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Schools of the Future, Today

Inside BC classrooms where every student has a laptop or iPad, and the learning is 'child-centred.'

By Katie Hyslop, 15 Nov 2011, TheTyee.ca

Students at John Oliver Digital Immersion Minischool

Students at John Oliver Digital Immersion Minischool work off brand new Mac laptops. Photo: Katie Hyslop.

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For over a year the Ministry of Education has been hinting at a change in direction for the province's education system.

It all started in mid-2010 with murmurings about "21st Century" or "child-centred" education, with little to no explanation of what that meant, leaving educators, trustees, and parents to banter about ideas on blogs, listserves, and the Twitter-verse.

Even the recent launch of B.C.'s Education Plan has few answers -- just a plan to have a plan after engaging with education stakeholders.

But some schools are way ahead of the curve. By using technology, giving students the opportunity to choose what they want to study, or even just allowing teachers to deviate from the curricula norm, these schools have already taken education to the next level and waiting for the ministry to catch up.

Rise of the machines

Librarian Moira Ekdahl is quick to correct anyone who says John Oliver Secondary School in East Vancouver has a library. It's a Learning Commons now.

Stacks and reference materials have been replaced by laptops, iPads, and interactive white boards. There are still books -- Ekdahl swears they will never disappear under her watch -- but technology is taking over.

"It's really driven by giving kids multiple ways of accessing resources and information, and the tools to shape their own learning, and also to support new ways of teaching, because I think teachers need that support as well," she told The Tyee.

While any teacher can make use of the technology, there are two particular programs that use technology as a main tool in the classroom: the Digital Immersion Minischool and the iPad Literacy Cohort.

Running from Grades 8 to 12, the Digital Immersion Minischool has been running from John Oliver since 1997, taking in students from across the district interested in expanding their online skills. Though the technology has changed, the main objective never has: teaching students how to operate in an Internet world.

When The Tyee visited the Digital Immersion 8 class in early November, students were just getting their brand new Mac laptops, a requirement for the course. Working in groups, they negotiated the definition of "social citizenship" with the aim of creating a wiki on the topic, and ultimately establishing six concrete rules for a class code of online conduct.

"I think we've always been teaching those skills. I didn't grow up with this at school, but we were still required to learn how to critically think, how to problem solve, how to articulate our thoughts, how to present," explains teacher Zhi Su.

"The way we access and interact with information is different. If you look around you, you don't see students standing by the bookshelves and accessing books, they're all on computers, and that's what they tend to gravitate towards. It's up-to-date, latest information, whereas some of these books are older than I am."

Literacy: there's an app for that

Across the Learning Commons another group of Grade 8s are using the latest in technology as part of their curriculum. The iPad Literacy Cohort is 30 students reading three to four years below grade level, each using their own iPad as a learning tool in almost all of their classes.

"I like how it engages kids in a tactile sense, and I also use it to basically give them ways to explore learning on their own," explains James Francom, who teaches the group English.

When The Tyee visited, the topic was subject-verb agreement, co-taught by Francom and iPad literacy counsellor Paula Saor. After Saor explained the concept to the students via an old-fashioned lecture -- using 21st century technology like the interactive white board and digital video presenters -- the students completed quizzes via iPads found on Francom's blog, and found YouTube videos describing the concept to present to the class.

iPad learning

At John Oliver's iPad Literacy Cohort, tech 'engages kids in a tactile sense... gives them ways to explore learning on their own.' Photo: Katie Hyslop.

"We spent time going through the nuts and bolts of grammar, but that's really boring, and that's where [the iPad] comes in, that will let them use their tactile senses, will let them use searches in the classroom just to kind of enhance their learning," says Francom.

"They're working, they have control of their education, they have control of their learning, and it's a lot more engaging for them."

It's not just for English, either. There are iPad apps for science, math, and social studies -- the basic essentials of a good education according to the ministry of education.

"We have a lot of different apps on just getting those basic skills down. Details and learning, separating the main idea from the supporting details is, for some students, very difficult, and so they can go in here and practice and they don't have to show to the other kids that they don't get it. It's very private," says Saor.

Don't just count on technology

David Wees doesn't like to use the term 21st century education, since the idea of child-centred learning has been around for almost a century already. But the information technology learning specialist at Stratford Hall, a private school in Vancouver, is using 21st century technology to show his students how math isn't formulas to memorize, but a process you engage in every day.

"I'm not afraid to use technology in my teaching whatsoever. So I'll use graphing programs, and simulations, and whatever tool I can find that will help my students understand. In some cases, I'll build the tool myself if I can't find anything useful out there," Wees told The Tyee in an online conversation.

