A Terrible Decision

I'm really disappointed and angry. The reason? It has been officially announced that South Australia's world renowned centre for innovation and training for ICT in education, Technology School Of the Future (generally referred to by most teachers as TSOF) is to be closed and moved from its base at Hindmarsh. I found out via a colleague and the teacher grapevine on Wednesday, had it confirmed via professional association email lists on Thursday and then on Friday, this article appeared in a sidebar on a page in the Advertiser, Adelaide's only daily newspaper.

Outrage as school plan is ditched.

XANTHE KLEINIG - EDUCATION REPORTER

Principals are furious the Technology School of the Future has been scrapped.

South Australian Primary Principals Association president Glyn O'Brien said there was an "outcry" over plans to replace the school at Hindmarsh with online services and video conferencing.

The school was run as a part of the Education Development Centre and, while it had no permanent students, provided a physical base for school groups to visit for programs such as robotics or digital electronics.

"The centre was set up to give kids the really cutting edge technology and amazing computer programs - the sort of things primary schools can't afford to buy," Ms O'Brien said.

Replacing the school with a program, staffed by nine teachers travelling around the state with a "bootload" of technology, would be inadequate, she said.

Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith announced this week that professional development for teachers would be delivered by video conferencing and 18 "eTeachers" would be appointed to develop online activities for students.

Opposition Education spokesman Duncan McFetridge said the school, established in 1989, was being closed by "stealth". "Teachers come from all over the world ... for some reason they decide now they will try to do it online," he said.

An Education Department spokeswoman said that physical attendance at the school's courses had dropped 400 per cent over four years.

In retrospect, the signs that this was on the State Government's mind have been there for a while. The final statistic quoted at the end of the article is the result of budgetary cutbacks, a user pays policy for facility and expertise hire, a reduction in consultants available to schools and other services once available to DECS schools for free being priced out of the range of classrooms and schools. I've blogged before about TSOF and its challenge to stay relevant to the massive changes occurring on the web but the solution in the minds of those in charge seems to be to simply pull the pin. That, in my mind, is extremely short sighted and ignorant.

Here, we have a world class facility, proudly showed off to Queen Elizabeth II a few years back, supposedly ready for the scrapheap just to help balance the state budget. The plan to replace it with videoconferencing and online courses only is just ludicrous. Sure, it's important to develop those online capabilities but with a teaching force here that averages close to fifty years of age, their learning needs also need to be taken into account. If we want educators capable of delivering ICT rich curriculum for our 21st Century students, then scrapping the physical headquarters of technology innovation makes no sense at all.

TSOF has been important to my own professional development. I've attended courses, I've been part of Quality Teacher Programs, I've taken classes there to use the facilities and to showcase their work to others, I've presented there and attended quite a few conferences as well. I've worked closely with TSOF staff as well on research grants, the Web 2.0 Showcase, consultancy on interactive whiteboards - where will all this sort of stuff take place?

The South Australian education community deserves better than this. More resources should be going into this important facility - instead, we feel the bitter sting of the axe carefully spun into a press release strategically timed to coincide with the end of a busy, frantic and tiring work year.

My next step is to personally email the Premier and the Minister for Education. I think and hope they've underestimated the backlash coming their way.

Yesterday, I read this great post from Warrick Wynne that summed up things rather well. Warrick writes:

It’s hard enough sometimes to get through the day without having to plumb the depths of the future.

That’s the thing sometimes isn’t it? One of the reasons that the big picture and visionary is so often hijacked by the immediate and the now.

That's the thing - a shortsighted "let's scrap this expensive centre and promise something that sounds futuristic" for a few savings today and lose sight of the big picture that TSOF was originally founded and funded properly for in the first place. What's next?

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9 thoughts on “A Terrible Decision

  1. Bill Kerr

    Post author

    Heartfelt post Graham. I also followed the link and read your older post on TSOF, which adds some necessary context IMO.

    I feel sorry for those who work at TSOF, including the technological savvy and creative teachers who now face an uncertain future. Where will they end up?

    You write, “The plan to replace it with videoconferencing and online courses only is just ludicrous”. Spot on, it is so ludicrous that we have to ask, what on earth are those in charge thinking about? Do they have a plan or model that involves more than cost cutting? I’m curious about that.

    You also raise the issue of who is going to teach the 50yo teachers about new technology. wrt I’m wondering what the future of the technology coaches will be, since I think they have been trained by TSOF (?) As you can see I’m not really up to date on all the local issues.

