, 2009).
Connecting with real-life experiences
Students wrote about their experiences and produced media presentations that were used in a Digi Awards event; an event which attracted 500 people from the community. Students talked passionately about the issues that were relevant to them – including the earthquakes – highlighting the importance of context in learning and just how much students are affected by their experiences. The devices could be said to have helped students to process their experiences and create meaning with them – and they had fun at the same time.
Education communities that connect with social needs build a more democratic and equitable society (Bolstad et al., 2012; Facer, 2011). In the Pegasus Bay area, learning became connected to the real-life experiences of students. Through their school work and their contributions, students demonstrated care for their fellow students, their community, and beyond. The Pegasus Digital Devices Project not only created new pathways for learning but also new ways to demonstrate care and concern for others. The community came together for a common good, and as they did they helped to rebuild their lives. 
Full references are available on request.