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Wireless networks have been blocked in a handful of schools, but Simco County is going ahead. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)
Wireless networks have been blocked in a handful of schools, but Simco County is going ahead. (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)

Schools pave way for digital future Add to ...

This won't be the year that back-to-school shopping goes strictly digital - smart phone apps and USB keys for the kids, instead of binders, hole-punched paper and pencil crayons - but educators say that day may not be far off. And many of them can't wait.

"Kids have information at their fingertips which they never had before so the role of the school as a sort of information processor no longer has the currency that it once had," says Penny Milton, CEO of the Canadian Education Association.

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"Teachers and students should be doing it together (digitally) since they can find virtually any facts online."

There is no mass push nationwide to integrate new technologies into classrooms but some school boards and individual schools are exploring new ways of teaching, which kids are eagerly embracing, Ms. Milton says.

She recalls a recent conversation with a young student who was frustrated that a teacher was making the class take notes off an overhead projector.





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"'What an incredible waste of time, why don't they just share them digitally?"' the student asked.

Many students - of all ages - are going to school already largely fluent in today's technology and it makes sense that schools adapt to that reality and use whatever tech tools that are available, says Sidney Eve Matrix, a Queen's University assistant professor and watcher of digital trends.

"All it does is increases the next generation's digital literacy and they take to these devices like fish to water," she says. "It almost seems intuitive the way you see young kids pick up a touchscreen device and start playing with it."

Some schools are issuing laptops to every student and are making digital learning a part of every day. Video conferencing with experts is becoming a regular part of class for some students. Interactive websites are being staffed after hours to help students tackle their homework. And students are being encouraged to do work in a comic book format, a trend that's swept Ontario elementary schools.

At the Calgary Science School, a publicly funded charter school for Grades 4 through 9, parents are promised their kids will learn through "innovative teaching approaches" that take advantage of what new technologies have to offer.

"It's a recognition that this is the way our students live outside of the school, they're entirely digital beings and to not allow them opportunities for digital access in the ways we're trying to offer those opportunities is actually really limiting the potential for learning," says principal Darrell Lonsberry.

"The world that our students are going to be stepping into is going to very much be a knowledge-based world, so the demand now is for a different set of skills and abilities and aptitudes."

The school provides each student with their own Apple laptop - the school briefly considered iPads for the younger kids but determined the technology wasn't quite advanced enough - which they can take home to work on.

Rather than having all assignments formatted in essay or written form, students are encouraged to submit their work as videos, audio podcasts or other means that "leverage the power of technology," he says.

"It's now about finding the information you need ... deciding what you're going to do with it and effectively communicating the results or your findings to other people," he says.

In Ontario, students have enthusiastically embraced an online teaching tool called Bitstrips, which helps kids improve their literacy through building comic strips.

It's currently being used in about 80 per cent of the province's schools and has more than 26,000 teachers and 430,000 students registered, says spokesman Shahan Panth.

"Before we knew it the site was exploding," Panth says, noting that students created more than two million comics between last September and this past May.

Students have become so engaged with the program that half of the work with Bitstrips is being done outside the classroom. And although comic book reading is usually considered a male pastime, the ratio of comics created by boys and girls is an almost perfect split.

Some wonder whether kids are being handed too much tempting distraction when empowered with computers in class, but Lonsberry says that hasn't been the case.

He points to a recent assignment Grade 5 students were tasked with: visiting a local wetlands site, compiling data on water quality and then analyzing it.

"The teacher was not running after them trying to get them to stay on task, the students were so engaged in what they were doing," he says.

Ms. Milton adds that distraction isn't the biggest worry, it's in making sure the technology is relevant.

"The key to not having the technology be a distraction is to have learning activities that deeply interest the students," she says.

"If you give them trivial work or work they don't think is very significant and certainly not very interesting then sure, for any normal human being they'll find a way of either making it more interesting or diverting their attention.

"Nothing in the standard classroom without technology is in and of itself a guarantee of student engagement in learning. So it's the quality of the work that kids are asked to do that, in our view, determines what attention they give to it."

 

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