Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sustainability and e-learning at Hawker Primary School

Hawker Primary School was open Saturday as part of Sustainable House Day. The students gave me a guided tour of their award winning recycling programs. One of the teachers then gave me a tour of the facilities. The school has much to teach the general community about sustainability and higher education about how to do flexible learning.


The students grow vegetables in a central sheltered courtyard of the school. Food scraps are recycled using two very neat wooden worm farms. Woody material is recycled in compost bins and material not suitable for the worms go to chickens. The students grow vegetables and enterprisingly sell these to the parents. There is a perpetual "golden bucket" trophy awarded to the best class and smaller awards to individuals for efforts. The students teach other schools about how to do all this (as I know myself, keeping a work farm going takes some effort). The students could, and probably do, teach their parents about sustainability, with a row of sustainability awards to the school near the front door.

Classroom design

The school was designed in the early 1970s under then then current open plan ideas of education. According to their web site:
"Hawker has an open plan design which has the library at the centre of the school leading into spacious class units. The school was designed by a team of local architects and designers as an inclusive and flexible learning environment."
The architects were obviously science fiction fans, with the design resembling an orbiting space station. The library forms the central hub, with classrooms like pods around the outside. The doorways between the modules are curved, resembling airlocks. None of the detracts from the utility of the building and adds a little excitement over the usual utilitarian architecture of most schools.

There are no doors between the library and the classrooms, with most of the teaching spaces being open to each other. Instead the few walls and changes in orientation of the teaching spaces are used to separate them visually. There are two terraced theatres, with the steps covered in carpet in place of chairs. The least successful space is an assembly hall which has a high wooden stage and hard floor, which looks out of place with the rest of the soft curved building and could do with remodelling.


There are clusters of old, but usable and well used, CRT equipped computers in several areas of the school. These are on individual small rectangular tables in rows. Aesthetically the rectangular tables are out of character with the rounded building and trapezoidal furniture but are functional (they could do with some Jelly Bean Desks).

There are several interactive white boards installed in the teaching spaces. These consist of a ceiling mounted projector (protected by a steel cover), wall mounted screen, desktop computer and, in some cases, a flatbed scanner. The screens are touch sensitive and allow a more natural point-and-talk interface than using a mouse and keyboard would. There are DVD drives for playing video on screen and Internet access.

Particularly for primary education, dollar for dollar, interactive white boards are a more useful educational investment than computers for students. An interactive whiteboard costs about five times as much as a computer for a student. However, the interactive whiteboard can be used by a whole class and provides a group learning experience. One deficiency of the federal government's Digital Education Revolution, or at least the perception of it, has been it concentrates on computers for individual students, not technology for group learning.

Over the last year I have been looking at e-learning for ICT professionals at university, including flexible design of learning environments. One thing I found, and confirmed by the visit to Hawker, is that higher education has much to learning about flexible learning from the schools and TAFEs in Australia. University educators, partiuarly those at research orgentated institutions, need to put their pride to one side and learn from those with practical experience.

Energy saving from computers

Hawker Primary School would like to minimise their energy use with computers. I have suggested they look at the Computers Off Australia program, which has instructions on how to set the Power Management features in computers. One problem is that the ACT Education Department has a system to automatically backup systems. This requires some computers to be left running after hours so the data on them can be backed up remotely. The ACT Government needed to invest in the technology to be able to do this without leaving the computers turned on all the time. This will increase the complexity of the system management, but is possible and worthwhile.

Another, but more expensive, way to reduce energy consumption would be to replace the computers at Hawker Primary School with new more energy efficient models. It would be worth seeing if other manufacturers are bringing our models similar to the ASUS Eee Box, low power desktop PC. These units can be attached to the back of an LCD screen and would free up a considerable amount of space in the classroom.

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