The digital classroom

Here’s what happens when teaching goes high-tech

Alanna Mitchell 0

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Teacher Edita Tahirovic wears a high-powered microphone around her neck shaped like a Cleopatra-style collar, complete with a light that blinks red and green. “Grab a SMART response pad and sit on the carpet,” she tells her students. “Key in your responses. There’s nothing to be scared about. Try your best!”

The interactive whiteboard (commonly referred to as a SMART board) has a place of honour at the front of the room. It’s connected to Tahirovic’s laptop and she’s projecting pages on it, touching the SMART board to make it respond. But it does far more than that. As Tahirovic navigates through multiple-choice questions about Kenneth Oppel’s novel Silverwing, the kids click their answers on their response pads (which look like TV remotes). The SMART board can tell who has answered, who has not, and who’s answered what. It marks the answers and instantaneously delivers graphs that tell Tahirovic what the children need more instruction on. Over the course of the year, the kids will learn how to make their own interactive projects to share with the class.

This is the grade four and five classroom at École Sir Adam Beck Junior School in Toronto, one of the most highly digitized classrooms in Canada. Most of the 28 pupils also have a Netbook — a small, lightweight laptop — that connects wirelessly to the Toronto District School Board’s private server. The Netbooks are in bright, kid-friendly hues of blue, green, yellow and red. The classroom also has a handful of traditional wired computers off to the side.

These pupils are part of a research project on how mobile computing affects narrative writing. It came about when Tahirovic tested her grade five pupils last year and realized that many were having trouble getting their thoughts down using pen and paper (especially the boys). She and Timothy Gard, the school’s media literacy teacher, went to the computer company Dell with a proposal and ended up with 24 Netbooks, a wireless printer, an interactive whiteboard and a number of compatible devices to add to nearly a dozen SMART boards already in the school.
The results have been impressive: Pupils are coming up with complex paragraphs filled with emotional language. On one day, Kyle, writing in the voice of the bat Shade, explains that he feels ashamed at what happened in chapter four. Joseph, also being Shade, explains that he is enraged and writes of the revenge of the owls. Kazi is keying with gusto: “Netbook is pretty much fun. It’s quicker than paper.”

But whether the technology truly raises literacy and understanding is still an unanswered question. It’s possible the students’ writing skills would have taken off anyway and researchers did not build a control group without the technology into the experiment.

Tahirovic’s classroom is cutting-edge, and many educators believe SMART boards and the like should be standard issue in Canadian schools. Currently, about 26 percent of public and private classrooms have interactive whiteboards, says Marina Geranazzo, manager of public relations for Calgary-based SMART Technologies. However, with that come concerns about the technology’s effect on students, teachers and parents.

The changes that technologies bring to the learning process have a great potential to allow every student to learn in his own individual and unique way, says Howard Goodman, a trustee with the Toronto District School Board who has made the study of learning technology his specialty. In Goodman’s view, getting classroom technology right is key to helping to foster students’ critical thinking skills, critical to the future of society. Without it, he says, we’re putting the future at risk. So how do schools get it right? Here’s what they’ve learned so far.

Teachers need to be on board

New technologies won’t work if educators aren’t on board and well trained. Sir Adam Beck principal Nardaya Dipchand is a big supporter of using technology to help kids learn. For two years running, she was the Canadian winner of the Award for Techno-logy and Reading from the International Reading Association. Many teachers at Sir Adam Beck are eager to learn about the new technology and are willing to push aside old ideas of teaching: Last year, they had biweekly lunch meetings to teach each other how to use the SMART boards. It’s another requirement of the digital school where boundaries between who leads and who follows get blurry. As well, teachers in this type of classroom have to be on their own voyage of discovery with technology that won’t always work just the way it’s meant to.

Substance over flash

Edita Tahirovic loves the technology now, but it took her awhile. She understands why some teachers resist digitizing and others are skeptical about the benefits of the connected classroom. And they’re not alone. There’s a body of literature critical of the growing reliance on computers. US English professor Mark Bauerlein, who in 2008 wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), says that today’s students are losing their ability to read literature. Yet others fear that school will become akin to a video game — all flash, no content. The trick is to find a middle ground: Research is showing that students benefit from computerized games that involve risk. Taking some risk heightens the joy-releasing chemical dopamine in their brains in a way that encourages them to keep learning.

