Do children learn better using computers?

This is the very question Jenny Lewis, Principal of Noumea Public School in Sydney's out west, has attempted to answer with the development of a practical, state-of-the-art database application called 'Schoolmate." Jenny and her staff felt that computers didn't work well in classrooms because "the relationship between the curriculum and computers wasn't linked for teachers". From 1997 Jenny and her staff have been developing and using the 'Schoolmate' program and now there is real proof that children learn better using computers.

"It's one of those chicken and egg types of things, really. Was it because we were collecting our data better or was it because we were using computers? But what I can say is ­ that once we were tracking the children better using computers, once we were individualising our teaching using the information the computers were providing, once we were evaluating to a child, the results followed. If we could keep a child here 8 - 10 months the improvements were between 14 - 16 months (measured against the state standard)" An amazing result.

"Not only was that a significant change but there was a significant change in social outcomes and behaviour outcomes for kids. In 1997-8 we had 120-130 violent incidents, significant violent incidents, a year that is, and last year , 2000, there were only 6.

In 1997 the school points increase from year 3 to year 5 in the basic skills tests was 0-7. In 2000 the points increase from year 3 to year 5 was 6-24 points. In just 3 years, this is a phenomenal improvement.

Noumea PS achieved this remarkable result because the teachers were getting the teaching right, and they did this with the assistance of the "Schoolmate" program. Before the integrated use of computers teachers were doing incredible work but the work was busy work, it was the unit of work you do in semester 2, the 'Summer Unit.' Now the teachers are providing accurate teaching for every child every day.

To understand what an important development 'Schoolmate' is, we must historically look at how computers have been used in schools.
When computers were first introduced into classrooms teachers went to these "one stop wonder workshops." These workshops presented the really fab things you could do with
PowerPoint, Excel and Word. Teachers came back energised and enthusiastic to try all these fantastic new ideas. But when they came into the classroom it was the administration of the classroom that took over. Teacher programming, teacher recording, teacher assessment, teacher analysis of student work, these are the things that drive a classroom and the workshops didn't address this. They didn't tell teachers how to manage computers in their own classrooms."



Jenny explains the evolution of 'Schoolmate' "We decided to go back and look at the curriculum as a first point of reference and to nurture the administrative side of the classroom so that the program was on the computer. Then there would be a reason to go and touch the computer in the first place." Thus the development of the 'Schoolmate" program had begun. The program is designed to manage teacher's collection of data, assist with programming and support school development and planning. Using the "Schoolmate" program teachers' assessment tasks were on the computer along with pupils work samples and the curriculum.

"So we got over that initial hump, there is a purpose to the computer sitting in my classroom. And I think that's the hump that gets missed a lot." said Jenny

Up until then the use of computers had been piecemeal, the computer sat in the classroom and that's where students went to do catch up work, word processing, games and 'busy work". But there was no real relationship between curriculum outcomes and computer use. There were usually 2 groups of children that used the computer:-
children struggling with basic skills allegedly using computers to improve their basic skills, to 'catch up', and children who finish quickly. There wasn't a lot of purpose or meaning in the computer use, or choice of software, and there wasn't any demonstrable curriculum outcomes being achieved. Jenny and her staff felt this had to change.

If the teachers were touching the computers every single day then it added meaning to the child, they could see there was a purpose for the computer in the classroom.

"At Noumea teachers are using the computers for the purpose of 'why they are here',
and the students are using the computers for the purpose of 'why they are here'."

All of a sudden everything made sense. Software purchases were made only if they directly supported the curriculum outcomes, no 'busy' software was purchased. If a teacher was focusing on certain outcomes in the classroom the software supported exactly those outcomes, it wasn't busy work or catch-up - it was a normal part of the lesson. Computer usage became a natural part of the lesson.

"Children were working on paper, children would be using concrete materials, children would be working on computers, it was just one of the groups."

The classroom became the primary teaching unit. Whoever works with the children on the day is working with the curriculum that is in place on that day. The teachers have targeted which outcomes they are working on, extra teachers and parents work on the same curriculum outcomes for that day.

While the teacher's are registering what the students are doing the "Schoolmate" program is compiling the school reporting. When you are registering off what you are observing daily and updating your records you are actually writing your report. On the wall in Jenny's office is the advice she gives to all the teacher's using the Schoolmate program:-

"Worry about teaching and learning, assessment and recording information because if you do that then you can review and reflect on the information to change what is happening in the classroom and report whenever you want to."

Computers have definitely improved the learning outcomes for students at Noumea, using the excellent database program "Schoolmate" it's a 'win win' situation, a win for the school and a win for the community, but I'll leave the last word to Jenny,

"The provision of such significant knowledge has enabled individual staff, collegial teams and administrators to allocate the right resources, to the right students for the right reasons." (Jenny Lewis "Developing the Knowledge Ecology")

Jenny Lewis is Principal of Noumea Public School
The "Schoolmate" program was developed by Jenny and her staff in conjunction with
Graham Reay of Black Duck Software Pty Ltd
P.O. Box 114 Windsor N.S.W. 2756

Cathy Brown B.Ed. (HONS) is a Educator with over 20 years teaching experience from Pre-school to Tertiary level, she gives seminars and inservice in Computer Technology and also writes a free email newsletter 'Virtual Teacher"