Assistive technology

In yesterday’s blog post I talked a bit about the assistive technology that my son has received to help with his learning due to him having low vision. I had shared the link to the article in which my son stars using the CCTV on Twitter a few days ago and I got this response:

I loved this idea of making assistive technology normal! Why should only those with specific needs have access to these tools? Why should it not be normal for all?

Ocular albinism & BLENNZ

Me and Miss2On Wednesday my wife and I found out that our youngest child (girl – nearly 3) has ocular albinism – a genetic eye condition where there is a reduced amount of pigment in the retina. Apparently my wife is a carrier of the condition, but she has no issues with her sight. It’s not new for our family however, as our eldest son (7) also has it and we have known he had vision difficulties since he was only a few weeks old.

So what does it mean for them? Well, for our son (who vision is worse than our daughter) it means that he has difficulty focusing on things. It takes quite a lot of effort for him to focus. Glasses help, but do not fully overcome the problem. At school he gets tired relatively quickly as a lot of his energy is going in to focusing on what he needs to see. He has no depth perception. A good indication of his vision is when his Mum was standing on one side of the road with someone else and he was on the photo (3)other side, he knew there were two people there but could not make out who was who.

Right from the time our son was 9 months old however, we have had the support of BLENNZ and their RTVs. BLENNZ is the Blind and Low Vision Education Network New Zealand – they are a school in their own right, but they have RTVs (Resource Teacher of Vision) who go and work with and support children with vision difficulties (not just ocular albinism) from before school age and right through school. They work with and support their teachers and help in getting any assistive technology that will support the children in their learning.

BLENNZ learning libraryOur son since being at school has had the use of a few different pieces of technology. Firstly he has a dome magnifier that he can move over a page that he’s reading and it will magnify the text for him. Yes – it’s a magnifying glass, but in the shape of a dome. One advantage of this is that he doesn’t have to get right above it to see. Secondly he had the use of a CCTV. You can read more about that in this article from the BLENNZ Learning Library in which he stars! The CCTV, I think, made a big impact on his learning. It certainly made it easier to keep up with others in his class. He is quite bright, but his vision slows him down. When he has the technology to assist him, he is able to keep up.

(Here is a video about the BLENNZ Learning Library if you are interested – well worth a watch)

This year his awesome RTV helped get him an iPad, along with a Bluetooth keyboard and a airprint enabled printer/scanner. Now he can have class reading books made available to him as ebooks in which he can enlarge the print as much as he needs to. He can have any worksheets scanned and emailed to his iPad. He can take photos of work on the board and enlarge it (he struggles to see the board). He can do his written work on the iPad without having to try to see the faint lines in an exercise book.

Not only do BLENNZ work in the classrooms, but they organise curriculum days where they can get together with other students of low vision and learn with them. Earlier this year my son and I went up to Auckland for a zoo trip with several other children – it was fantastic! BLENNZ support the parents also with tips and guidance on what will help the children. Yesterday his new RTV took him (and me) fishing to teach him some new skills! He caught 7 fish!

My wife and I are really grateful for the excellent work that BLENNZ do. They are making such a difference for our son, and we look forward to the awesome work continuing with our daughter.

E-learning or learning?

I’ve heard quite a few people say that there is, or should not be, e-learning. It is just learning. While I agree with them in principle I believe it is important at this stage that we keep the ‘e’. Yes, while our job as educators is to teach / facilitate / guide (whatever term you prefer) students in their learning, and no, it’s not – or shouldn’t be – about the tools that we use, I believe that technology should be integrated into teaching and learning. The problem I see, is that although there are some teachers and schools doing this well, there are many others that have not even begun this journey.

There are probably many reasons why some have not taken up integrating technology into their teaching. Perhaps they are scared of it, or scared of doing something wrong/breaking it. Perhaps they don’t have time to learn it. Maybe they don’t believe it is necessary. It could be that getting through ‘the curriculum’ is most important to them. Personally, I believe (and I mentioned this in a recent post) if we don’t integrate technology, we’re disadvantaging our students.

Until it’s the norm for teachers to integrate technology into their teaching, then the ‘e’ needs to stay there. We need to show teachers that integrating e-learning/technology into their teaching is just a standard part of the job now. I think we also need to demonstrate to our wider school communities that e-learning does not mean our students, our children will be sitting in front of a screen all day, effectively cut off from the rest of the world. I believe this is a common misconception about e-learning (although it’s possibly legitimate in some circumstances). It’s about using technology to enhance the learning experience. It’s about using the tools we now have to expand our students creativity, their imagination. It’s about showing our students that with some of these tools that can do and be things they never imagined.