Students in Grades 8 to 12 use their own laptops to tackle mathematical puzzles that Wees designs, or create videos using their webcams or the school's video cameras to explain how they understand a particular math problem.

"I've frequently found that if students have more opportunities to demonstrate their understanding, that it also gives me more insight into their reasoning," he says.

"My students spend more time doing mathematics, which I define as more of an exploration and a way of thinking than a mechanical operation."

Wees stresses that success isn't about the best technology, but the quality of the teaching. Before he taught at a private school in B.C., Wees worked at an inner city school in Brooklyn, N.Y. with little money for technology. He made do by engaging kids in the building waterslides after school, which they used the next day for mathematical modeling.

"Some of those students had never held a hammer or a saw in their hands. The experience of creating stuff with their own hands was very empowering," he says, adding that he often works with students with weak math skills.

"I've found that some [students] enjoy mathematics for the first time, and feel like mathematics is an activity they can do, rather than something they have to memorize or struggle with."

Real learning is personalized: Wejr

Kent Elementary in Agassiz isn't relying on technology to update their teaching styles: they're cashing in on the extracurricular hobbies of teachers to bring out different strengths and talents in their students.

The Choices Program allows kids to pick from a list of courses outside the curriculum, such as knitting, theatre, gardening, sports, the arts, and even Crime Scene Investigation, they take every Wednesday for six weeks each semester.

Courses available are based on the interests of the teachers and staff in the school, since everyone, from the administration to the classroom educators, gets a chance to teach.

"Part of our goal has been to develop confident learners. For students to understand that they may struggle in math, they may be a great learner in other areas. So we wanted to offer things for students to develop their passion in, and also for teachers to teach in an area that they're passionate about, too," says principal Chris Wejr.

Now in its fifth year, the program has expanded to at least one other school in the Fraser-Cascade District, and has become very popular among students and parents. Wejr says there are still some teachers who aren't convinced of the merits of teaching children how to knit or dust for fingerprints, but he's pleased with the program.

"A key part of the 21st century education learning is personalizing it and for me, in order for us to actually have real learning, it's got to be personalized: it's got to be meaningful, it's got to be relevant, and it's got to be autonomous," he says.

"This is a perfect example of where kids have the autonomy to choose an area of their interest in which they can learn and explore their passions. This helps students to develop in a way that they understand that they can be a learner."

Government hand-me-downs

The overhead costs for the Choices program are minimal, with supplies often coming from within the school or through funding from the local parent advisory council.

But the students at John Oliver are not so lucky. Unlike previous years where Digital Immersion students would lease the laptops from the school, kids were expected to buy them this year at a heavily subsidized price of $1,000.

"We tried to supplement it through the fundraising initiatives that they put forward. So although they put $1,000 forward for it, it usually comes out paying about $600 for it by the time all the fundraising comes round and we give it back to the kids," explains principal Gino Bondi.

The iPad Literacy class got their technology at a steal through a two-for-one deal from Apple, paying $250 per device, and the transformation from a library into a Learning Commons was made possible by donations from John Oliver alumni, money from Parent Advisory Council casino nights, vending machine money, and GST rebates, all at a cost of about $115,000.

Although Stratford Hall is a private school, Wees says some parents struggle to afford laptops for their children. If kids can't get secondhand computers or hand-me-downs from older siblings, Wees says the school will quietly purchase a computer for the student. Not that Stratford's technology budget has much wiggle room -- most of their funds go towards upgrading the technology they already have.

None of these schools have received funding from the Ministry of Education for their initiatives.

At the opening of Revelstroke Secondary School last week, a reporter asked Minister George Abbott how poorer districts would be able to afford the technology required to update the education system. Abbott pointed to the non-profit Computers For Schools, an Industry Canada program that refurbishes old computers to sell to schools for a fraction of the original costs.

"There is an approximate three year refresh for major corporations, for the federal government, the provincial government -- we're all now on three-year refreshes to keep our technology current. What Computers For Schools will do is take our old technology, whether it's iPads, smart phones, computers, desktops, all of this stuff, they will refurbish them, and they will sell it at nearly no cost at all to schools," he replied.

Whatever the plan for the future of B.C.'s education system, districts not pleased with second-hand technology from government and corporations will need to foster creativity not only in their students, but in their school trustees who will be forced to think outside the box to find the funds to supply schools with the tools students need to be prepared for the 21st century workforce.  [Tyee]

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