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Technical support

Schools prepare students for the digital world

In the mid-1990s, educators at Appleby College in the suburban Toronto community of Oakville were deliberating among themselves about the role that computers should play in their classrooms. As part of that exercise, they polled the students about their use of the technology. The results were clear and unequivocal, and led to a fundamental overhaul of the teaching methods at the school, which currently has about 700 boys and girls from Grades 7 through 12. The internal survey revealed that 100 percent of students had a desktop computer at home, 95 per cent had Internet access and 40 percent had the use of two computers.

Those numbers confirmed for the faculty that Appleby College, now in its 93rd year, had to keep pace with its students, and the rapidly changing world in which they live. Their solution was to create the "[email protected]" program, based on what the college Web site describes as "the best technology available in almost any Ontario school." Since 1998-99, students have received an IBM ThinkPad notebook computer at the start of the academic year, which they use daily in all their classes, says Stephen Poplar, Appleby College's assistant headmaster for information technology.

"We're preparing our students for the world of the future," Poplar says. "We're preparing them to be interactive members of that future and to be leaders. Computer technology is going to be a major part of their world."

Educators widely share that sentiment. "We think that for kids to be literate in the world of tomorrow, they're going to have to be conversant with computer technology," says Bob Snowden, headmaster at St. Michaels University School (SMUS) in Victoria, BC. "Students lacking those skills will be disenfranchised."

Still, the rush to embrace technology has raised questions, particularly among academic experts, about the effectiveness of computers in the classroom. Researchers in both Canada and the United States have been studying the issue but the results of various initiatives are far from clear, leading some academics to recommend that parents exercise caution, and examine closely the claims made by educators.

"I would ask teachers or the school itself three main questions," says Robin Kay, who teaches human learning and development at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa. "How is the technology being used, how is it beneficial and how do you evaluate the use of the technology?"

Kay, who taught at private schools for eight years and is now researching how people learn with computers, says parents should avoid being swayed by impressive lists of computer hardware and software at a school. Instead, they should obtain e-mail addresses of teachers to make direct communication easier, and they should ask for teacher websites that allow them to monitor course contents, homework and assignments.

Educators at several Canadian private schools stress they teach children how to use computer software and, at the same time, use computers as tools to enhance classroom learning. Poplar says subject teachers at Appleby College are responsible for instructing students on the uses of different programs. English teachers, for example, groom youngsters on the use of Microsoft Word. Science faculty teach Excel and guidance counsellors familiarize youngsters with e-mail through Outlook Express.

During classes, teachers at St. Michaels University School use their laptops, computerized projectors and electronic whiteboards to display lessons, Web pages, videos, photos and even hand-drawn diagrams. Every building is wired and students tap into Appleby College's internal ACNet to check for course information, homework, school announcements and information from coaches.

St. Michaels University School, which has about 1,000 day and boarding students from kindergarten through to Grade 12, relies mainly on desktop terminals in classrooms or computer labs, although it has some laptops available. Bill Buckingham, head of the computer department, says the school opted for terminals rather than laptops because they are less expensive to purchase and maintain.

The school offers several dedicated computer courses but has integrated the use of computers into the curriculum. Subject teachers, Buckingham says, are expected to use course material to encourage the creative use of computers. "We try to make our courses drive the technology," he says. "In too many cases, it's the other way around. Schools get technology and then (ask) how do we use it in different courses?"

Control, alt, delete?

Some schools take a hands-off approach to computers. Phil Swann is a computer engineer who designs microchips for ATI Technologies, and the father of Alastair, 9, and Kira,7. Despite his professional background, Swann and his wife send their children to the Toronto Waldorf School (TWS), where students are not allowed to use computers in class until high school.

"Kids need balance," the Richmond Hill, Ontario resident says. "They are ready to receive certain kinds of knowledge at certain stages of their lives. The Waldorf program is designed around that idea."

Barbara Erikson, a Grade 2 teacher at Toronto Waldorf School, says children learn best through hands-on experience and perceiving the world through their senses.

