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Telstra goes back to school

  • 03 August 2012
  • Written by 
  • Published in Profiler

It was the weather that led Telstra’s Susi Steigler-Peters to teaching. As she stood in the university admissions queue at Newcastle University, the science queues were long, the teaching queues shorter, and her friends were agitating to get to the beach, so she signed up for teaching instead.

As luck would have it, education and Steigler-Peters proved a good match.

For the last four years Steigler-Peters has been Telstra’s national general manager, education, responsible for the carrier’s thought leadership in how ICT can be applied to K-12, TAFE and tertiary education. A former classroom teacher and education consultant, Steigler-Peters joined Telstra because; “We were a decade into the 21st century and not much had changed in the education space and we needed to do something about reform. I have a pretty strong reform agenda – structured around business innovation and providing key clear opportunities for customers to get together with Telstra to do some structured experimentation, move away from trials and pilots that are funded for ‘x amount of time’, so that when the funding falls away so does the innovation. We wanted to move away from that and look at what is possible and what can we do in partnership.”

To date under Steigler-Peter’s stewardship Telstra has held a series of education roundtables with schools and education stakeholders; produced a white paper on personalised learning; created an education special interest group under the auspices of the Australian information Industry Association; and is now completing a second white paper on teacher professional learning.  She’s hoping that Telstra’s initiatives will help spawn systemic reform.

“We might be working with the deputy director finance of a particular education system to understand the challenges over 12-24 months then understand some of the immediate pieces of work they are doing and  how Telstra can help in that space. That might be designing and implementing virtual learning environments, or if they are building a new school – what might that new school look like?”

Steigler-Peters is prompting people to; “Rethink schooling models and the business of teaching and learning; to re-examine the practice of teaching.”

She believes that Australia is deeply in need of educational reform, pointing to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessments for Australia which show that; “Things are not as good as they look on the surface and in fact we are starting to slip behind and that has serious implications for the economy and establishment of intellectual capital. There are many competitors in the world and if we become complacent we will perish and I am calling that a malaise, and that has been around for over a decade.

“We are more than a decade into 21st century but what have we done … we should not be waiting for a disaster to occur in order to respond to it. We need to be proactive and establish structured experiments that are sustainable and scalable.”

Improved student engagement; updated teacher professional learning and pedagogical reform; and transformation of the learning environment are all required in order for Australia to lift the bar on education, she says.

Today according to Steigler-Peters Australia is suffering an educational “engagement dip” that can kick off in primary school and last through to years 9 or 10. “That’s reprehensible in a first world economy, we shouldn’t tolerate it but we do tolerate it. At a time when social media and other stimulus are increasing the job in learning environments is harder and harder – how do you engage kids who are over stimulated?

“That has had a serious impact on pedagogy.”

Technology is also challenging chalk and talk teaching models and the nature of learning environments, says Steigler-Peters. She casts teachers as future “learning architects” and says that organisations such as Telstra have the capacity to deliver learning environments which can be wound up and down “like a utility” to support future generations of teachers.

Telstra’s second white paper on education, which is now being finalised will according to Steigler-Peters, set out a roadmap for change that schools, TAFEs or Universities could adopt. She stresses that; “Telstra is not doing this in isolation, we are with a number of schools and have strong buy-in from DEEWR, ACARA, Education Services Australia - all the key agencies responsible for policy and policy settings. That’s essential – to have this conversation exclusive from the policy framework would be a waste of time.”

Steigler-Peters has a deep understanding of education, having spent two decades as a teacher before becoming involved in curriculum and educational consultancy. She has also had first-hand insights regarding the potential for the digital divide to take hold having taught in remote or regional areas such as Broken Hill and Kandos.

It left her with a conviction that; “Being in Broken Hill, should not mean you have less opportunity than a child in a metropolitan area.” But she acknowledges that even schools with access to modern technology have struggled to develop more sophisticated pedagogy that can truly exploit the technology’s capability.

That has been the case with the Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution which this year sees every child in Years 9-12 in a Government school have access to a computer on a 1:1 ratio. While some schools have made good use of the programme, there are plenty of examples of schools where student laptops are being used purely for sharing movies or playing Minecraft.

Steigler-Peters however believes that the DER’s legacy will be that; “It has established an irreversible benchmark that says there is an expectation that a student will receive a device.” It has she says, established a line in the sand, which will be hard to cross, and that ICT vendors including Telstra need to work with educators to maintain that benchmark and also push technology access into school years beyond just 9-12.

Her own schooldays were dramatically different to those experienced in today’s classrooms. One of two children born in Newcastle to German parents, Steigler-Peters’ first language was German and she recalls being rapped over the knuckles in kindergarten for responding to a teacher’s question in her native tongue.

Although she enjoyed sciences at school and had planned to study science at university, a hot admissions day coupled with friends impatient to get to the beach led her instead to enrol for arts and teaching.  After two decades in classrooms, Steigler-Peters branched out into education consulting before being invited to join Telstra.

Now based in Sydney, the mother of two grown offspring, believes that education is currently undergoing profound and important change. “In a year or two we are going to see demands on our learning environments such that learning is happening on the move rather than just between home and school. New devices make possible the capabilities within social media to almost bring it to 3D life – that will have a huge impact on the teaching practice – where does the teacher sit with that?”

Technology might deliver some answers – but it will throw up a raft of fresh questions for educators she says. “If you are going to websites for research – the biggest hurdle is not finding information – but sifting through to find a quality source.

“Chunked learning that goes deep is another challenge. With the swiftness of technology and access to information there is a fear that everything happens too quickly – we need to be able to slow down to take a deep dive otherwise there is the risk of just skimming.

“The information won’t go away but the thought might.”


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