Yes, we need to drop the ‘e’ from e-learning. But not yet. For a while longer it needs to be separated to show what can be done with technology and to encourage more to jump in.

NZ Mission to Mars – KiwiMars

Today’s blog post is a guest post from my good friend and colleague, Bruce Ngataierua (@bruceyn). It outlines his recent ‘mission to Mars’.

IHi my name is Bruce Ngataierua and I was involved in a analogue simulation mission called KiwiMars 2012. The mission was to send 6 people to live in a simulated environment that would be analogous to living on the surface of Mars.

We travelled to the USA and stayed in a place called the Mars Desert Research Station (M.D.R.S) in the middle of the Utah desert. We undertook many activities that simulated what it would be like to actually live on Mars like eating dried packaged food like astronauts eat, walking around in simulated space suits and conserving our resources like water.


The landscape was an awesome sight and it was like nothing I had experienced before. It was a strange “alien” world of hills and rocks and walking around in a space suit was a bit strange as it made you aware of all your senses. You could hear your breath and you could only communicate to others effectively through your radio link.



The mission went from 23 April to 5 May 2012 and the main objective was an education and outreach programme where students from New Zealand would interact with the crew on how they found their experiences during the mission

The other objective was to produce resources in the Planet Earth and Beyond (PEB) strand of the Science curriculum to help teachers and students in the teaching, learning and engagement of space sciences in New Zealand E

Lesson Plans were planned under a range of topics including:

We communicated with mission control in NZ at Carter Observatory everyday during the mission dates and I spoke with over 500 students either at mission control or online inquiring about the how the mission was going.

Common questions asked included…

  • The environment and living conditions
  • Food
  • What we saw and did

Resources are still being developed post mission and the possibility of being involved with another project called “Spaceward Bound”. This is a possible “Space Camp” idea here in NZ with the help of NASA personnel to train our students.




Overall the mission was a great success and we had an awesome time. It was certainly a unique experience that could have “far reaching” possibilities for the future of space exploration in our future.

KiwiMars website

Bruce let me know that if you want to ask any questions about his time away, please feel free to contact him through twitter or leave a comment below. Also if you want Bruce (or another crew member) to visit your school then please get in touch with him.

Continuing to learn…

As a teacher, it is so important that we continue to learn and be willing to learn! Along with this is that we have to do what Ardis Cochrane suggested at the International Conference on eLearning Futures 2011 a couple of weeks ago. She suggested that:

teachers need to be respected as learners

This is so important for those who are involved in eLearning in some way – particularly promoting it with teachers in your school or organisation. Some teachers are nervous when it comes to using ICT and they need to be given time, space and support to learn how and when to use it appropriately.

Of course the experts also need to be continually learning, so I thought I would share a couple of the ways I try to continually learn.

  • As you can see, I go to conferences. To be honest I’ve only been to one this year. It was good, but conferences can be quite expensive so might not always be possible to attend. Conferences of course are great for networking.
  • Blogs – I read blogs, and quite a few of them. I follow blogs of academics, teachers and educational technologists. Using the RSS feeds and an RSS reader such as Google Reader it’s not too difficult to keep up with blogs. I also use an iPad app called Flipboard where I can read the blogs a bit like a magazine. It’s a good, enjoyable way to find out what’s going on in the educational world.
  • Twitter – this is probably the key way I find out things that are going on. I don’t follow just anybody. Again, I pick teachers, principals, academics and so on that relate to the topics I am interested in (education, eLearning etc). Twitter, like conferences is great for networking. I’ve ‘met’ quite a few people on Twitter that I chat to and they give me advice/suggestions etc that are very valuable. (I wrote a blog about Twitter some time ago…)

I hope this is useful to someone. I’ve also been doing some extra-mural study and just completed my Postgraduate Diploma in Education. Next year I am hoping to complete my Master of Education (eLearning). The learning continues!

As much as possible don’t keep your learning to yourself! It needs to be shared with others!

As Steve Wheeler said at the conference:

Knowledge is like love. You can give it away and still get to keep it.

Engagement vs Learning

Ever since I started teaching I’ve kept hearing this word ‘engagement’.

“Are your students engaged?”

“This will get your students engaged.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see them engaged, but what I’ve been wondering about recently is whether we can actually say that because a student is engaged, they are learning.

I happened to be at an ERO information evening as a Board member the other night, and they mentioned that one thing they look at, along with student achievement is student engagement. I straight away wondered, ‘how can they measure engagement?’ – particularly as they come in and take a ‘snapshot’ view of a school at a particular time.

In my view, student engagement is not quantifiable unless you can link it explicitly to achievement. Engagement can usually only be seen with anecdotal evidence. I have seen whole classes of students engaged… – in a DVD that the teacher has put on for them. Are they learning anything in particular? Probably not. Are they engaged – you bet! (And no, I’m not talking about a media/film studies class here!)

