It's older, more experienced teachers – not younger, so-called digital natives – who are experimenting more with new technology in the classroom, a new report suggests.
And although Twitter, YouTube and mobile devices have infiltrated Canadian classrooms, the study finds that educators have serious concerns that students are "not-so-savvy surfers" – too prone to accept information published online as fact and be led astray.
Little is known about how and to what degree new technologies are changing education, but the report provides a first-of-its-kind look at how teachers across the country are harnessing the Internet.
"At the ground level, across the country, our impression is that teaching how to use technology takes precedence over the key critical thinking and ethical skills that youth really need," said Matthew Johnson, director of education at Media Awareness Network, the not-for-profit group that conducted the research.
Over the last five to seven years, a debate over whether technology has a place in the classroom has shifted and become a debate over how, according to Ron Canuel, CEO of the Canadian Education Association.
"It's a very important shift," he said. "But how widespread it is we don't know."
The report's scope is small, involving just 10 elementary and high school teachers from across the country, but detailed. Titled Young Canadians in a Wired World, it is the third phase in an ongoing examination by Media Awareness Network of youth online. It takes a narrow focus on how teachers are using technology in the classroom and what barriers exist to maximizing these newest teaching tools.
The Ottawa-based group will use the findings to shape a larger national survey it hopes to conduct next year.
Many of the findings echo concerns Mr. Canuel has heard teachers raise, especially over digital literacy.
In the report, a Grade 5 teacher from the North describes how a group of "A-level students" came across online images that purported to depict a Sasquatch penis bone. They wanted to know if it would be appropriate to include in their science fair exhibit.
"They're clueless about how to use [the Internet]and especially how to use it safely and appropriately," the teacher said.
In order to teach students how to be better digital citizens, the teachers surveyed said the training wheels have to come off the Internet: The filters schools use to block unverified websites prevent students from learning how to exercise good judgment.
One elementary school teacher described a learning opportunity that arose when his students stumbled across a website sympathetic to the Nazis. The site's racism, which was cloaked in careful prose, wasn't obvious to the students.
With a teacher at their side, the students were able to see the site's hateful bent and learn a valuable lesson about online content.
The teachers said filters are also problematic because they prevent access to useful teaching aids. Teachers in Quebec and Ontario described not being able to show videos in class because YouTube was blocked. And one teacher in Atlantic Canada described a failed campaign to get Twitter unblocked so her students could collaborate on math questions.
Perhaps the report's most surprising finding is that the newest teachers aren't the ones harnessing these new tools.
"I don't see a lot of new teachers coming in knowing how to apply technology," said Zhi Su, a teacher and technology director at John Oliver Secondary School in Vancouver.
Fresh out of college, few new teachers experiment with new technologies because they have the potential to be disruptive. It's experience, and the confidence that comes with it, that is allowing teachers in their 40s and 50s to lead the way, according to the report.
Mr. Su believes that better teacher training is needed, so that new teachers have a better comfort level with new technologies.
"Teachers' colleges should really be on the forefront," he said. "They should have a compulsory course on using technology in the classroom."