Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Bringing Technology into the Classroom

Five years ago, Lucas Kent brought a digital whiteboard into his largely analog classroom. The benefits were immediate, whether he taught topics as graphically gratifying as sunspots or he needed to bring up a lesson from the previous school day. “Instead of having to get out a book or bring in a movie, it was just right there,” he says. “It speeds up lessons.”

Five years later, every teacher in Penetanguishene’s Burkevale Protestant Separate School, where Kent teaches, has a digital whiteboard in the classroom. He’s convinced the school made the right choice. “Digital whiteboards will be here long-term,” he asserts.

Kent’s classroom technology forays extend beyond digital whiteboards. He uses online course management systems (teacher-designed and controlled learning environments accessible via web browsers) and he’s piloting a program to put inexpensive laptops on each of his students’ desks.

Other Ontario schools and boards are following “early adopters” like Kent, seeking both to improve upon current teaching methods and to explore new methods that technology makes possible.

Like many other teachers, Cindy Levy, Special Education Resource Teacher (SERT) in the Program for Independent Development and Enrichment (PrIDE) in the York Region District School Board, leverages the zeal their students show for computing and gadgets. “We try to make it as engaging as possible for them,” she says.

Neither Kent nor Levy can see technology supplanting teaching. “It must be used to enhance traditional teaching methods,” he says. “It doesn’t increase interaction, but it does increase motivation in the classroom.”

“Students still need to learn how to write with pen and paper,” Levy adds.

Teachers share the enthusiasm of their charges, but for different reasons. For instance, certain tools enable them to reduce time spent preparing classes and marking work. Digital whiteboard manufacturer websites offer lessons on a variety of topics that teachers can download and shape to their specific needs. “I’ve been using a digital whiteboard for five years, and it speeds you up in the long run,” Kent says.

Course management systems let teachers assign homework, receive their students’ work, mark that work and send marked work back – all without touching a single sheet of paper.

School boards looking to justify the expense of technology adoption may want to consider possible reductions in work done outside the classroom, as well as the potential cost savings of things like decreased paper usage. “Some boards spend millions of dollars on paper every year,” Kent says. “Even cutting that in half can help to justify technology acquisitions.”

In certain cases, necessity can drive technology adoption. Consider the CSDC des aurores boréales, which consists of several small, far-flung schools. Thérèse Dechêne, the CSDC’s pedagogical services director, explains that by pooling its resources with other francophone school boards and investing in distance learning technologies like videoconferencing, students can take classes that the board doesn’t offer due to low enrolment numbers. “We run 36 classes per semester via elearning,” Dechêne says.

Web-based tools can enhance a teacher’s ability to involve parents in their children’s’ education. “In the past, we’ve had math nights and literacy nights,” says Kent. “This year, we’re going to have a technology night. We’ll show parents the interactive website, how they can check their kid’s grades, how they can keep up on what a kid has done.”

Despite the promise, technology isn’t getting into schools as quickly as some might like. One obvious barrier blocking students from classroom-enhancing technology is the sometimes insurmountable cost.

A computer on every child’s desk? “I have 32 Grade Fours in my class,” says Levy. “The school has 15 or 16 computers in the library for students to use.”

Digital whiteboards run four figures at a minimum: certain models breach the $7,000 mark. Student response systems (think game-show-like clickers) that learners use to interact with whiteboards can add more than $2,000 to the bill for a set of 30.

With such amounts at stake, teachers and boards want to make good “long-term” choices, but the vast array of classroom technologies available can tax the minds of even techno-savvy teachers. “We’re probably not aware of one-tenth of the stuff that’s available,” Levy admits.

“Staffs are digital immigrants where students are digital natives and so staffs often don’t use the technologies to their full potential,” adds Bev Freedman, principal of educational services consultancy

Even recent teachers college graduates aren’t aware of the possibilities. Kent, who taught himself how to create web sites and incorporate other technologies into his teaching, was surprised when, last year, “I had a student teacher with me and she had never heard about digital whiteboards or course management systems.”

What many teachers have heard are certain “horror stories” like last year’s malicious electronic attacks that resulted in pornography showing on UK school websites. Hackers exploited a vulnerability in an outdated version of a popular course management system that runs the websites.

While the system maker insists current versions are not vulnerable to such hacking, the incident taught many educators valuable lessons: any web-based tool may be hacked and security must be an ongoing priority.