I guess I kind of know the answers to my question. We are, of course, talking about students being ‘engaged in learning’. And that should possibly be clarified in a classroom as ‘engaged in on-task learning’ as they could quite well be learning through sending (unrelated to the class) text messages to their mates. To find out if students really are engaged will take a range of formative and summative assessment also, but this does come back to my question about ERO taking a snapshot of a school – how do they measure engagement?

So, this is quite a disjointed post with some random thoughts of mine on engagement – but I guess I would argue that student engagement does not necessarily equate to student learning, but hopefully it does. What I would say though, is that if we want to increase engagement (and hopefully as a result, achievement) then we need to begin (or continue) to look at providing authentic learning activities and experiences to our students that they can relate to in real life. Continuing to allow learner-centred learning will help also.

What do parents want their children to know when they leave school?

My wife and I have 5 children and I asked her this question late last night. Do you know what she didn’t say? She didn’t say, “I want them to know lots of stuff”.

Why am I telling you what she didn’t say? Because the ‘stuff’ is still what our curriculum seems to be full of. The ‘stuff’ is what I still feel like I need to get into my students’ heads so that they can achieve this standard or that standard. At the end of the day, in order for our students/children to succeed by gaining a qualification, they need to know ‘stuff’. Yes, I realise they need to be able to apply it in different situations, but ultimately, we as teachers have all these things we need to teach our students before they finish the year or sit the final assessment/examination.

So what did she say that she wants our children to know when they leave school? Here is some of what she (and I – since we happen to fortunately be in agreement on this!) said:

  • we want our children to be confident and competent in basic literacy and numeracy
  • we want our children to be able to think for themselves
  • we want them to be able to work successfully both independently and collaboratively
  • we want them to be able to communicate confidently, clearly and effectively (this could be orally, or by pen or technology – text message, IM, facebook or similar etc)
  • we want our children to know how to learn
  • we want our children to be critical thinkers and to be able to ask effective questions
  • we want them to know how to search for answers to their questions

There was probably more and if I’ve missed anything crucial my wife will add to this list I’m sure.

I guess, if I was going to put it in one sentence:

When our children leave school we want them to be prepared for their future, having the skills to survive and succeed, and knowing how to think and learn in order to overcome challenges that may come their way.
What do you think? If you have any views or opinions on this, it would be great to hear from you. Just leave a comment below.

Make learning fun!

You know, this is going to sound really obvious – but we need to make learning fun!

Have a look at this Volkswagen ad and think about the learning we get our students to do. Is it enjoyable? Are we presenting it in a unique, interesting way that would compel them to learn? Is there a purpose to learning?


Early Childhood Education & Technology

It was very interesting to read this article from today about early childhood education providers using Nintendo Wii and Skype in their centres. This was especially interesting after reading a blog post from Educational Origami about what age was appropriate for children to be using social networking.

In the article we are seeing technology being used in early childhood centres in a way that promotes both education and exercise. The Nintendo Wii is a very useful piece of technology that can get kids moving, especially in the wet winter days that we are getting at the moment. My sister, who lives in Australia, bought a Nintendo Wii for her children for this reason – keeping her kids active during the very hot summer days where it is sometimes better to stay inside an air-conditioned room. I must admit, that right now I would love for our family to have a Wii, as our kids are getting a bit crazy with all this rain! Of course the other good aspect of the Nintendo Wii at this age is that it helps build motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

The kids were using Skype also to video call other kindergarten children around the world! Well, in my view that is absolutely fantastic! The kids are getting a grasp of technology, able to learn about other cultures, countries and possibly languages. They get to meet new and different people and getting to make at least a little sense of the world!

All of this interaction is being closely monitored and it needs to be. As the article suggests there are critics of these schemes however we really do need to look at both sides of the situation. There is some good teaching and learning to be done with this technology. I would certainly be happy for my children to be experiencing this sort of learning at kindergarten or school. And just like everything, it needs to be balanced. It should not totally replace other activities.

One bonus for educators in primary and secondary schools is that the students themselves will already have started to learn about cyber safety and privacy.

Teachers’ Domain

Teachers' Domain®

I discovered Teachers’ Domain yesterday while browsing another site. On here is a stack of digital media, sorted by subject, topic and grade level. It’s a US site, but any teacher can sign up for free. You do need to register with your school name, but as long as you select your country and have your zip code handy you should be able to find your school.

This website is well worth the visit and registration. You are allowed to download and use the content contained on here. It even has some lesson plans and a whole lot of other stuff.