    I’ve never had a great deal to do with TSOF but the things I did like were their twilight seminars (freebies: I show cased GameMaker in this way a few times), they presented some articulate, high powered guest speakers (eg. Prensky), they developed some innovative projects (eg. Jim Edson’s dance mats) and there was some (limited) promotion of open source software (eg. audacity). There would be other good stuff that I’m just not very aware of.
    I hope others fill in the gaps. Overall, I felt the emphasis was mainly for primary teachers and there wasn’t a great deal on offer for the development of tech savvy teachers in senior secondary – which is also important in any system.

    However, I think the name was not right, it wasn’t really a “school of the future”. It’s a bit of a side issue now but Papert criticised such
    terminology and preferred the term “headlight school”, one that casts a light on some aspects of the future. There was never any real philosophical understanding emanating from TSOF about a real vision of “the future” as far as I am aware. How could there be when from the start they were locked into commercialisation as a source of their funding which of course would act as a disincentive for the wide scale adoption of open source software and thinking? And having to put up, like the rest of us, with a censorware system that blocks the future (web apps are blocked by default) is an enormous drag backwards. You would have to have more of an open source developers philosophy and an emphasis on computer programming and other
    fundamental issues of computation to qualify as a school of the future.
    Certainly, we have a Department that has no right to speak for “the future” (as in school of the future) because their vision of the future is so stunted, commercialised and risk free.

    In one sense things have continued to move on and there is a way to build “the future” through blogging etc outside of what increasingly seems to be a frightened little empire.

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  2. Perry Campbell

    Yes Bill the school of the future closing is another poor decision for the long term professional development of teachers. I have used teh facility on many occasions when wanting to kick start my knowledge in new software that I was trying to learn. I found all the courses geared towards teachers and education, most you could take from the sessions there and embed it back at work with only minor changes. I never got organised to take a class there but it was a unique facility where this was possible. We cannot always affore the technology on offer there and the hands on things for kids was great. Where am I going to go now to learn new software? Looks like TAFE is already offering stuff for the new courses next year.
    Certainly disappointed with the loss.

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  3. Samuel Wittwer

    For the team at TSOF, who have assisted me in my network planning, providing ideas for improvements at my own site, and being able to show off what is to come, even things that my budget can only dream of.

    To all of you, thanks. I very much doubt that an e-teacher can assist me with network segregation, vlaning and deployment issues over multiple platforms.

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    Learning with the Fang » Blog Archive » Economic rationalism gone mad - TSOF cut?

  5. Lindsay Hutton

    I also doubt that the eLearning teachers are ready for such an enormous task and question what research has lead to this decision. With a one day allocation for preparation I can not see many training sessions being organised especially as they now don’t have the backup training from TSOF staff. Being one of the online scholarship teachers who completed the year course, Graduate Diploma of eLearning, I feel that this is a short sighted venture. The people who completed this Graduate Diploma were all knowledgeable computer teachers/Coordinators with many years of ICT experience. We would even find it difficult without the backing of TSOF let alone the new eLearning teachers.
    I believe due to the age and confidence of many teachers, individual help is required in any training situation. I may be wrong but I can’t see many of the teachers we are trying to encourage to use computers will feel comfortable in this new learning environment. I will wait to see how the new system is supposed to work but guess that some teachers will need to enter school in the evenings to be able to access these courses.
    Being a city school our students have accessed the expertise of the TSOF staff on a number of occasions. This knowledge will now not be available to help encourage and promote learning in our field.
    If this decision is based on the $, it is a shameful day for education in South Australia.

    Reply
  6. Stu

    Post author

    The TSoF closure is being greeted with much resistance by a cadre of schools and teachers but I am going to buck the trend and say that the TSoF decision was understandable.

    I’m not knocking the skills or ability of the people who ran TSoF. I have no doubt that they worked hard and demonstrated a professionalism and succeeded in motivating some teachers to invest time into exploring some of their ideas. This is not a personal attack on the management of TSoF, but more a reflection on what TSoF actually provided vs what we teachers (and our students) really needed.

    Being a teacher in a country school, we availed ourseves of TsOF twice (iirc) in the 8 years or so it was in existence. Once was part of a robot challenge with only 6 or so students. The cost to do so was substantial and included travel, accomodation and the entry costs. We tried to plan more visits but, even with a preferential booking, were not able to secure a date. I visited TSoF personally for T&D activities 6 times or so, mainly delivering to other teachers.

    TSoF, in terms of bang for buck, is a far inferior methodology to providing teachers with the support they require in various areas of technology. Sure it was nice to see an (almost) fully fledged recording studio and run classes through making their own CD, but the number of classes, the number of time slots and the number of schools meant that TSoF was nothing more than a grandiose showcase of what is possible for a select few schools. TSoF just didn’t get out to, in my opinion, the target groups that most needed the facility. The schools that didn’t have the funds to incorporate technology.