Don’t forget the basics

Relying on technology has the potential to erode skills that students learn in the traditional classroom. Goodman points to cursive writing, for example. Research shows that actually knowing how to write cursively isn’t that important, but the repetitive discipline of learning this type of writing helps hone hand-eye coordination and a host of other brain-building skills. If we digitize so completely that we no longer need cursive writing, how will children get the brain practice that learning it used to provide? “The response might not be to ask each child to devote hundreds of hours to mastering cursive, but rather to understand what cursive does to the brain and develop other ways to maintain the beneficial brain development that previous generations got from cursive writing,” says Goodman.

There are other concerns too. The selection of digital curriculum that truly exploits the interactivity of technology is sparse and needs to be developed, says Goodman. And someone will need to produce a Netbook that will be able to sit in a locker in a pile of rotting food for three days and still work. Not to mention inventing eight-hour batteries.

Parents are key

Sir Adam Beck’s parents were supportive early, both with words of encouragement and interest, and with fundraising for three of the school’s dozen or so SMART boards. Many school families also have computers at home that the children use, so they have skills already. The flip side is that students from poorer communities may get left further behind if they can’t come up with the private cash to buy more technology for the schools. Robert Martellacci, president and publisher of the Canadian online e-magazine The MindShare Learning Report (mindsharelearning.com), knows of one Canadian school board where half of the cost of the technology came from school fundraising. He says parents will need to be even more involved if they want to push for digitized classrooms.

At Sir Adam Beck, parents have told Dipchand that they are amazed at how excited the children are about written assignments on the new technology.

Back in Tahirovic’s classroom, the assignment is either to write the conclusion to a story or to blog about chapter four of Silverwing. Tahirovic moves around the room, helping pupils with technical difficulties and urging them to push their writing conclusions further by asking, “What happened then?” The most common phrase she utters is: “Try it!” In many cases, the children smile at her and dive in.

The future

Robert Martellacci, Ontario-based president and publisher of the e-magazine The MindShare Learning Report, says the future is mobile. He can get a cool app on his iPhone that shows National Film Board documentaries on Canada’s history. And what about kids carting their own computers from home to school and back again, making a seamless electronic path between school work and homework? Timothy Gard, the media literacy teacher at École Sir Adam Beck Junior School in Toronto, has his eye on three-dimensional modelling and holograms, nanotechnology, display keyboards on regular tabletops with infrared keyboards and text-to-voice technology matched by voice-to-text. “Virtual worlds, instant access to experts, and collaboration with students in other parts of the world are happening now,” says Gard. “Can you imagine high school students connecting with students living through the Egyptian uprising? That kind of enhances the history you read in a textbook, doesn’t it?”

Getting it done

So how do you build a digital classroom? Here’s what’s needed:

• Interactive whiteboard (SMART boards) with digital projector $3,700–$5,900
• Netbooks $450 each
• Peripherals (such as response pads)
• Band660 Must be robust enough to allow kids to log on to the school board’s server easily, along with potentially thousands of others at the same time, a challenge unmet in most schools across Canada.
• Routers The classroom — and, eventually, the whole school — needs to be connected wirelessly so kids can link in from the hallways, the library, the lunchroom.
• Security Key to all of this — and also invisible — is monitored, appropriate and careful access to the Internet.

Few schools want unfettered access to everything the Web has to offer. New Brunswick and Alberta have earmarked money for interactive whiteboards and Netbooks and committed to a more digitized school system, says Robert Martellacci, Ontario-based president and publisher of the e-magazine The MindShare Learning Report. New Brunswick is Canada’s digital learning visionary, mandating that every teacher have a laptop and every school a SMART board. In Ontario, the government has sliced money for teachers’ professional development training and for computers, a move Martellacci says is flawed if the goal is a more technological classroom. Interactive whiteboards and laptops are still rare across most of the province.

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