In Focus: Sonia Montiel Lopez, PhD Researcher

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Digital natives | Formal education | Pedagogy

We are constantly being told of the shifting landscape in which we live and engage with others. Our social experiences are seemingly dominated by the devices and platforms we use to make contact with one another, perhaps at times, to the detriment of quality. Into this new maelstrom of our digital age come the ‘digital natives’, the generation that sees technology as a series of required tools and not just options. These are the children of Gibraltar, the leaders and opinion formers of future years who will be key to shaping our community.

It seems especially relevant then that PhD student Sonia Montiel should focus her research on developing an understanding of the impact technology is having, and will have, on the way our students learn. In 2015 it was reported that 82% of the population of Gibraltar had internet access. The amount of digital knowledge readily available to anyone with a computer, smart ‘phone or tablet is almost without limit. Knowledge and learning sit literally at our finger tips where the tangible world of education meets the virtual reality of connectivity. This is not a sea change it is simply a restructuring of all we know and how we access and use that knowledge.

Sonia’s research seeks to understand this shift: ‘We are moving swiftly from the traditionally passive approach to teaching and learning, with its heavy reliance on memory, to an approach that places less emphasis on what information we can retain and brings focus to how we can apply what we know to new situations. We need to arm Gibraltar’s children with the skills they will need to effectively manage and apply ever increasing amounts of information in order to solve the complex problems that we face now and in the years to come’.

International organisations such as OECD and UNESCO, as well as leading educational thinkers such as Sir Ken Robinson and Dr Linda Darling-Hammond, give weight to the widely recognised problem that, globally, our education systems are not keeping up with the shift onto a different, experiential landscape driven by the digital age. New, fundamental personal skills are required to navigate it. This means an understanding of what we call the 4 C’s: Communication; Collaboration; Critical Thinking with Problem Solving and Creativity.

Highly relevant and invaluable to everyone they remain inexplicably absent from the curriculum. Inspiring teachers are trying to invigorate children’s learning by finding creative and innovative ways to not only to meet the diverse learning needs of pupils, but to engage them in developing these vital skills. Many are looking to technology in all its forms as a way of providing stimulating, relevant lessons which demand higher, more relevant, level thinking skills.

‘‘I want my research to bring practical value direct to Gibraltar, to support the development of how we prepare our ‘digital natives’ for the future.’

Undertaking a PhD is no small commitment but what certainly supports the work involved is that Sonia has twenty years’ experience of teaching in Gibraltar; she understands the changes happening in education. With a strong belief that societal shifts have rendered our current memory based, test-led education system as wanting, her attention is firmly fixed on an exploration of how the use of mobile technology in schools is impacting the approach to teaching and learning. In short, are we undergoing an organic and intuitive fostering of a 21st century education system.

‘My research aims to analyse how technology is shaping the teaching and learning in a Middle School in Gibraltar. Specifically, it aims to generate a theory to provide an understanding of the role technology plays in developing 21st century skills and its impact on student engagement. This will ultimately inform practice in Gibraltarian schools in order to ensure our students acquire the skills that they need to prepare them for the jobs and technologies of the future’.

Sonia worked as both a special needs co-ordinator and now as a head teacher, thriving on the challenges of supporting hundreds children from different age groups with different levels of academic ability. What became apparent over the years has been the impact that technology is having in both positive and negative ways on our young students.

‘I want my research to bring practical value direct to Gibraltar, to support the development of how we prepare our ‘digital natives’ for the future. The learning from this, I believe, will inform all student learning needs and teacher practice. To potentially be part of this critical global objective, to place the Gibraltar education system at the forefront of wider research, is something in which I take great pride’.

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