The Fulbright program encourages its distinguished teachers to attend professional development during their time overseas, so I was grateful to receive a grant to participate in a workshop in Malaysia. I arrived on Thursday and on Friday I enjoyed a great tour of Nexus International School in Putrajaya, about 30 minutes from Kuala Lumpur. This school has a strong vision with a focus on leveraging technology to help prepare students for the future. Technology in education can get a bad rap, often for good reasons. Too many districts have spent large sums of money for equipment such as SMART Boards and iPads, only to see them gather dust because teachers were not prepared to use them, there aren’t any funds to repair them when they stop working, they quickly become obsolete, and many other reasons.
Sure, there is often a brief period of excitement when students say they are more motivated in school thanks to the new technology. However, that period will not last if teachers are not trained in using technology in ways that actually increase student learning. Teachers also need time to collaborate and plan lessons that cross disciplines, since real-world problems are rarely isolated to one field of study.
Nexus International School was founded in 2007 and began with a focus on technology. The classrooms and meeting areas are designed to be collaborative. Even though there is a fairly high turnover in the student and staff population, the curriculum seems to be very consistent from year to year.
From what I observed, a key to their success is the leadership at the school. There is an “IT” department, but it is different from most I have seen. The specialists in this department are former teachers who meet regularly with grade-level teams to discuss curriculum. They map out each grade’s plan for the year and design lessons that will best meet the needs of students. They coordinate lessons so that students do not end up doing a movie project, for example, in three different subjects. Rather, they focus on helping teachers find connections between subjects so that technology can be used to integrate the disciplines. Finally, they also teach. These experts have designed and taught courses to help students acquire the necessary skills for future projects.
During our tour, we saw many students using technology, but many were not. Being a technology school does not mean that students are on devices all the time. It is important for students to see the technology as a tool and to know that sometimes a paper and pencil, a handwritten note, or a traditional book are better.
It has taken many years and a lot of resources for Nexus to develop this program, and they will be the first to admit that they are not perfect. For example, they are trying to find ways to have middle and high school teachers do more integrated projects. They have also had limited success with creating authentic work that students can apply to the real world, but they are always making improvements. What I observed at Nexus was very real and achievable. I hope that more educators can look to schools like Nexus to see what is possible when integrating technology into teaching and learning.
I also spent all day Saturday and Sunday at the DEEP Learning Conference, hosted by Nexus, with over 100 educators from around Asia. I attended six mini-sessions and three extended, or deep learning, sessions each day. That’s eighteen engaging and hands-on experiences all about the meaningful integration of technology in the classroom. I’ve decided to come to the nearest mall (they’re everywhere in Malaysia) and begin the process of reflecting on the weekend over some chai tea and strong wifi. I am lucky to be able to have some time off to travel in Malaysia this week, but the other teachers are flying/driving home to get back to school tomorrow. It has been a fantastic weekend with a dedicated group of educators.