ICT: Interested in Conversations and Thinking

Abridged version in Education Weekly | September 8, 2008

Too often ICT is assumed to be about technology. "Not so" says MoE E-Learning Fellow Michael Fenton, technology just improves the lines of communication between teacher and student...

“There is a myth in education that students as 21st Century learners are somehow different...that they are the so-called "digital natives". As a geneticist I can assure you that there is absolutely NO evidence that our students genetics, and consequently their brain function, is any different from when they were 20th Century learners. ”

So what HAS changed? He points instead to the rapid developments in technology both in homes and classrooms.

"Technology has always been employed as a communication tool, whether it is papyrus, paper or computer programmes. All teachers need to worry about is what is being said. For some students 21st Century technology provides real benefits to get across their ideas and feelings. But that doesn't mean teachers have to stress about keeping up with their students!"

"Technology should come second to what teachers' are really interested about…what the students have learnt from the experience."

For those familiar with Michael's Real-world Interactive Games and Electronics Link (RIGEL) this may seem an odd comment. But he says this philosophy fits well with his research into the use of mobile sensor technology and authentic learning in Primary and Secondary schools.

His "black box" sensor unit has been attached to standard Texas Instruments and Casio graphic calculators to turn them into data loggers. The calculators were also converted into remote control units capable of driving a model Mars Rover robot in his Calculus class.

He has enjoyed seeing students "fly" a bike connected to a 3D virtual world this term. But he doesn't like being labelled an ICT "expert".

A Year 13 Calculus student "flies" a glider using Michaels RIGEL games and robotics engine. Primary school students have enjoyed CASI the Mars Rover model. CASI is remotely controlled by a Casio graphic calculator

Michael says that any teacher would be hard pressed to keep up with the rapid changes in ICT and E-Learning and should not worry about trying to keep up with their students. As an example, it doesn't matter if the student uses Google Apps, or if hard copy, e-copy, static or animated presentations are created using applications the teacher is unfamiliar with.

Social networking technologies and mash-ups add to the confusion of possibilities for learning experiences and assessment.

"It seems the only constant in ICT is change".

"That's OK if you realise that technology should be seen as a scaffold for the student to build their understanding on. Give them a chance to show off their expertise."

"With the games and robots this year I can see how students have developed their thinking by being stimulated through using the technology. So why not let them do things their way as long as it also meets assessment criteria?"

He goes on to add "Unless the task specifically looks at the technology itself, why not let the students be the expert users while the teacher takes the role of the expert assessor? For instance, I might judge a student as working at Excellence level if their dialogue and presentations suggests a peer-to-peer level conversation is taking place. Simple recall of facts would indicate Achieved level. "

This concept of "levels of conversation" has appealed to the colleagues Michael has sounded out about his idea.

The Inglewood High School teacher’s approach is based on discussions with other E-Learning Fellows and colleagues from various schools.

"The medium used should be irrelevant, the focus has to be on what the student is saying and how well they understand it. Students can converse orally, on paper, or via any appropriate ICT in use or yet to be devised. Teachers should be aware of different technologies as a matter of good professional practice, but don't let them be seen as something to be afraid of."

As one example, Michael arranged for his RIGEL sensor system to be used as the basis for primary school students to organise an Olympics Games morning. It was a wonderful example of authentic learning in practice with the students producing an event their peers thoroughly enjoyed.

"The technology wasn't what mattered. The teacher and students had a totally different focus...

  • to work together to come up with activties
  • develop rules for awarding gold, silver and bronze
  • test the events themselves and modify if neccessary
  • set the events up, then manage and instruct the competitors

The conversations the students had with each other and the teacher, in whatever form was approapriate, was what indicated learning was happening.

It also provided a "voice" in some respects for students to communcate skills and attitudes that could not be conveyed in any other way. It was marvellous!


Michael has taught Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Computing and Electronics to Tertiary level as well as at various Secondary schools.

He presented his research at the Asia-Pacific Microsoft Innovative Teachers conference in Kuala Lumpur.


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