Taking on the Apple classroom challenge

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Jim Patterson describes the intense activity at his school after it was selected to participate in an IT research project.

There are times in education when teachers are given the opportunity to take a step forward into a new and exciting area of learning. As teachers with much experience and skills, we are often hesitant to take this step. The demands on time, the demands on teaching staff, and the demanding pupils are all very real. There are occasions, however, when we are happy to step forward because there is a genuine belief that measurable educational benefits are achievable for all those involved - teaching staff, students and parents.

St Andrew's High School in Kirkcaldy, Fife, was selected last year to become the first high school in Europe to take part in the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) project. This research initiative, to investigate the relationship between technology and education, was established in the United States in 1985 by Apple Computer.

The research papers highlighted many areas of good practice and sound educational experiences, and almost immediately St Andrew's staff saw the enormous potential. The project offered the school an unexpected challenge - exposing how we teach and what we teach in an attempt to establish the most effective role of technology. It was an offer we could not refuse.

The arrival of our new intake of 12-year-old first years in August 1996 heralded the beginning of a new era - the first ACOT students in Europe. The preparation for this day had been intensive. Establishing the partnership between Apple, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) and Fife Council had to be a high priority for the school for the success of the project. The immediate success of this partnership owes much to the commitment of individuals from each group who devoted much time and effort into launching the project.

We agreed to involve first-year pupils in the project and selected English, German, mathematics and science as the subject areas to work in. We now had to adapt the school timetable. Each teacher was timetabled with two classes and most pupils were involved in the ACOT "experience" across one or more of the selected subjects. In addition, the timetables of the teachers involved were synchronised to allow co-operative teaching at selected times during the week.

Such an arrangement has been an essential ingredient of the success of the project in the US. Co-operative teaching has obvious benefits when dealing with classroom management and pupil learning. Our aims, however, stretch further. The chance to involve our students in work which is multi-disciplinary is both challenging and exciting. We want such work to be an integral part of the project, especially as the research information from the ACOT sites in the US identifies the importance of cross-curricular work.

Of the many hurdles which the school had to clear to start the project, accommodation was the most difficult. For inspiration we visited West High School in Columbus, Ohio. That the ACOT classrooms were adjacent or at least close to each other was seen as a tremendous advantage. The ability to transfer equipment and resources easily between rooms, coupled with the benefits of ease of movement of staff and students provided an ideal learning environment. Back in Scotland, we designated three adjacent classrooms as ACOT rooms. The fourth, a science lab, could not be situated beside the other rooms without a great deal of expenditure. But at least the English, German and maths classes could be neighbours.

It was then necessary to consider what facilities an ACOT room would need to encourage the "correct" learning environment. The rooms were given a fresh coat of paint, new blinds and carpets, and whiteboards were installed to encourage a dust-free zone. Movable computer trolleys were chosen for greater flexibility and mobility. Rewiring was necessary to increase the number of power sockets from two to 25 per room. A similar number of computer sockets were added to allow access to the new network.

The plans for the science lab were slightly more adventurous but were necessary due to the old-fashioned and restrictive layout. ESA Macintosh, a local firm, created an imaginative design which designated one side of the room for traditional science work, the other for technology.

Although only a short way into their three-year plan for the project, the team members can still reflect on what has already been achieved. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the positive attitude to learning which students adopt in class. The additional skills derived from using software such as ClarisWorks 4, HyperStudio and Chronicle allow the students to develop their work in a much more imaginative way.

There will be more excitement with student access to the Internet and video-conferencing facilities. These will be available shortly and already we are preparing for the benefits they will bring, including close contact with all the other ACOT sites across the US, Europe and beyond as the project grows.

Watching students enjoying the resources of the project classrooms is a satisfying experience and suggests that we have already found a key to open one of the doors to effective, challenging and enjoyable teaching and learning.

* Jim Patterson is assistant headteacher and ACOT co-ordinator at St Andrew's High School, Overton Road, Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland

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