The Story Bridge—a Public Good, and EdTech

I am immensely impressed with Australians. They have a heart and eye for what matters. People.

Take, for example, the Story Bridge. The longest cantilever bridge in the country. Finished in 1940, it rises 243ft above the Brisbane River ferrying 100,000 vehicles daily between downtown Brisbane and Kangaroo Point on the south bank.

Come December it lights up like a Christmas tree with green, red, blue, purple and orange bulbs glittering into the night. It’s there for the fireworks, too, with Riverfire.

It is a superbly engineered bridge, beautiful in its elegance, proportion and simplicity. It has tremendous utility, although taking it for granted, (like a good education), we hardly pause to think about it.

I was startled then to see the bridge at a standstill. No traffic moving across it, and only a handful of people on it. When I looked more closely, I understood why.

A pedestrian walkway and cycle lane runs each side of the bridge, high above the water. A gentle curve from north to south, fenced in with forest green iron railings.

Halfway across the bridge, at the highest point above the flat, sluggish yet powerful Brisbane River, a man had climbed over the rails and was leaning out above the water, swaying to and fro, preparing to jump. Hitting the water from this height is like hitting concrete.

In a space of minutes, fire trucks arrived, together with an ambulance and several police cars. They cleared the bridge of traffic and kept their distance while a small group moved in slowly and carefully to coax the man away from suicide. It was a measured process. One policeman took the lead. Unhurriedly leaning against the railings, he chatted with him, close, and just waited patiently.

Meanwhile, below, two police boats kept river traffic at bay.

I thought, for better or for worse, it would be over in a few minutes. I was wrong. An hour passed, and then another. And then another. The morning passed by. All the while, traffic was diverted around the city in an effort to save one person, this man, from tragedy.

Late lunchtime, it all came to an end. I saw the small group that had come so close to him, taking him by the arms, helping him back over the railings and then walking him along the bridge to safety.

I marvelled that a whole city had been put on hold for just one person: thousands of families and commuters inconvenienced for the sake of a man who one summer morning had felt overwhelmed, and who had by the slenderest of margins chosen life over death.

But I don’t think anyone experiencing an interruption to their plans would have had it any other way, because Australians, in general, have a heart and eye for what matters. People.

In the many countries my family have lived in, such a degree of attentiveness and commitment to the individual, has not always been evident. But I’ve always found it tremendously comforting to witness compassion in action, and the human desire to help others reach better ends. I’m warmed by the phenomena of ordinary people showing extraordinary care. People we have all met at one time or another in engineering, nursing, politics, business and education, etc.—.

One person who springs to mind, Chris H.—, showed extraordinary concern for her students. She experienced the rare pleasure of being loved by her students while being extremely effective. (Popularity is no guarantee of competence.) But by any rating, in a staff of 100+ she was the best teacher in the school. We all acknowledged this, without any grudges.

What made Chris so successful? Chris relentlessly sought out quality. She had a rigorous list of criteria that she had developed with others over a decade, that enabled her to evaluate the worth of something. So, for instance, from the gobbledygook of curricula jargon and ‘values’, she decided truthfulness, resilience, gratitude, diligence and courage were something she wanted her students to demonstrate—in the classroom and on the field. She approached curricular content in the same manner. Syllabuses, standards and curricula that lacked quality went by the way. She sought out excellence, and her students thanked her for it as they mastered what she taught them. They were really being educated.

The same was true of her student relationships. They were quality through and through. If there was a hockey match to be watched, she was there. If there was a sadness in the family, she knew about it. She was prudent and patient; no subject was out of bounds with her students, and no situation they got themselves into was something she would walk away from. But when they were back on their feet, she would tell them they were letting themselves down and that they needed to change.

Like the people on the Story Bridge, Chris would go out of her way for others. She passionately pursued what was worthwhile. Teaching her students, bringing them on as people, drawing the best out of them was how she did this.

The way Chris lived poses two questions for media and education. How do we evaluate all the material we come across, discerning what is trivial from important, and how do we think about entertainment and the role it plays in our lives—especially in education?

Most of you who are reading this will use Facebook and other social media. You’ll have had the experience, even in the last 24 hours, of scrolling through a surfeit of seeming trivia—of mind numbing, time wasting video segments with fluffy toys, fluffy cats and charlatans, etc.—. And the drivel is on the increase. Is there a way to screen it out? If there is, what criteria should we use to do so? And if we value entertainment, how do we choose between something truly entertaining, and presumably valuable, and something less entertaining?

The same questions swirl around EdTech. No one doubts its potential benefits. Research certifies its value and growing ubiquity, but when it comes down to the type of detail Chris was interested in, there needs to be some very sharp thinking. Not all apps are equal. Some are much better than others, having substantial educational value. But what criteria will educators develop and use for evaluating their merit? And what will be the relationship between entertainment, games and the traditional content of K-12?—Not that games and entertainment haven’t always been part of good teaching and education.

Remembering that education is not simply about what we can do, what facts we know and what values we hold, parents and educators need a set of well thought out criteria for evaluating the digital learning their children are becoming immersed in. These could be user generated (parent and student). Or skilled educators and child psychologists, expert in cognitive development, could create them. Both could be on offer.

They might end in simple summaries (this app will teach your child nothing, even if it is entertaining), but criteria for measuring learning, for gauging the real educational value of, say, a Math app should be available. And as they are, parents, schools and teachers should be able to compare one product against another.

Criteria should not only address age readiness and content appropriateness, but also relevance to favoured curricula—i.e., an explanation of how a particular app or program interfaces with a specific standard or curriculum (local, District, Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), International Baccalaureate (IB), etc.—).

Further criteria might relate to entertainment measures (this app was great fun and valuable educationally!) Or to measures relating to ease of access, navigation, simplicity and the quality of support for a product. And even aesthetic measures (great story, stunning graphics, superb characterisation etc.—)!

Ideally, criteria should include benchmarking against international standards, not just local ones. A number of Asian countries currently set the pace in Math, Science and ICT literacies. We should learn from their expertise and test our products against them.

Times have changed since Chris and I taught together. Our students’ children are now in school. But many of the issues we face are still the same. How do we evaluate the educational tools that are coming to hand, choosing the best among them for teaching and learning more effectively? How do we unremittingly seek out quality because we have an eye and a heart for what matters: children and their education?

Take away points: Most people, in most places, help people in their extremity. One mark of a great culture is the priority it puts on people’s lives. Another is the value it places on their education. Parents and educators who are worth their salt care passionately about what children learn, what values they hold and what skills they develop. They hunt out the best technology, content, and means of learning for their kids. In the next decade, EdTech will thoroughly seed itself into our lives. The fruit it bears will depend significantly on the quality we accept. Poor EdTech will translate to a poor education. We should focus our attention on developing sets of criteria for evaluating the merits of educational apps etc., which parents, educators and users can easily access and understand.

Research:
Slow out of the blocks, but indicative that the public education sector, globally, is turning to ICT and EdTEch, even if the emphasis is on data collection at the moment: https://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/collecting-data-about-educational-technology-use-all-countries-world

Where the money is going in EdTech: https://www.edsurge.com/n/2014-12-23-2014-us-edtech-funding-hits-1-36b

A video posted on Facebook. How would we evaluate it? Fluffy toy type stuff or something more provoking? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZGghmwUcbQ

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