Research Student Profile: Sonia Lopez

Today sees the start of a new series of articles at YGTV. Each month we’re profiling a research student at the University of Gibraltar to find out about their background, studies and how they’ve found the experience of further study on the Rock.

Today’s student is Sonia Lopez who is coming to the end of her PhD.

Please introduce yourself

My name is Sonia Lopez, and I am currently the headteacher of St Bernard’s Lower Primary School. In addition, I lecture on the PGCE course at the University of Gibraltar and am also PhD researcher in my 5th year within Institute of Education here at UniGib. Undeniably in order to juggle all that, it stands to reason that I have a very patient and supportive husband of 23 years and two resilient and independent children!

When you’re not a Gib Uni student, what are you doing?

This is my fourth year as headteacher at St Bernard’s. It’s a very busy and rewarding job that takes up a lot of time but I have a fantastic team and we all work together to create a welcoming, inviting and stimulating school community. Collaborating with the university as a PGCE lecturer, gives me the wonderful opportunity of working with adults in higher education too. The module I teach is focused on educational theory and how it relates to practical scenarios. As a consequence, I find I get to bring a lot of my PhD research to the fore which not only ensures that the course content is fresh and relevant, but from a personal perspective, it makes the relationship between being a teacher, researcher and lecturer come together perfectly.

In layman’s terms, can you explain what you are researching at the University of Gibraltar?

I’m looking at the impact that mobile technology has on teaching and learning in Gibraltar. Essentially I wanted to explore how the use of iPads in schools is changing the way teachers teach and children learn.

Why are you exploring this area of study?

When I first embarked on my PhD, I did so from the standpoint of not only having been a Special Educational Needs coordinator, but also a nursery teacher during the time that iPads had started to become more common. Over the course of several years, I noticed a distinct deterioration in the fine motor skills and social skills of our nursery children which seemed to have a direct relation to their home use of iPads and smart phones. We found that the happy, friendly and hands-on learning environment we were providing at school couldn’t match the level of instant stimulation many of these children were used getting from these devices at home. So seeing this negative aspect, I was very against the use of mobile technology for such young children and felt I wanted to research it further via a PhD. My initial proposal was from a negative standpoint but then I was paired with my supervisors, one of whom was Dr Joey Britto who, at the time, was Director of Education. He told me to go and see what was happening at St Bernard’s Middle School where they had just started an iPad initiative. Thanks to headmaster Kenneth Saez’s  support, I was able to arrange several visits and I was amazed to see the difference that mobile technology in the classroom was making to the quality of the lessons. Children were demonstrating high levels of engagement and were working collaboratively and creatively. That was when I realised that digital technology is here to stay and, rather than just try to oppress it, we have to embrace the positives and re-balance the negatives. The great thing about this PhD is that I’m able to apply this research and make changes in my school to support a 21st century approach to education.

Who are your supervisors and what do they contribute to your studies?

My primary supervisor is Dr Joey Britto, the former Director of Education who is also an expert on technology in education. My other supervisor is Dr Ingrid Mulá Pons de Val who works at the University of Girona. Her area of speciality is in sustainability for higher education and she’s a critical theorist which is the paradigm I’m using for my thesis.

How have you found the experience so far?

I’m in my fifth and final year now - I’ve submitted my thesis and have my viva next month so I’m almost there. It’s been exhilarating but at times it’s been overwhelming because I also have a full-time job. The PhD demands so many hours a week. I’ve been doing two to three hours every day after work and then more time during the weekends and that’s been going on now for five years so you can imagine the impact that has on family life. But then you balance that with the changes you can see in school and the faces of those children who might not have the same self-esteem or confidence if we had stuck to traditional approaches and that makes it all worthwhile.

What are the benefits of staying in Gibraltar to conduct postgrad work?

Very simply, I would not have been able to do further study if it hadn’t been offered here. I’ve got family commitments and an important job; it wouldn’t be sustainable for me to do this somewhere else. The University and the Government have allowed me to further my studies and hopefully make ripples of change throughout education in Gibraltar.

What about the social aspect? Are there opportunities to socialize with other students?

I am from the first cohort (from 2015 when the university first opened) and we have a wonderful support network. There are also lots of younger students coming in and the vibe at the university has definitely evolved, there is a excited buzz around campus and it is clearly going from strength to strength with lots more social opportunities being promoted. I’m getting constant emails about events happening. Although it’s not something that I’m tapping into because I don’t have the time, you can see that that university life is really coming to the fore here.

What are your plans for the future?

My formal Viva Voce has been confirmed for October. This means that I have two respected academics, one from Kingston University and another from the Catalan University of Girona examining and evaluating my work. If successful, my graduation will be held in December alongside my PGCE cohort as well as the successful graduates from the UniGib masters courses too. I absolutely love being part of the PGCE course so I want to carry on being a part of that. For my own part, I want to continue working towards a 21st century transformative curriculum for Gibraltar. This involves ensuring we have a platform locally for continuous professional development. I will continue going to conferences to see how other researchers, educators and education systems around the world are transforming and innovating in their areas. We are in a very privileged position here in Gibraltar to have the potential to transform our own education system to meet the needs of all our learners in our culturally unique microcosm. I believe we need to change our educational paradigm to meet the needs of the 21st century curriculum and I believe I can play an active role in making it become a reality.

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