Erikson, whose 16-year-old daughter Katerina is one of 400 students at Toronto Waldorf School ranging from nursery school to Grade 12, says students from Grades 1 through 8 can use computers as research tools at home, but school work is written by hand. In Grade 9, Toronto Waldorf School introduces computer science courses. Students learn how a computer works by taking one apart and putting it back together. They are also encouraged to use computers as research tools.

"We want them to use computers without becoming overly dependent," Erikson says. "They are tools for learning. They are not responsible for teaching at the school. The curriculum is for teaching."

Montessori educators also hesitate to embrace computers. Canada's 500 to 600 Montessori schools with more than 13,000 students are individually owned and free to make their own decisions, says Sally Hooper, former executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators (CCMA). But through Margaret Whitley, academic administrator at the Montessori House of Children in London, Ontario, the CCMA has developed a set of best practices designed to keep technology in line with Montessori principles.

Whitley recommends that computers not be used in class for youngsters aged three to six. After that, they should be introduced gradually.

Whitley is unequivocal on one point: "Computers should never replace teaching a child a concept when it can be taught through Montessori lessons."

Instruction at St. Michaels University School begins in kindergarten, with children using computers to learn simple mathematics and to play memory games. In Grades 3 through 5, students use computers to write short stories, which they e-mail to a published children's author under the Writers in Electronic Residence program (see http://www.wier.ca/ for more information).

Middle school students in Grades 6 through 8 and senior students in Grades 9 to 12 do much of their computer works in labs, Buckingham says. Grade 9 students have a choice of two computer programming electives: robotics or visual basic. In the robotics program, they build small robots out of LEGO and program them to perform certain tasks. The following year, students take a mandatory computer course to learn how to use spreadsheets, advance formatting in Microsoft Word and other applications software. Computer courses are offered as electives again in Grades 11 and 12.

Throughout high school, however, teachers in all subjects integrate the computer into their curricula. 4Grade 9 fine arts, for example, is divided into three segments: drama, art and communications skills. Even in such non-technical subjects, students use 3-D computer modelling to design stage sets in drama; they use CorelDraw to produce digital graphics; and they learn how to use Web sites as tools for presenting information.

For the past five years, Rothesay Netherwood School in Rothesay, New Brunswick, on the outskirts of the city of Saint John, requires its 230-odd students to purchase their own laptops. Students carry their laptops with them all day and each classroom is equipped with power outlets.

"I can't remember the last time I was in a classroom when the computers weren't turned on," head of school Paul Kitchen says. "We're not insisting on laptops simply so they get used. We want to provide better learning opportunities."

Homework assignments are posted on a school intranet site and all homework is done on the laptops. Students can e-mail their teachers in the evening and on weekends, and some teachers administer tests online. As well, parents have passwords that give them access to the intranet site so they can check up on assignments.

The school has also begun distributing report cards electronically, which means parents all over the world receive them simultaneously, including parents of students from South Korea, Germany, several African nations and from across Canada.

At Lynn-Rose Heights Private School in Mississauga, Ontario, computers have added a contemporary edge to an educational environment built on traditional values. The school, which now has 250 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 8, grew out of three day-care facilities called Play and Learn Children's Centres that were founded in 1987 by Marie Attard and Tara Bullock. Attard says students are taught back-to-basics etiquette and moral values, but at the same time are acquiring computer skills essential for the future.

She and her partner have relied on one of their parents, computer engineer Alp Batur, to design a lab with 17 terminals, which reflects the fact that class sizes are limited to 16. About one-third of the classrooms have at least one terminal. The school has purchased age-appropriate software to use for teaching, as well as a digital camera for use in the lab and a high-resolution laser teleprinter.

Students spend time in the lab every day and each youngster maintains a file, accessible only by password, where work is stored. "It's an awesome lab," Attard says. "It's equipped with today's leading technology."

For his part, Batur judges the school's computer program not by his own professional standards, but by the work his nine-year-old son Berent brings home. The Grade 4 student is already capable of using advanced functions in Microsoft Word to move files and to create documents containing tables and columns.

"I'm quite impressed with how much he knows," Batur says. "When I compare him with kids from other schools I can see how the lab has made a big difference."

—D'Arcy Jenish
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