Picture this, Larry Johnson, of NMC Horizon Report fame, sits opposite me. He sports his trademark black flat cap and a gold, PhD ring that looks more like it belongs on an old-school Vegas bouncer than on an education theorist who informs so many teachers, principals and leaders to prepare them for the future of schooling. A small round white table separates us as we discuss the upcoming K-12 Horizon Report that predicts the technology that we will see roll into our schools in the coming years. He was in Brisbane, Australia for the EduTECH conference and the release of the report was only a few short weeks away. As usual the interim report had raised a few eyebrows. The concept that caught my eye was the use of ‘drones’ in education. The nonchalance way that Dr Johnson brushed away my surprise prompted me to probe with queries about how NMC comes up with the Horizon Report. The answer was simple; the team at NMC scour research papers in education and the corporate world. They spot the extreme early adopters of new technologies and predict when they will be affordable and palatable enough for the wider education system to embrace the innovation. In short drones are here now and they will be with us all in the years to come.

That said, ‘drones in education’ is a concept that captures the imagination of some and sends fear shuddering down the spine of others. Never before has a tool or term so closely associated with cutting edge military weaponry been so quick to be adopted by schools as a way of engaging students and letting their learning soar to higher levels than have been reached before.

The first trap is that the term ‘drones’ isn’t the correct term at all. Drone is a term used by the media and advertising gurus to reach our collective psyche and emit the desired response. The pilotless helicopter that Santa brought my son isn’t technically a drone, despite what the elves printed on the side of the box! It is in fact an RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) or a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). This definition is extremely important and has massive ramifications for teachers because it means that there are aviation rules and regulations that are set in place by CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority).

Flight regulations that are currently in place were originally set for remote controlled planes that predate their current incarnations and this means that teachers need to be very careful to ensure that they stay within the rules. Firstly, teachers need to ensure that the UAVs are always in sight and they do not rely on the video feed of the vehicle for flight. In addition to this you must not fly your UAV within 30m of a building, a boat, any vehicle or people. You are prohibited from flying your UAV over populated areas like beaches and backyards and you must not fly your UAV higher than 120m if you are in a city.

Despite the hurdles these drones are metaphorically flying into classrooms all over the world. This is happening is three ways:

1. Inspiration and Engagement

2. Technical Knowledge and Skill Development

3. Curriculum Redefinition


  1. Inspiration and Engagement.

Maximising student engagement is one way to capture the curiosity and attention of your students and use their interest or passion for a topic to enhance their academic performance to a level that would have been difficult to obtain without the engagement taking place. That is a fancy way of saying that if you embed a bit of ‘Wow Factor’ into your lessons you may be able to capitalise on the excitement and enthusiasm and get in some real quality learning. “Engaged students also are more likely to perform well academically. Therefore, teachers need a large inventory of instructional strategies to engage a variety of students (Garcia-Reid, 2005).” Few other objects in school can fly in and hover with as much ‘Wow Factor’ as drones can.


Drones and Writing:

Imagine giving your students the task of creating a world with cardboard. Having them detail that world with textas or paints and then place a lego person in the centre of that world. The descriptive language that you could build up could be immense. The students could create a whole backstory for the lego person; their life, job, childhood memories, even their fears. The students would be invested in the character that they have created. Now imagine that the teacher flies in an indoor-drone, like the Parrot Rolling Spider so that they comply with CASA regulations, and attaches the lego person to the drone via tape or string. They then, without saying a word fly the lego person away from their world, out the door.


How would the children react to their creation being removed and distorted in this manner? Picture the chaos, the complaints and the cries of, “Unfair.” The emotion would be palpable. The teacher could capture this emotion and work with it. Students could write about the drama of when the lego character was removed from their world and articulate what the lego character, this plastic inanimate object would be feeling or thinking. They could then tap into their imagination and create an adventure in a detail they may not have achieved before.


2. Technical knowledge and skill development

With the new Australian Digital Technologies Curriculum rolling out across the Great Southern Land there is a growing awareness and emphasis being placed on the specific skills and understandings that directly link to technological proficiency This, coupled with the fact that ICT has been embedded as a ‘General Capability’ in the new Curriculum means that more explicit teaching will occur. Terms like coding and computational will soon be common banter in staff rooms everywhere, if they are not already. Foundation Kindergarten/Prep classes are expected to be developing computational thinking skills, students in Year Three exploring a range of peripheral devices while in Year Six they will be designing algorithms to solve problems. This all before they even begin High School, where the big investigations take place and those early foundations are built upon.


Drones provide an excellent ‘buy-in’ for those teachers who are not overly comfortable explicit teaching coding and allowing the design, test, evaluate and adapt process to take place. Using a clever coding app like the Tickle App (@tickleapp), which has a similar interface to Scratch and the Hopscotch App, teachers can set a challenge for students to program a drone to do a series of required tasks. The best part is you don’t need to use a flying drone, you can easily a myriad of ground based drones. The Sphero drone is a popular choice and presents a lot of possibilities.


Creating a Drone Coding Challenge, like the one that I ran at St Kevin’s Eastwood with Kimberley Sutton, is a great way to have students learn coding whilst using drones. We set up an obstacle course and formed the students into teams. Teams were deliberately formed with gender in mind. Girls and boys formed separate teams that competed against each other. The idea being to encourage girls to be proactive with coding and tech. This proved to be a very successful strategy. Teams had to write code using the Tickle App on their iPads. They could then do a test run through the obstacle course. Inevitably, the first few runs would be unsuccessful and the teams would need to alter their code and try again. The first team to successfully navigate the obstacle course were the winners! An extended version of this Drone Coding Challenge is being released and we encourage all those interested to get involved.


3. Curriculum Redefinition

Like in all SAMR models it is when you are redefining the curriculum that you know are making serious change and not merely substituting one teaching technique for another. Drones will be a game changer they will redefine areas of our lives, mail delivery etc. and they will redefine the way we teach.


Drones align themselves perfectly for Project Based Learning. Already a number of teachers are pushing the envelop and it seems High School Geography teachers, along with Science teachers are innovating with the best of them. In Science, Kelly Hollis is exploring the possibilities with field work in Biology. In Geography, Year Nine students are required to represent the geographic landscape, through cartographic conventions (aka mapping), using spatial technologies.


Using drones goes far beyond this into much deeper pedagogical waters tested by Chris Woldhuis and Clare Kinnane. Both teachers have demonstrated the various ways that drones could be used in a Year 10 Geography class using a Project Based Learning pedagogy. The PBL could be based around a problem arising due to a flood, cyclone, earthquake or any other Natural Disaster. Teachers could easily modify the PBL task to suit the current issue of the day, particularly if it is affecting the students in their community be it local bushfires or global issues like the Nepalese earthquakes. Students could be challenged with a problem of assisting human wellbeing, environmental management or economic/social management. They could be asked to innovate a way that drones could be used to solve or alleviate a particular problem. In fact, they could be really proactive and select the problem themselves. Here students are being forced to research a real world issue, learn about the topic, process that information and report on it. Then, using higher order thinking skills that Blooms would be proud of, create a way to deal with that issue. A clever teacher could insist on a checklist of geographical skills and concepts to ensure that the students have synthesised the information correctly. The grand finale could be testing the students theoretical work in a practical test run. Could a drone do what they have asked it to do in their work? Assuming all CASA regulations are abided by, that could be a very entertaining way to complete a unit of work indeed!

About The Author

Primary & Executive Teacher

Founder #aussieED | Primary Teacher - 1:1 Educator | Google Certified Teacher | Speaker | Committed to turning Ed Theory into real classroom practice

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