“Nearly everything I do now is aimed at encouraging teachers to embrace innovation in education.” – South Africa
“I really have Microsoft Partners in Learning South Africa to thank for many of my professional achievements,” says Fiona Beal. “They offer a lot of innovative opportunities to teachers in South Africa, and by taking hold of those opportunities and stepping out of my comfort zone I have got to where I am now.” Beal has indeed taken hold of the opportunities in front of her, and has flourished as an educator and advocate.
When Beal was teaching at a primary school as a technology specialist, she became a finalist at the Partners in Learning Forum three times, and a winner for South Africa in 2009. Her winning project, “Bonding through Blogging,” led her to the Pan African Finals in Mauritius, and then on to the Global Forum in Brazil. “My main thrust at that time was to integrate technology with what the teachers were doing in class, exploring all the new web 2.0 technologies, getting the students to write in innovative ways and connecting them to global projects,” says Beal. She worked to get every grade in the school participating in a global project, sometimes combining two projects together (such as a Thinkquest project and an Adobe Youth voices movie making project).
“These experiences ignited my passion for technology integration, project-based learning and 21st century thinking,” says Beal. “I also see these as achievements as I interested my students in joining these projects.”
In July 2011, Beal was selected as one of the 50 teachers from around the world to attend the inaugural Partners in Learning Institute in Seattle. It was here that she was introduced to the TeachMeet idea, and then brought it to South Africa from the partners in Learning Institute.
After returning from the PiL Institute, Beal’s focus changed from teaching students to working alongside teachers throughout South Africa as a technology integration facilitator with Schoolnet SA. “I am able to share what I have learned on a much larger scale,” says Beal. “I love reaching out to teachers and seeing them embrace 21st century skills and technology use in their curriculum. My philosophy is ‘connect, give and share, and everyone benefits’.” Beal currently maintains the Schoolnet blog, and also directs their social networking, including Twitter (@schoolnetsa), their Facebook page, YouTube channel and Diigo links. Beal encourages the growth of TeachMeets in South Africa, and also creates short, free, one month, online courses that offer a certificate of completion for teachers in South Africa – classes like Create a Classroom Blog, Create your own Wiki, Prepare a Project for the PIL Forum, Microsoft’s Amazing Free Tools and Get the most out of Google Docs. She also creates Slideshares, leads weekly webinars, runs face-to-face workshops on blogging, writes a regular newsletter, and reports on TeachMeets on the SchoolNet blog, among other things. In short, Beal’s dedication to mentoring other educators is world-class.
Today, Beal shares her insights on advancing educational technology throughout her country and how to make the most of even meager resources to innovate in classrooms.
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
South Africa is slow to get on to the technology integration boat, especially in the large number of under-resourced schools that make up the bulk of public education. Many of them don’t have electricity, let alone Internet or computers. The fact that I work for SchoolNet in this newly created position (Schoolnet is known for training teachers and we work very closely with Microsoft, as well as the Department of Education) gives my offerings more influence. Many educators are joining Schoolnet as premium members (a free membership). I think my ideas and courses have helped educators in South Africa as I get many letters of thanks. I love connecting people with one another, building up communities of learning, and making things happen by encouraging and promoting others. I especially love it when I see teachers who have so few resources getting on board.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I think the key is sharing what you know and learning as much as you can from others. I share whatever I have learned very freely (in keeping with the spirit of the social networking age) so consequently anything I have I give away. For example, I construct my online courses in such a way that I use Slideshares, and a blogging platform or wiki, so that educators can pass this on to their students or staff when they do their own training. If everyone gives away whatever they learn so many more educators will be enriched.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I give support to teachers by helping them embrace and implement technology and I make
sure I try out the webtools before promoting them. Social media is a great way to apply technology. Nearly everything I do now is aimed at encouraging teachers to embrace innovation in education.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
In public education in South Africa, the biggest problem is budget for education. Consequently there is a lack of resources, lack of technology, and many, many children have been lost to a poorly managed system.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
Public (ex-model C schools) and private schools are progressing well and reaching out to others. Various individuals are taking the initative and are fighting tirelessly to encourage businesses to support education.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
Currently our education system is undergoing a number of court cases involving mismanagement. Ideally, the government needs to value education more and make sure that children get a good education, regardless of their backgrounds. There should be more support for floundering teachers, and resources such as electricity and libraries provided at all schools. Then there should be a move towards providing technology in schools and equipping teachers to use it. There needs to be a change in perception to bring about a culture of learning in South Africa.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Technology with Internet use provides the best opportunity for innovation in education. Once access to technology is in place then it’s a matter of incorporating project-based learning into the curriculum and getting involved in global projects.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Connect with your students, support them tirelessly and introduce them to technology in whatever ways you can. Join Twitter and start creating a personal learning network for ideas and support. Create your own professional development opportunities by supporting a technology-integration movement such as a TeachMeet or Twitter edchat in your area to be connected to other communities of learning. Attend technology conferences. Get involved with your country’s Partners in Learning network. Use a classroom learning system to connect with your students and include their parents. Create a classroom blog and get involved in online global projects.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
Social networking without a doubt is one of the best ways of connecting with others and helping students.
Over-assessment is killing teachers (and students) and prevents them from enjoying the excitement that 21st century education can offer.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
It would definitely be a tablet. I think tablets are the way forward. The reason I would choose a tablet is that it is easy to maintain and work on, would eliminate the need for paper, and would keep students progressing by linking them to the Internet. I think the Internet is one the greatest achievements imaginable and should be every child’s right!
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About Fiona Beal
Birthplace: Mufulira, Zambia
Current residence: Fish Hoek, South Africa
Education: BA degree and a HDE teachers diploma
Website I check every day: Twitter, http://www.freetech4teachers.com/
Person who inspires me most: (I have different people for different aspects of my life.) A previous principal, Mr. Arthur Hill, encouraged us to step out of the box, share with
other schools and get involved in the wider education in SA. That started my journey of connecting and sharing.
Favorite childhood memory: I was horse-mad in my childhood and basically lived for my horses. My favorite memories center around my two horses and our adventures together.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I would LOVE to visit the United States
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Well, I laugh a lot! The last time I laughed was just now when my daughter showed me some fashion shoes that have mice faces on them. She said they are very popular. So we had a good laugh and I commented on the innovativeness of the idea!
Favorite book: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Favorite music: South African artist Johnnie Clegg
Your favorite quote or motto: “You are responsible for your life, and doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” –Oprah Winfrey
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” –Alan Kay