More than 1600 Victorian schools are about to get the Ultranet – an online portal and ”virtual classroom” Education Minister Bronwyn Pike championed and promised that it will transform the way students learn (The Age 16 March 2010).
I have just finished the first two days of training as an Ultranet Lead User along with 4 of my colleagues (my Principal being one of them). Here is my reflection and initial thoughts and why there is no way the Ultranet will ‘transform the way students learn’.
As soon as I had seen the first Power Point presentation delivered to Ultranet Coaches and Principals by Dianne Peck (Business Owner, Ultranet), I was wondering how the Ultranet was going to work. I couldn’t believe that the main premise for its construction was around safety and that this would be provided via a closed environment. How is this possible? We had just adopted Globalstudent across the school as our main blogging tool – an online live digital portfolio and a portal into the classroom of every grade in the school. Every student from grades 3-6 has their own personal blog. This wasn’t a closed environment but open for the world to see. Why would we want to use the Ultranet? One of the main benefits of using Globalstudent is the authenticity of having a live real audience view your successes. It is possible for Gllobalstudent users to set their permissions to private and/or save their work as drafts? This can be easily done with three clicks. Ultranet users will be confronted with a confusing array of permission choices as difficult as Facebook’s (see image below). At our school we take Digital Citzenship and safety seriously. We teach students strategies for staying safe on the internet and we guide teachers and parents on how to best deal with internet safety issues. I believe it is best to teach children how to operate safely in a real life cyber environment rather than restricting their experience in the name of keeping them safe.
I have often been asked the question- is this technology 5 years too late? My reply is yes. My school was part of the original Ultranet trial. Yes, it was a resounding failure. We invested a lot of time and thought trying to apply it to the primary school context. The technology was clunky and it didn’t work. The technology just wasn’t there. However, we all could see its potential and really enjoyed engaging in conversations about teachers collaborating and sharing ideas and students accessing learning tools and also sharing ideas. That’s why we spent the next 4 years looking for alternatives. In fact our Ultranet coaches encouraged us to do so. Hence, the Globalstudent blogging tools and our use of the Google education applications. The teachers and students at our school have taken to these applications like ducks to water. Teachers use the Google docs folders and applications to plan and share, and the Principal is invited to collaborate. The Principal has access and can contribute to the team/teacher folders and can view all the term planning. Students take notes whilst watching documentaries and share them in our class folder for all to view. They can upload their Powerpoint presentations to Google Docs and grab the code and embed it into their blog. Google has just released a major update for all their Document tools which includes Google Drawings where students will be able to create mind maps and/or flowcharts, to just name a few. Will this technology exist in the Ultranet? Will the Ultranet continue to have regular updates to keep up with emerging technologies? (as I am writing this into Google Docs a colleague is reading and editing). One would hope that Victorian teachers and students weren’t short changed. At this stage, I have only seen wikis, blogs, slideshows, the potential to embed video (tried, didn’t work) and the ability to upload documents which cannot be viewed inside the Ultranet. Unfortunately, the Ultranet is 5 years too late. Why should we be burdened with this?
Creativity is essential for both teachers and students. Teachers need to be given the time to think creatively about their planning and how they can deliver their lessons. Students need to engage in their learning through their inventiveness. Whilst we were waiting to get onto the Ultranet, there were many discussions about how it was going to help with teaching and learning. I was trying to ascertain where the creativity would happen? What is the purpose of uploading photos (one at a time) to create a slide show? Surely having the students capture the images in context of the task, is the most important element of creating the slideshow? Especially if no one can see it. Do we need to rely on the Ultranet, the ‘network’ to be able to create something? To quote Gary Stager at ACEC 2010: “If we don’t have an effective network or access to fast broadband or a creative learning program underpinning the network then we should ‘cut the cord’. Computers are still extremely useful without the network. Maybe the “network” ie the internet is getting in the way of constructive learning.” (Thanks to Steve Collis you can see and listen to the complete Keynote at Happy Steve’s blog)
Access may be a real problem for schools that haven’t yet engaged in a 1 to 1 program. I am a strong believer in the power of 1 to 1 in the classroom. However, schools may feel that to take full advantage of the Ultranet that they need to fast track a the 1 to 1 developments and purchase substandard machines. The jury is still out on whether netbooks, for example, are the appropriate machines for creative learning environments. There has been some questions asked as to whether there will be a ‘hand held’ device interface developed for the Ultranet. With so many schools using these where will the Ultranet fit in to their profile?
My first experience of the Ultranet wasn’t a pleasant one. After being bitten once before during the first Ultranet trial, I was hoping it would be more positive. I am acutely aware that I am part of cycle one of the first release and glitches are to be expected. However, one would expect that we would at least have access for more than a few hours during the first two days of training. One hour in the morning before it went down on the second day is not good enough. For the complete array of applications to be not ready and not fully functional is not good enough. I cannot believe that for the past 4 years I have acted as an agent for change (still am) and now I find myself in a position of reaction. It is unfair that DEECD and the State Government has foisted an unfinished product upon us. Especially when many schools have worked tirelessly getting themselves Web 2.0 ready only to be given the bare bones. This is purely a political decision and a bad one.