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First Paperless School in ASIA

Fri, 17th May 2013
Saint Paul’s School has entirely replaced textbooks and chalk with computers. (May 2013)

Conventional images of a school classroom involve a teacher using a blackboard and chalk, whilst the students earnestly take notes and study from textbooks.

In the new digital age, however, schools are increasingly using computers to help with teaching and learning.

One school in Macao has taken this development a step further. Saint Paul’s School has entirely replaced textbooks and chalk with computers.  About 760 of its 3,000 students are going paperless in the new term this year. The students are young children and teenagers, from primary four, form one and form four. The school aims to introduce such e-learning to all students from primary four to form five gradually.

The high-tech classrooms of Saint Paul’s are wired up to allow students and teachers to interact without a pen or paper. Each student has a tablet computer on which he or she can read what the teacher is writing on the big electronic screen mounted on the wall. A typical lesson involves much to-and-fro discussion between students and the teacher, with all writing and reading done via computers.

Father Alejandro Salcedo described his co-educational Catholic school where he is Principal as “the largest paperless school in the region, and probably the only one of its kind in Asia and Europe”.

In its brochure, the school describes its “portable classrooms” as a “full immersion into information and communication technologies (…) enabling student access to an entire curriculum from a single, light portable device anywhere any time”.

Journey to e-learning

The school set its sights on e-learning a decade ago. “Digital technology was already being used in hospitals, industry and everywhere else. We saw the need in education as well,” he said. In 2009–2010, proposals were being drafted, with a focus on improving the quality of education.

Much time was spent on the choice of computers. “We had to consider what the best tool was:  a desk top, an iPad or a tablet computer,” he said. After much comparison of different models and brands, the school decided on Lenovo’s ThinkPad X230T 12.5-inch tablet computer. The company joins Microsoft in providing the computers and the software at a discount.

In the academic year 2010–2011, the school rolled out a pilot scheme involving  three classes of about 120 students for the teaching of only two subjects, English and Mathematics.

The test was a success. “The kids are much happier, more motivated and more active in class. We were not expecting miracles, but the response was generally positive,” said the principal.  A specialist education and computer-technology team from Macau Science and Technology University was closely monitoring and reviewing the project.

In its 275-page report, it said the e-classes had improved the relationship between students and teachers. E-classes were more lively and interactive than the others; and the quality of teaching had improved, it said. 

About 50 million patacas have been invested in this pioneering  project, jointly funded by the school and the government. 

Manel Machado, Director in charge of technology, said each classroom is equipped with advanced computer facilities, such as special lighting, wireless microphones, a projector and a camcorder.

“The project has been successful because of all concerned: our teachers put in extra hours to learn the new technology, students participate in class , parents are open-minded about e- learning and the government supports us with financial and other resources,” he said.

Empowering students and parents

This year, e-learning at Saint Paul’s is moving faster, involving the teaching of all subjects in 18 classes. This has attracted the attention of other schools in the region. “We have visitors from Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong watching closely what we have done so far,” Father Salcedo said.

The e-learning project is a natural development of the school’s 15-year development plan called ‘Empowering Students for an Open Society’ (ESOS), he said. Started in 2000, ESOS aims for the school to embrace new educational trends. ESOS is designed “to help young people become more effective students by being in control of their own education and involving parents in the education of their children,” states the school brochure.

This manifesto may sound vague, but the school has introduced changes that seem bold for one that is situated in a traditional low-to-middle-income area. 

The school has opened its doors to parents, allowing them to join in the classes whenever they choose to. “We believe parents have the right to know what we are teaching. They are stakeholders of the school. We are here not to educate but to help them educate their kids,” he said.

Students are asked to organise their own associations to run their own affairs, ranging from extra-curriculum activities to student discipline. They are even asked to evaluate how well teachers fare in classrooms.

“We want to change the culture of traditional Chinese schools. At present, in evaluating our students’ performance, exam results account for only 60% of the grade. The rest is dependent on daily assessment, such as the student’s assignments, his or her participation in class and in group tasks. We’ll eliminate more exams in the future and shift more of the emphasis to day-to-day assessment. This is our Classroom 2012 Project, which allows us to focus on what students are learning, rather than what teachers are teaching,” said Father Salcedo.

E-learning fits well into this modern philosophy of the school.

Students have to actively participate in class. When the teacher asks a question, students need to write the answers on their computers; the answers are then instantly loaded onto the big screen for viewing by all. They can surf freely designated websites, but not those not related to the content of the class.

Students also need to grade the class, based on how much they understand the teaching; their grading appears instantaneously on the teacher’s computer and allows the teacher to adjust the pace and content of the teaching as needed.  

Students do not need to scribble notes in class, as all teaching materials are sent to them via the Internet. There are no textbooks either; students are asked to do research on a subject matter before class.

In class, they are often divided into groups, sometimes to make a video of their discussion on a chosen subject. In fact, classes are recorded, to allow students and even parents to revise what has been taught later at home.

An end to ‘stuffed-duck’ approach

All these measures are a far cry from the so-called ‘stuffed-duck’ education of highly disciplined, strict rote learning found in traditional Chinese societies.

John Cheong, 13, said his English has much improved with the new teaching style, while his colleague, Daisy Chan, also 13, said she likes not having to carry heavy textbooks to school now. 

Another student added, “We can now share with each other what we have done. Learning is now more interesting for me and I also no longer need to take notes during class.”

A few students interviewed, however, said their eyes got tired more easily since using the tablets. The school is aware of this hazard and has installed a special lighting system which is more friendly to the eyes. Classes are also scheduled to allow some breaks from using the computers.

Teachers are being trained to switch from traditional talk-and-chalk to the state-of-the-art tablet technology.

Sue Tai, who teaches English to Form 5 students, admits that the beginning was not easy. “I was afraid that I might press the wrong key. After a year of practice, I find it much easier and am exploring further into the endless possibilities.” 

She added that e-learning has helped students to be more independent in their studies and made classes more interesting for them.

One parent said, “My son used to forget what homework he had to do. Now, I can easily find out what his assignments are by checking on his computer. Generally, I have a better idea of what he has been taught at school.”

Another parent said, “At first, I was a bit apprehensive as I knew little about computers. But the school provided parents like me with training and now I see that it is a very advanced way of teaching. Students can now learn more than books can offer. When students do not understand something in class, teachers can step in immediately and help. I am very supportive of the change.”

Father Salcedo noted that many students come from modest families. “Their parents may not be able to afford piano or ballet lessons for them, but here, they will have a well-rounded 15 years of education. I want the kids to be proud of our school.” With the school ahead of many in e-learning, they surely have good reason to hold their heads high.

By Louise do Rosario

Photos by Eric Tam

(Issue N. 16, May 2013)