Technology moves to the head of the class

Let us pause for a moment of fond reflection on the schoolroom of our youth, where the teacher’s best tools were a pointer, a blackboard and a voice that could make the fuzz on the back of your neck stand straight to attention.

Alas, that quaint old classroom is taking its place in academic history alongside inkwells, writing slates and good old Mr. Chips. In an age when kids start mousing around with computers before they’re out of diapers, Canadian school boards are recognizing the need to engage kids on their own terms.

One of the leaders in this regard is Ontario’s Peel District School Board, which encompasses Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon and is the second largest board in Canada. In 2007, it was given a CIO 100 Award by CIO magazine in the U.S. for demonstrating excellence and achievement in IT. And the Board is not resting on its laurels. CIO Laura Williams and the tech team continue to plan and launch new projects that will help keep Peel’s teachers and students in the forefront of the technology curve.

“Traditionally we talk about two primary uses of technology in schools: the administrative use and the students’ use,” said Williams. “But there’s another area that we’ve started to focus on: the teachers’ use of computers – the use of technology as a learning tool.”

At Peel District School Board, this focus comes in the form of an initiative called ‘Teaching with Technology’, which enables teachers to enhance the classroom experience by reaching out and bringing things like animation and visuals into the classroom from the Internet, where they are displayed on large ceiling-mounted LCD screens.

The goal of the initiative is to have every class in every school equipped with a media-capable computer, an LCD projector, Internet access and Video on Demand. As well, each school would have one computer lab for every 400 students.

“The initiative isn’t so much about technology per se, but about where technology can take you,” said Williams. “We call today’s kids the MuchMusic generation. They’re used to a media-rich environment and when they come into the classroom you need to be engaging. Some of these kids are visual learners – they don’t get it until they see it. And particularly for those learners, this initiative has made a huge difference.”

As a result of the initiative, teachers throughout the district can access a wide variety of Web sites which can be of valuable assistance in teaching everything from mathematics to gym.

A site called Tumblebooks, for example, provides access to an online collection of talking picture books, created by adding animation, sound, music and narration to existing picture books from several leading publishers. Authors like Robert Munsch sometimes do their own narration. The site provides a variety of interesting additional material to students who are reading on their own, and it also gives support to students who require skill building with a variety of exercises that can be matched with other areas of the curriculum.

“Teachers have access to all sorts of visuals for the students in pretty much every area,” said Melodie McGurrin, a teacher at Rowntree Public School in Brampton. “The ‘Teaching with Technology’ initiative brings the learning to life because kids can see what you’re talking about and they can share their answers with the class. When they’ve written something in their books you can stick it under the document camera, put it up on the screen and show the whole class what their answer was. That helps the kids feel more part of the class.”

Although the Board hasn’t developed a set of metrics to confirm that students are deriving significant benefits, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the belief.

Kyra Kristensen-Irvine, known to her students as Mrs. K.I., is the principal of Rowntree Public School, which was an early implementer of the approach. “The kids love it,” she said. “I was talking about it with Laura [Williams] one day when a grade five student walked by. I asked him what he thought of the LCD mounts and he said, “No insult Mrs. K.I., but when that’s on I pay attention.”


Like any good IT shop introducing a major project, the IT team at Peel District School Board started small, initially providing teachers at one school with laptops. But the feedback from those teachers indicated that they didn’t need the mobility of a laptop. Instead, they preferred to have a desktop computer, using a data key for mobility. With this approach they could have an LCD projector in every classroom for about the same amount of money.

Now the Board has about 24 schools with a desktop computer and LCD projector in every classroom, along with Internet access and substantial supporting resources. More schools will be brought into the initiative next year, and several others are so keen on the approach that they’re starting down this road themselves. Still, with over 230 schools in the district, progress is frustratingly slow.

“One of our challenges is how to get it out there fast enough,” said Williams. “We talk about a six-year plan but there’s a sense of immediacy – that we need to do it now – because we’re convinced it really makes a difference and we’ve got students in our system now who don’t have access to this.”

Unfortunately, rolling the initiative out isn’t simply a matter of buying and delivering the equipment. That can be done quickly enough. The biggest challenge is changing how teachers teach. That’s what takes the time.

“You can’t just drop technology off at the door. It’s really a change management issue,” said Williams. “With any initiative there will always be those that are really keen to figure out how to use it. But how do you move the entire system forward as a whole?”

To address this issue, the Board is using a variety of methods. The most important is direct one-on-one coaching. Coaches, who are teachers themselves, go into the schools and work with the teachers, moving them forward from whatever level they may be at. If they’re not accustomed to technology, the training can be as basic as showing them how to operate the equipment, but if they’re already tech savvy, the coaches will show them things like the latest Web sites.

“One of the impediments is how long it takes for people to be able to absorb new methods and change how they do things. And with the number of schools we have, it just takes a while for that to percolate through,” said Williams.

It would be natural to assume that it’s the older teachers who are having the most problems, but according to Williams that’s not the case. There are those who are comfortable with technology regardless of their age, and those who are not. It’s the job of the coaches to help everyone adopt the new approach, regardless of age.

And because it’s the coaching that takes the time, the Board is taking a multi-pronged approach to training.

“We have a media team at the Board and they’re doing videos. We’re video-recording teachers, showing how they teach a particular subject using Web sites and Web resources. And then we’ll post those online so that other teachers can see them,” said Williams.

“We also can communicate with all the schools in the system by means of a broadcast. If we want to show them a new resource we’ve got, for example, we might choose to do it that way.”


‘Teaching with Technology’ is only the most recent in a series of IT initiatives intended to help the Board meet its key strategic objective: student success. Another that’s already in place is called MyClass, the project which won the Board it

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