Some schools really do get it

Imagine for a minute you’re a middle-aged Canadian school teacher. They didn’t have computers when you went through university, except maybe some behemoth that ate punched cards and spewed forth printouts full of stupid error messages.

Now, your kids are firing up Napster every time you look the other way and some of the really nasty ones have created an anonymous Web site called “Fifty Reasons to Kill Alex,” complete with his photo and home address. Welcome to the complex world of leading kids safely through the dark side to get to the benefits of technology.

Fortunately, there are some bright lights to show the way. There are teachers out there who really understand the potential of technology, and who are willing to take the risk of the occasional misadventure to gain the greater good. I saw a bunch of them in one room recently in Ottawa, at the annual conference of the Network of Innovative Schools, a creation of Canada’s Schoolnet. I came away inspired and very optimistic about the future of Canadian education. You have to win membership in this elite club by showing that your school is doing something unique and creative with technology. And, boy, are they ever.

Take R.B. Russell High School in Winnipeg. According to Jay Willman, department head of technology and the drama teacher there, “Many of our students are aboriginal people with low literacy levels. Our adult students and Grade 9 students typically have Grade 4 or grade 5 reading skills. Some of them can’t write their own name.” They’re accidents waiting to happen in today’s Canadian society, outcasts in the making. However, Willman said, “They’re not stupid. They have very strong visual and oral traditions.”

So he has introduced a form of virtual-reality pedagogy to reach out to them. Using digital cameras and video editing, the students create simulated virtual-reality environments in subjects like auto body repair. In one example, a customer drives up in a car and asks “How much will it cost to fix this?”

The kids can examine the vehicle, spin it around and zoom in the on the damaged area. They can select the right tool for the job and learn how to use it. They do visually what they are unable to accomplish in written form. But it’s not all pretty pictures. At some point in the process they are forced to write out a work plan and a customer order, and safety rules for the tools. “It’s painful for them,” Willman said, “but that’s how they’re going to survive in the outside world.”

Schools participating in the Network of Innovative Schools come from across the country, and many are using technology to enrich the studies of already-successful students. At Bishops College in St. John’s, Nfld., students use digital cameras and laptops to create virtual field trips to the intertidal zone.

According to the school’s head of technology, Bob Riche, “When they come back from the field they can use these images to refresh their memories and prepare written documents and presentations.” And he said the potential is even greater than that, because most of the kids coming to his school are already quite computer literate. “We’d like to see them with portable probes, pH meters, things like that.”

Conference keynote speaker Alan November, a U.S.-based author and educational consultant, also emphasized the educational value of tools like sonar probes that attach to PalmPilots. A rig like that can be used to make physics experiments fun, as you measure the velocity and acceleration of, for example, a toy car moving down a ramp. November talked about kids doing real, meaningful experiments and solving real world problems.

That’s far more motivating, he said, than trying to figure out the answers to problems that people have already have. He also predicted an end to schools as we know them, with more and more people home schooling their kids or setting up community-based facilities equipped with technology. He said we needed huge schools to have the critical mass for, say, a calculus class, but now that can be handled by technology.

For obvious reasons, not too many teachers were ready to join him on this “Down with schools” bandwagon. But they listened and debated and one said “Technology is fine but it’s never going to replace going to the beach and curling your toes in the sand” which probably represents the view of most of the group.

According to Kathyrn Fredericks, who manages the Network of Innovative Schools project for Industry Canada’s Schoolnet, the network has grown by 30 new schools this year, adding to the 24 “pioneer schools” that joined in 1999. To get involved, the schools have to show that spark of technology innovation that can inspire others. But what’s keeping other schools from using technology in this way? Some schools bemoan the lack of current hardware, but a much more common complaint is “We have it, but we don’t know how to use it.” Training and professional development are key issues for stressed out teachers who don’t have time to add technology worries to their other problems.

One thread that ran through almost all the successful projects was empowering the students to take charge of the technology, whether it was the students making auto body videos in Winnipeg or the kids at Tom Baines School in Calgary who use wireless laptops to take notes in group discussions. Most young people are natural technology users, and the ones who aren’t can quickly learn from their friends. In fact, as one teacher put it to me, “The most important thing I do is get out of their way.” Maybe so, but it’s good to know these teachers are there when kids need them.

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.