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The wired classroom (1999)

Various technologies used at Appleby

It's more than enough to distract anyone from trigonometry. Hands go up around the room.

"How did you get it to show up there?"

"Would that be a pen, or a marker, or what?"

"Does that show up on your screen? In your writing, or in the computer's?"

It's new ground for the students, and a new program for the school, Appleby College, a co-educational independent school in Oakville, Ontario with 567 students in grades 7 through OAC. Despite pressure from parents and politicians, cost constraints have left the classroom one of the last places to accommodate technology's pervasive influence. Appleby's two-year-old "e.school" program - the school has a trademark on the name - aims to re-vamp education to make better use of technology in education.

At first glance, Appleby's solution could seem drastic: the 355 students in grades 9 through 11 had to lease or buy laptop computers for the 1998-99 academic year. There was no opting out, and almost all classes put the machines to use. All students used the same laptop - IBM Thinkpads with 233 Mhz processors - to provide a level playing field.

"You have to have a computer to be here," says Jane Hamilton, Appleby's director of communications, who also teaches journalism. Ultimately, the cost of the laptops will be covered as a technology fee. "When you enrol at Appleby," she says, "it will be: 'Here's your tie. Here's your jacket. Here's your laptop.'"

The school has re-wired classrooms to eliminate hazardous tangles of wires and power bars; a tidy jack on the top of each desk provides both power and access to the Internet and the school's local network. Even the chalkboard, the most venerable and recognizable teacher's tool, has been phased out in favour of the "interactive whiteboards" that so intrigued Tracey Duldhardt's class.

Appleby's headmaster, Guy McLean, has seen the school through the changes, which began three years ago. (The first year, teachers were given laptops to familiarize them with the technology and give them an opportunity to prepare to teach using them. This year, all of Appleby's 567 students have been equipped with laptops.) McLean is confident the program leaves the students better prepared for a working environment radically different from the days when trigonometry was taught with a slide-rule.

"I don't see why students - adults, too, but certainly students - wouldn't want to be as comfortable with computer technology as we are with flipping on a light switch or driving a car," McLean says.

As the program expands, students are changing their work habits to make use of their new tools. The rough copy, for example, may become obsolete - a student familiar with word-processing is likely to write an essay only once, modifying as new ideas are adopted or facts discovered.

McLean says students seem to be taking a more self-guided approach to learning, because the Internet makes it easy to pursue questions that others might see as tangential to the curriculum.

"It changes the nature of the learning some students are experiencing," McLean says. "We're starting to see a different type of essay or story writing and editing process in English courses. We're starting to see students develop different types of research skills to take more of the advantage of the Internet and the huge amount of information that's there."

In Kristina Farentino's calculus class, some of the benefits of the e.school program are taking shape. Farentino draws the graph of an equation on the whiteboard at the front of the room. As she changes elements in the equation, the line gradually moves across the screen. The fact that there is a relationship between the equation and the graph is obvious, even if the specifics are vague.

"They can actually see what's happening," says Farentino. "Even if they can't do the algebra or the technical manipulations, they understand the concept - which is a great starting point for them."

Farentino's demonstration takes only about half an hour out of a 50-minute class. She spends the rest of the period going from one student to the next, checking each one's progress.

She welcomes the "found" time. Teaching the same material with a blackboard used to require much more time - some of it just for erasing and re-drawing graphs, she says.

"I'm able to work at a quicker pace. I can then take the time to review the concepts that they might get stuck on initially, or take up the homework, or walk around the room and help students who really need attention."

On their own time, students can download Farentino's class notes to their own computers. She says this lets them concentrate better in class, writing their own notes and focusing on understanding concepts rather than simply copying what's written on the board.

To generations who went to school with pencil cases and dog-eared notebooks, the idea of a wired classroom takes some getting used to.

"You walk in and they're reading The Taming Of The Shrew with their laptops open, and you think, 'What are they doing?'" Hamilton says with a laugh.

After all, Shakespeare and calculus both pre-date the computer by hundreds of years. But the philosophy of Appleby's program is not to teach new material; it's to teach old material in a new way. Few classes are specifically about technology, and even those are basically introductory. Computers are not a subject unto themselves, but a tool for explaining others.

For example, in Hamilton's journalism class, students can visit newspaper Web sites all over the world in minutes to see how a single story is covered from different perspectives. The same thing could be done with a big pile of actual newspapers - and a couple of weeks.

"It's made learning more interesting for them. It's opened some new doors for them," Hamilton says. "It adds a new dimension to education. Instead of just talking about it, you're actually doing the experiments right there, on-line."

On the receiving end of the e.school program are the students themselves. Caught working on their laptop computers between classes in the school's technology centre, Grade 9 students Anar Jassani, Candice Debleu and Cathryn Sibbald talk about the program's merits and drawbacks.

Debleu has embraced the Internet and the computer, she says, especially in writing. She does most of her research on the Internet, listing the Web sites she visits in her bibliographies. She doesn't bother with a rough copy, preferring to write an essay only once and then modify it as she goes along. "I have no patience. I write on the computer because it's so much easier to delete and cut and paste."

Jassani, on the other hand, has a lingering fear of computers because of all the projects she's lost to computer crashes. She also finds it easier to concentrate in class without a computer. "I need to pay attention in science. I get diverted," she says.

In one class, having her laptop running made her miss the whole lecture, she says. "I didn't pay any attention to my science. I didn't know what was going on. The next class I just kept my computer off and it made such a difference."

All three use E-mail to keep in touch with students and teachers, and they agree it's a mixed blessing. It makes sense to get E-mail from a student they haven't seen for a few days, but getting E-mail from someone sitting across the room seems excessive. "People don't talk as much," says Sibbald. "They E-mail."

And Debleu complains: "Our school is turning into a computer city. You see people in class but you don't talk to them."

As an independent school, Appleby is better positioned for the e.school project than most public schools would be. The most obvious obstacle for public schools is money. So far, Hamilton estimates, Appleby's e-school program has cost about $500,000, and the expense is ongoing. Also, the logistics of setting up a laptop-based curriculum across the province seem insurmountable.

"Creating this for 560 people is quite sufficient as a problem, for me," says McLean."Doing it on a system basis, as a matter of public policy, would be enormously difficult."

However, McLean thinks that at some point, technology will have to make broader inroads into education, and he hopes that something like Appleby's e.school program will find a wider audience.

"I don't know how it will happen, but it certainly should happen. It needs to happen."

—David Nodwell
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