    A better plan, used across many schools by many participating teachers saw wider success and uptake at a much lower cost. Word of mouth has seen various schools pick up, for example, data logging and computer based science experiments, movie making and multimedia, interactive databases, digital microscopes, CAD, game making programs and the list goes on. These skills were hard won by teachers prepared to do the research, share their knowledge and work with the internet, industry professionals and so on. With the advent of blogging and moodle spaces, that sharing should be reaching a zenith. Rather than storing our knowledge in a multi-million dollar facility with a multi-million dollar operating cost, amongst a few experts who largely were pushing a sponsored view of what is good (sorry, not meant as criticism, but Lego would have been a tad ecsatatic about the opportunity to promote their product no ?) that on my visits to the facility, noticed, were not utilised fully. A few confused ideas in that sentence ! Audacity has found a niche amongst science teachers and IT teachers not because TSoF
    heralded its’ use in education, but because a brave soul thought he (or she) would offer their expertise in this area and promote the application. Same with Gamemaker. TSoF have grabbed some of those ideas and run with them, but in terms of cost effectiveness and accessibility, are not in the mainstream.
    Recent research into interactive whiteboards does not need a bleeding edge facility to make it happen. Romantically we’d like to look at TSoF and point to the effect it has had in schools, and sure there have been cases where innovation was TSoF led, but realistically, most of the innovation has been school and teacher led.

    I think the model for teacher uptake of ideas and successful adoption of useful technologies is the sniff approach. I tend to sniff at something new and see if it has a useful application in education. There are so many things to sniff though, and TSoF provided a very limited range of aromas.
    Sure TSoF hosted various conferences (or provided the venue for them), but it was the conference presenters (and attendees) who were providing the broad brush view of emerging technologies. And at a budget price too.
    Conferences could be held at one of the more attractive Adelaide schools.
    Probably be cheaper too.

    After one visit the school brought back a number of innovative educational strategies that saw the school dabble in the technology side. These included imac movie-maker and midi-pads. The school invested a considerable amount of money believing, erroneously, that such technologies would change our teaching strategies and be of imeasurable benefit for the students. The mantra was imac over PC, so a PC school with comparable abilities to the iMac, was swayed by the TSoF experience into spending $35k. The fact was that once the glitz and glamour had worn off the new technologies, they sat idle and the school was unable to find the resources (teachers, time and
    money) to pursue them. Teacher moved on, technology ground to a halt. In this regard, TSoF represented the bleeding edge of technology at a scale schools just couldn’t hope to aspire to. A visit to TsOF was a glimpse into what is possible with time, talent and finance but the reality in schools is very different. I would much prefer a group of professionals who are accessible to every school in the state (rather than just the surburban Adelaide schools) be able to guide me with what is achievable in our school, with our resources and what would offer good educational value for money.
    Lego technics is not on that list, neither is trying to build a full scale
    recording studio. Nice, but not educationally effective without the money.
    Someone want to give me a run through the available dataloggers as
    replacements for the science lab ? That’d be nice.

    Meanwhile, back in schools, it has been a nightmare run of technology advancement. Took schools an age to shake off the well intentioned but cumbersome NEXUS heritage, shared land lines into schools, experiments with subsidised consortium computers, utter lack of staff training and technical support, current internet access (shared 256kbs for 250 students and charging them what, 12c a MB ? through the department system !), internet filtering that defies all sense, failure to block spam from student email, the anti-blog saga, the latest saga with internet downtime and schools, by and large, use 90% of their IT facilities to perform basic word processing and internet cut and pasting. Okay, so the 90% was a guess. Give my school decent internet speeds and capabilities, researched and guided by a competent body of professionals and use the TSoF savings (how many millions ?) to pay for it. Our school, btw, still boasts 7/9 building which date back to the 1950’s, which were transportable and temporary buildings then.
    Multi-millions on a showpiece for the government in Adelaide ? We can’t even find a replacement tech or art teacher. TSoF would be nice, sure, but it is a lower priority to my mind that getting the overall SA ICT infrastructure up to standard.

    It was nice to see students getting access to the expensive facilities
    provided by TSoF, access to stuff they might never see in the classroom, but in equity terms, in value for money terms and in big picture terms, I can’t go past seeing TSoF as a big white elephant that succeeded in promoting bleeding edge education in SA for a limited and sometimes easily impressed audience.

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