Tech Schools reveal how fresh thinking and new technologies transform learning and boost student opportunity

The world that awaits today’s generation of school children will be quite different to the one we know now; it will be mobile, technology enriched, increasingly automated, AI-infused and very, very fast.

It means that the skills and capabilities that young people will need to succeed when they leave school are also changing.

Earlier this year the David Gonski-led Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools noted that; “By the end of schooling, every Australian child needs to emerge as a connected and engaged learner, prepared to succeed in and contribute to a rapidly changing world. This means students must have acquired the basic building blocks of learning, in particular literacy and numeracy skills. They must also have a range of skills providing the job resilience required to be able to adapt and respond to fast-shifting education and workforce needs.”

Marc Blanks is onto it.

Blanks is executive director of the Banyule-Nillumbik and Whittlesea Tech Schools located within Melbourne Polytechnic.

He explains that; “The intent is for secondary students to have an experience of innovation and STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) in a tertiary context that is quite removed from the day to day bricks and mortar school. We have very strong links with industry in the area and run different programs related to the local area.”

Blanks says that the two Tech Schools he oversees are focused on open enquiry, bringing together multi age multi stage students to engage in real world problem solving around issues such as waste, transport and logistics in order to innovate, ideate and prototype solutions.

“The other element in tech schools is having an innovation mindset. It’s not just content and curriculum – but being able to identify problems and work through a process to address the problem. That’s a lifelong skill.”

The Victorian Government has invested $128 million to construct and establish ten Tech Schools across the State, and earmarked a further $28.6 million for them in the 2018 Budget. Established on TAFE or university campuses, Tech Schools are designed to be innovative shared learning environments operated by a partnership of local schools, local government, TAFE, university and industry partners.

School students are enrolled in their normal local school – but can attend classes at the Tech School as well. Set up in a hub and spoke model, local schools work with their nearest Tech School – which also focusses on issues that are relevant to that local area.

Whittlesea Tech School is located at Melbourne Polytechnic’s Epping campus – and after opening in mid 2018 provides an opportunity for more than 12,000 students from 14 participating secondary schools to attend Tech School classes.

The Banyule Nillumbik Tech School meanwhile is based on Melbourne Polytechnic’s Greensborough Campus, and like Whittlesea offers a range of different programs suitable for different ages and abilities.

Microsoft technologies play key roles across both campuses, with more than 100 Surface devices – Pros, Hubs and Studios – already deployed.

“We have been working with Microsoft for almost two years and invested pretty heavily in Surface Hubs and Surface Studios – tools that students would never get access to in their usual school,” says Blanks.

He explains that the Tech Schools have been built from scratch over the last two years, only opening their doors to students earlier this year. When selecting technology, Microsoft was deemed the best choice, not just for the hardware – but also the breadth and depth of solutions delivered through the Microsoft Azure cloud.

Surface Hubs have been deployed across the two schools and are fully utilised by students and teachers. “It’s such a versatile platform, that is why we selected it – the collaboration aspect is just gold. With video conferencing and Skype a team just does not happen on the other systems the way it does on the Hub.

“There’s nothing in the market with that level of functionality that’s so natural to use,” says Blanks.

Teachers have also been rapid adopters of Microsoft Teams which is particularly useful for the collaborative development of curriculum says Blanks.

Curriculum collaboration is critical – so too is ideation and iteration within the Tech Schools – and for this Surface Studio is having real impact. According to Blanks, the combination of screen real estate and stylus on the Surface Studio is proving highly impactful especially “When that first prototype needs to be sketched or storyboarded.

“There is a level of quality we wouldn’t get out of another device because there is often a lot of 3D modelling and CAD style work.”

It’s this practical, impactful and in the end tangible output that often distinguishes what goes on in a Tech School compared to a conventional school.

That for example is why Blanks has started to deploy MakeCode as a creation platform for students and is about to invest in Micro:bits to further extend their options. “It’s very simple but not superficial. The entry point is low but the ceiling is high.”

Microsoft MakeCode is a free, open source platform for creating engaging computer science learning experiences, as a first step toward real-world programming. Using Micro:bit devices which are small programmable computers, students can experiment with their own Make Code software on a real hardware device.

The technology experience is compelling for students – but the physical space and approach to learning is also revolutionary.

Blanks explains; “We don’t reinforce traditional class room structure. We have ideation spaces, creation spaces, digital design labs, green screen rooms. And staff likewise – we’ve not employed strictly only teachers – we have designers and architects and nano technologists.”

The schools that each Tech School works with can go online to see what courses are being offered when, determine which students would benefit, and then send that cohort, along with a teacher for the duration of the course.

“It doesn’t feel like a school. It feels like a design agency,” says Blanks who adds that feedback to date has been very positive.

Importantly the Tech Schools are also designed to be inclusive.

“We have done quite a lot with the local aboriginal community – bringing elders and youth together because the elders felt technology was a barrier to passing on culture. So we have done a bit of work connecting traditional technology to new technology and elders and youth worked together on an interactive installation. It broke the barrier between two generations,” says Blanks.

He also believes the approach sets students up for sustained success, allowing individuals and teams to work at their own pace – with added stretch capacity. One initiative has been a student accelerator program run with the Melbourne Innovation Centre. “We had a group of people that went through a business development program as you would in an accelerator – four students graduated from that and they all got offers for equity.

“We are trying to create a pathway around creativity, innovation and real-world problem solving. We want them to see as they are doing this that it can take you somewhere.”