Martin Levins is the Director of Information Technology at the Armidale School, an Apple Distinguished Educator and recently the recipient of the Sutherland Award from the Australian College of Educators.
> Martin, what was the impetus behind your becoming a teacher, and what is it that still motivates you many years later?
At school, I was interested in all sorts of things, but with a leaning towards science and languages, and I wondered why everyone else wasn’t equally interested. (The way that most people reacted to science was to groan and raise their eyebrows.)
Learning to teach seemed the logical way to explore this and, over time, this has evolved into an interest in what makes people want to learn, what happens in their brain and how they can best do it once motivated.
Humans are strange animals – small ones more so – but helping that small human work out who he or she is and hopefully gaining sufficient self confidence to navigate their lives successfully by becoming independent learners is a great privilege. And it’s one that still provides more funny and interesting moments than frustrations.
> You began as a science teacher … why did you move into computers?
In the late 1970s and early 1980s I began to see the potential of computing in education, so I planned a move from science teaching to becoming more involved with computing.
Initially my interests lay with programming and “computing stuff”, because the idea of building a model of a problem and working out solutions was intriguing; it appealed to my scientific and language background. In the early ‘80s I was involved in the state rollout of computers in South Australia and learnt a lot about networking, both personal and technical.
In 1985, I moved from South Australia to The Armidale School, where they had two computers – both in the maths department. Things changed when I presented a plan for IT to our school council, and in 1980 I was granted money to buy 10 computers.
I bought these in the UK to maximise value, as the Australian importer was placing a fairly high markup on imported goods, and I struggled through customs with 10 machines inside a very large suitcase. The money saved allowed me to attend a conference in London and visit several of the leading IT schools in the UK.
I can remember in those early days at TAS where a colleague and I spent hours manipulating data to produce a parent report card that was unlike any other I’d seen: easy to read, informative and quickly produced. We moved on to produce a student information system, and we used students to assist with the programming.
So, some of the boys at TAS became interested in IT, but our implementation was too limiting – a bit too geeky – so we expanded. And, by 1989, we had satellite weather receivers, devices that would decode Teletext from TV, artificial intelligence and musical production systems in place, connected by several kilometres of cable throughout the school.
As I explored the applications of computers beyond programming, I saw how they could empower the user, acting as a sort of prosthesis. For example, I could never draw, but, using something such as an illustration program, I could turn out stuff that I was really proud of.
Suddenly, I could not only draw, but produce music, and edit photographs as well, and when movie making became available on personal computers, I saw yet another empowerment process – an example of “I can” that was impossible without the computer. I became convinced that using this technology could excite learners and empower them to express themselves in many more ways than traditional pen and paper.
It was during this time that I built an association with the University of New England and began a series of annual workshops under the umbrella of UNE’s External Education department, referred to as the Mac Summer Schools. These were very successful, attracting office managers, designers, publishers and photographers. Here, myself and several colleagues probably learnt more than our participants, as we worked to solve their computing problems in what was then a very early period of computers in industry.
The crest of this wave became a perfect storm with the advent of the Internet in the early 90s, culminating with our school’s connection to the Internet in 1993 – the first school in Australia to do so.
It was a very proud moment when some of our Year 9 students used this technology a year later to provide the vision for local television stations of the Shoemaker Levy comet collisions with Jupiter. This was a project that had real a audience and gave our students the opportunity to shine.
> How did you become involved with Apple and become a ‘Distinguished Educator’?
By 1994, TAS had moved to adopt Macintosh computers, as no other machine could provide the sorts of learning experiences described above. Sure, these experiences would eventually come on other machines, but we wanted to provide cutting edge experiences for our students.
Being early to computer and Internet adoption meant that we were pioneering a number of activities, both in technical and curricular terms. For example, in 1996 our Year 9 students designed, implemented and managed what we believe to be the world’s first online conference, held in conjunction with an educational Internet conference at the Hilton hotel in Sydney.
Apple computers had just begun its Australian implementation of their “Classrooms of Tomorrow” project – the seminal reference for any curricular use of IT – and we became involved in delivery of “here’s how I do it” style presentations to other schools.
At this stage, our staff in general became more interested in the curricular potential of computers in learning, and we began a program of professional learning that touched every staff member.
When the Apple Distinguished Educator program became available, I applied, outlining our activities and achievements, and was granted this status some 8 years ago.
At much the same time, our school was recognised as a School of Excellence and used as a referral to others who sought to implement Information Technologies in their schools.
These two appointments meant that a vast, global network of like minded teachers suddenly became available, providing advice, feedback and criticism to assist us in our endeavours to represent best practice in teaching and curriculum design.
This has led to presentation at a variety of national and international conferences.
> What were some of the conferences you attended last year?
It’s important to mention that it’s not just me … Many of our staff are presenters at these conferences – I’m just one of the crowd here, but, having said that, 2008 has indeed been a busy year for me and I thank the school for providing the time for attendance at conferences.
The standouts for this year would include presentations at the International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology in Singapore, the National Educational Computing Conference in San Antonio Texas, the Australian Computers in Education Conference in Canberra and the Innovative Technology Schools’ Conference at the University of Technology, Sydney. In addition, I visited the British Education Technology Trade show in London and the Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
Some of these have become a bit of a busman’s holiday, as I try to stay on top of an incredibly fast moving area. When presenting, I’m forced to research and thoroughly think through the topic, making any implementation in the classroom that much better.
Combining these activities with a monthly education column in Australian Macworld certainly keeps you on your toes!
> Martin, you are also involved in a number of other extra-curricular activities at TAS. What is your role here?
One of the benefits of working in a country school is that you get asked to do interesting things. Our employment at TAS involves much more than just the classroom or the sporting field. While these are important, I believe an education is much more meaningful if it addresses more than just the cerebral and the muscular.
Our activities program is one way of doing this, and I’m lucky to be heading up the Pioneers group in Year 10, where boys are taught to manage themselves in small groups while walking through the Macleay River gorge country. They do this unaccompanied by adults, so need to be sufficiently skilled in navigation, first aid, bushcraft, radio procedure, emergency scenario management and cooking to make this an acceptable risk.
These are skills that are truly valuable.
TAS’ membership of the Round Square Conference of schools takes these ideas of leadership, challenge and adventure to the global stage, and I’ve been lucky enough to take part in, and in some instances, run national and international conferences of students, teachers and school governors.
> All this has contributed to you being awarded the Alan Sutherland Award for a significant contribution to education – in your case more specifically for national and international contributions to information technologies.
What have been some of the personal highlights that have contributed to you receiving this award?
It’s not so much the highlights that I remember as the people I’ve been involved with and those who have taught me. Teaching is a marvellous career: you are kept young (in mind anyway!) by the antics of those in your care, you work with a huge range of personalities, and, if you play your cards right, you have the opportunity to recreate yourself frequently.
Combine that with living in a town that values so highly what you do, and provides such a great physical environment, and you can see how easily such achievements can be had.
> Thank you Martin.