At most conferences the keynotes will give you a sense of the trends and direction the conference will take, what trends and issues are being given importance. This year’s conference has a preponderance of panels, and panels allow for diverse ideas to be thrown around, but this format also tends to dilute strong ideas. Nevertheless the theme of Day 1 appears to me to have been innovation and diversity and inclusion. Past conferences have foregrounded technology, pedagogy, and the teacher, but the curriculum itself appears to be getting greater attention. Who is teaching, what we teach, how we teach and how we teach with technology appears in sharper focus than previously when one or other of these concerns dominated the conversation. I interpret this as a greater realism. The events of the last year have shown us that teachers are vital, that they are able to adapt their pedagogy in an agile way, and that the curriculum itself is vital. Some students were able to gain access to that curriculum online, others were not. We cannot just dismiss knowledge with a simplistic call for skills above content. Students gain access to agency and empowerment through the acquisition of knowledge. To argue otherwise is to entrench privilege in our society.
Day 2 dawned bright and early with a discussion on global trends in tertiary education. What frightens me about this discussion is the sense that teachers can be done away with and the curriculum can be broken up into byte-sized chunks for easy consumption. A few master teachers teaching anywhere anytime, and a pick n mix Khan Academy approach to the curriculum does not appear very promising to me. Robert Paddock then addressed the issue of access for all and what measures might be taken to make a difference in our failing education system. A key problem is that great teachers tend not to be where they are really needed to improve the system in a scalable way. Paddock suggests an answer is the iBodi model which sets up an online platform which uses a mix of master teachers providing both synchronous and asynchronous teaching online together with dedicated mentors providing pastoral care to the students who meet in a physical space ( a micro school). Paddock argues that this model would allow more students to be reached and receive quality education.
This is an interesting model which seeks to avoid the pitfalls of master teachers dumping content online without adequate contact with students to mediate and scaffold this content. My immediate reaction is that while this model has great promise, I am not convinced that a mentor in the bricks and mortar micro-school alone is sufficient. To my mind high school students require greater content mediation. If this can be provided by teachers online or in the physical space, the model will work, but if this scaffolding and support is not enough I fear it will not work. The devil really is in the detail. I am wondering if onsite tutors may not be more workable.
I then watched a discussion with Syson Kunda, Cleo Karrim and Thomas Kaye on digital innovation in the classroom. Kunda identified a lack of teacher skills and under-resourced schools as major barriers to any solution allowing new technologies to overcome past inequalities. This is a Catch-22 situation. Digital technologies may be able to deliver greater equity in education, but the same barriers that created the problem hamper the solution. Low-tech solutions may offer a way to chip away at the digital divide and teachers as change agents are crucial in this process. Karrim spoke to the question of teacher training. Teachers are not being trained to act as digital innovators. Pre-service and in-service training needs to be done urgently and private and public partnerships need to be forged to facilitate this. Kaye stressed the need for teaching training to go beyond how to operate devices, but how to teach using the technology.
I was then involved in a panel discussion with Michael Vorster and Nneka Chukwulobe. The main takeaway from this discussion for me was how amazing other teachers’ work always seems! Both my fellow panelists are doing amazing work. I have been blessed in my career to work alongside amazingly creative and gifted colleagues, and having an opportunity to hear what other teachers are doing is always fantastic. Sharing best practice is perhaps the best way for teachers to learn how to make the kinds of innovations in their teaching that the conference has been foregrounding. In similar vein, it was great to hear from young robotics entrepreneur, Viresh Soogrem, and hear his story.
Delia Kench and Frank McCoy then discussed the implementation of a STEM curriculum at their school. There is a paradox in inter-disciplinary studies, namely how do you do inter-disciplinary work if you don’t have a discipline? At St Benedicts the emphasis has been on forging a new discipline rather than creating a hodge-podge of inter-meshing subjects. I hope that they write this case study up at some stage.
The day ended with a panel discussion on robotics and coding which I participated in with Karen Walstra, Delia Kench, Dylan Langheim and St Benedicts student Tashil Mistry. Again the emphasis was on teachers’ and students’ perspectives on the role of coding and robotics in the curriculum. With a new department of education curriculum in the process of being rolled out this discussion was most informative. Where does coding and computational thinking sit in the curriculum? How should it be taught? What threshold concepts and skills are important? How can girls be engaged? What core competencies and thinking skills are central? The discussion could have gone on all night, but I have to say that after an exhausting day I was glad when the session came to an end – Zoom is so exhausting, isn’t it?
Of course the main ideas one gets out of a conference largely depends on which streams and sessions one follows, but the strong sense I got last year and this was that the time for computing as a fully fledged discipline, a senior subject, core to the curriculum, has arrived. Exactly what this looks like is not yet fully worked out, but the days in which very few students, especially girls, have access to any kind of computer education are behind us. Going forward the big question is how to provide the very best, and the most empowering computer education we can, for all.