“We recognize the shift that is happening in classrooms,” admits Jim Forbes, Principal of Northern Lights Public School, York Region District School Board. “We know it’s a challenging time with tools that are appearing, and difficulties that still happen.”

“If we’re going to make this work well, we have to get support for teachers,” Kent says, asserting that the ideal support person is an educator who understands the technology. When he went to his principal with this argument, the principal freed Kent half a day a week to be that support person.

“It’s a start,” he says. “It’s not just fixing little glitches. It’s also sitting down with teachers and explaining how to add material to our interactive web site, how to do a weekly journal, how to create a quiz. In-school PD is the way to go.”

In certain instances, the students also need support. “If a high school student is the only student in Moosonee taking a particular class,” Dechêne offers, “and the teacher is in Ottawa or Toronto, there must be some adult in Moosonee who can accompany the student.”

“Sometimes kids need a helping hand from an accessible adult.”

Few factors, including sticker shock, security concerns or knowledge gaps, keep elearning enthusiasts from enhancing their teaching through technology. Even things as simple as digital cameras stoke student creativity. “It’s a nice, safe way to tell stories,” Forbes says. “Kids can document what they’ve done.”

Cameras, like many other gadgets, seem ubiquitous, so teachers might assume that they’re as easy for students to bring to class as pens and paper. But what does a teacher do when a student clutching a basic point-and-shoot sits next to a classmate wielding a pro-quality SLR?

“There’s already a lack of equity in the classroom,” says Levy, citing policies among certain schools that ban various gadgets (partly to prevent theft as well). “Some kids just can’t afford these things. As a teacher, you have to make sure everybody’s on the same page, so that means everybody has the same things.”

According to a survey Kent administered at the start of the school year, 90 percent of his students have computers at home. For the ones that don’t, I make extra time during the day for them to work on the course management system,” he says. “Most of the kids do the work during school hours.”

“You must be careful about banning tools,” Forbes adds. “If you as teacher explain how to use the tool, get it used in positive ways, you’ll get good learning results.”

Kent counsels other teachers to not incorporate many technologies in a given school year. “Elearning is constantly changing,” Kent notes. “If schools try to stay with the latest thing, they will never implement current technology well.”

Even debacles like the UK school website affair offer a silver lining. “Kids can find anything they want to on the Internet,” says Todd Wright, York Region’s Administrator, eLearning, ICT and Learning Resource Services. “That is a challenge. Our board has put in filters to limit, within the school, the kinds of sites that students can visit. But sometimes that blocks out useful sites too.”

Wright sees the issue as an opportunity. “That’s part of digital literacy,” he says, “It’s the understanding of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate when kids reach certain kinds of sites – which they will do at home on their own computers.”

The most attractive opportunity, though, involves transforming education from a model where teachers dispense knowledge to a more collaborative paradigm in which students take greater responsibility for their own learning.

Kent plans increasing amounts of project-based teaching. His goal: students teaching themselves and their friends, and increasing their own motivation and interaction in the bargain. “That’s the future,” he says. “When we can combine that kind of teaching with technology, that’s when teaching is really going to change.”

Learning about teaching technology

Ready to take a few digital footsteps with your students? Check out this short list of resources for more information:

  • Technology consultants: Certain boards retain technology gurus ready to help teachers incorporate new learning tools in their curriculum.
  • Demonstration classrooms:  Interested teachers can observe technology-enabled learning environments in person or via videoconference. “Teachers have a key question they want to investigate, so they visit, and then discuss with the demonstration teacher what they saw in the classroom,” says Forbes.
  • elearning organizations: Groups like The International Society for Technology in Education and The Educational Computing Organization of Ontario serve as clearinghouses of technology knowledge, advocates for the advancement of technology-assisted learning, and more.
  • Books: Lucas Kent’s 6 Steps to Success in Teaching With Technology covers elearning in general, while other books and articles delve deeper into specific technologies.
  • elearning websites: Kent shares what he has learned so far at Technology vendor websites offer information, ideas, even videos of their technologies in use. Of particular interest: course management system and digital whiteboard websites, where teachers can download lessons generously uploaded by other teachers.
  • Educational websites: These include the likes of BrainPop, meant for “traditional” learning, and National Geographic’s Wild Africa Cam and CNN’s Student News, both of which tailor valuable content for children.
  • Savvy colleagues: Ask those around you who have been using technology for years what works and what doesn’t.