College embraces eLearning - Digital classrooms of the future

2014-03-22 00:00

HOW to get a teenager’s attention? Give them an iPad and tell them to use it for lessons — all of them. At one of the oldest schools in the country that’s exactly what’s happening in two Grade 9 classes.

While many high schools are now incorporating the use of iPads into teaching and learning, Maritzburg College has been forging ahead with an iPad-only route. This term, a pilot project was rolled out to two classes of Grade 9 boys whereby most lessons and assignments are done with the aid of the tablets. It’s believed to be one of only a handful of schools in the country that is doing this.

“We started talking about it last year in April,” said James Maistry, the school’s director of digital learning. “The new headmaster (Chris Luman) came from an iPad school in New Zealand, and they’d already done all the research.” He said one of their conclusions was that iPads were preferable to other tablets because they had a five-year head start and there were so many free apps available online for education.

It was decided to begin with two classes as a pilot, and Grade 8 boys and their parents were invited to apply. “We had a very good response,” said deputy head Bryan Dibben. “We were aiming for one class and had so much response we decided to have another one.” He said there had been no resistance from parents, despite the fact that they had to provide the iPads.

Staff, who have been issued with the tablets, prepare lessons on them, which are then transmitted wirelessly with the aid of a programme called Airserver to the data projector found in each classroom. Assignments are done using apps and delivered by Gmail. Exams, however, are still written on old-fashioned paper.

“We’re not advocating a paperless school,” said Maistry. “I don’t think you can go that route. You have to keep the kids writing.”

An important part of the transition is managing social media and access to the outside world. R100 000 has been spent on a firewall, which Dibben said blocked at least one tenacious boy from accessing “adult” sites, despite trying for an hour and a half. “The next day we got a 58-page report on everywhere he’d been,” he said.

“There are rules,” said Maistry. “Certain sites are banned completely and others — like Facebook, Twitter and Myspace — are banned during school hours.” Games are also blocked during the day. As far as privacy issues are concerned, no recording — of photos, video or audio — is allowed on the school property without a teacher’s permission, and all staff and boys are required to sign a social media contract restricting use of the school name.

“So far the project’s been a success,” said Dibben. “We had to spend a lot of money — several hundred thousand so far — on upgrading our infrastructure, and we still have to get the hostels online.” Bandwidth use by the school has surged and it now uses more in a day than the whole of Spar South Africa, approximately 40-50 GB.

For the boys, the change is a no-brainer. “I was a bit hesitant at first,” said Maritzburg College schoolboy Jean-Pierre Faulha, “but it really does help. If you want to look something up you don’t have to wait until you go home or go to the library. You can just do it.”

“You can do a lot,” added Jason Voller. And obstacles? “We’re boys, we fiddled a lot,” he said cheerily. “There’s always a loophole.”

“We’re learning every day,” said Maistry. “Next year, we’ll be in a better place.” He said the plan was for the boys in the pilot to carry on with iPads till matric, and next year they were hoping for 50% of the Grade nines to be involved. While the school would like to be iPad only in a few years, he conceded that might be difficult, given the costs and affordability for parents.

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