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The Macrowikinomics File

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Our young people are hungry for knowledge, and our teachers do their best with the limited resources they have, but when ranked against other countries, Canadian students are slipping. It's a worrisome trend, both for Canadian businesses that need the competitive edge of being able to hire world-class graduates and for jurisdictions that need a high-quality local talent pool to lure business investment.

The problem is that we're not using the innovative and more effective teaching methods that new digital technologies make possible.

Every three years, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development interviews more than half a million 15-year-olds - including 22,000 Canadians - to see how well students nearing the end of secondary school are prepared for the modern world. In last year's ranking of 70 countries released earlier in December, Canadian students continued to slip in math, science and reading skills.

Canada sat 10th in math skills, down from seventh place three years earlier. The country ranked eighth in science scores and sixth in reading skills, down from third and fourth placem, respectively.

Sure, we are well ahead of the U.S., but Canadians cannot afford to be complacent about our competitiveness in a global knowledge economy, especially with Asian countries investing heavily in education.

We're slipping in international standings because almost every school in the country employs an outmoded model of pedagogy. Right now we have "broadcast learning," with the teacher as expert at the front of the class, and the students as novices in a universal, one-size-fits-all model. "Chalk and talk" classrooms are a jarring disconnect to media-savvy, plugged-in students. In contrast to their life out of school, in the classroom they have no control, no connectivity, no media, no action, no immersion and no networks.

To connect with today's youth, we need to move to a customized and collaborative model of education that embraces 21st-century technology and techniques. This isn't a case of pandering to today's youth; it's making sure our kids are the best they can be.

Today's new media, particularly the Internet, enables student-directed learning experiences focused on the individual rather than on the transmitter. Shifting the emphasis from the teacher to the student does not suggest the teacher suddenly plays a less important role. Digital media helps teachers treat students as individuals; enabling them to have highly customized learning experiences based on their background, individual talents, age, cognitive style, personal preferences, and so on.

Pilot projects are under way around the world, including some in Canada. New Brunswick did it five years ago when it handed out laptops to Grade 7 and 8 students and teachers in six schools, francophone and anglophone.

The results from the first two years of the pilot project "have been dramatic and overwhelmingly positive for all involved with the project," according to two prominent academics who reviewed the project.

The report card, by Michael Fox, vice-president of Mount Allison University, and Jim Greenlaw, dean of education at University of Ontario Institute of Technology, was glowing. Students wrote more, and produced higher-quality work. They demonstrated effective research, analytical and evaluative skills in the digital environment. They were more interested in learning. School was more fun. Their grades went up.

The results were so positive that New Brunswick expanded the one-laptop-per-child program to cover 3,900 schoolchildren, or 23 per cent of Grade 7 and 8 students, over five years, ending in June.

With New Brunswick reaping such rewards, why do so many public school classrooms in Canada remain stuck in the 18th century? Many policy makers blame the perceived cost, which could be as much as $1,000 per year if you include teacher training, maintenance, and all the other costs of ownership. (The New Brunswick program cost $37.2-million over five years.) But if we can find billions of dollars to bail out the auto makers or buy new military aircraft, why can't we find a fraction of that amount to put essential 21st-century tools in the hands of every student?

The real issue, as Mr. Fox and Mr. Greenlaw suggest, is our vision: Are we, the adults, willing to accept that children who are growing up digital, actually learn far more in an interactive, collaborative environment? For their sake, and for the sake of our economic future, we cannot cling to the past.

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