Struggle to teach students ’21st century skills’ when classroom technology isn’t up to speed

Moira MacDonald, Special to National Post
Friday, Nov. 7, 2014

In the library at Jesse Waugh’s northwestern Toronto high school, there are a half-dozen computers all the students want: they know they’ll get logged in within five minutes.

“When you think of it, waiting five minutes to log in — that’s long,” says the 17-year-old Grade 12 student at York Memorial Collegiate. “But for school standards, they’re the fastest in the class.”

Such is life in GTA public schools. Hardware that can’t keep up with newer software and applications being fed into it and networks overwhelmed by too much digital traffic are two common problems that can plague public schools as they struggle to arm their students with so-called “21st century skills” such as technological fluency inside constrained budget envelopes.

Teachers trying to integrate more technology into their lessons — through games that build their math skills or a quick online quiz to see if students have understood what’s been taught in the last 10 minutes — can get frustrated when the momentum needed to keep students on task fizzles because a program fails to launch.

A 2013 survey of about 500 Canadian teachers by MindShare Learning, an education technology consulting company, showed a lack of money, up-to-date technology and professional development were the top three barriers to integrating technology into the classroom.

That makes the use of technology “inconsistent,” says Robert Martelacci, Mindshare’s president and vice-president of C21 Canada, a group that advocates for modernizing Canadian classrooms. He likens the situation to “pockets of innovation,” where some schools and boards are light-years ahead of others and where schools may still rely heavily on parent fundraising to buy what boards don’t provide.

The Ontario government echoed that analysis in a report last spring. It identified “too much inconsistency” in the use of technology in Ontario schools and a need to invest in new technology and infrastructure.  As a result, it is starting to roll out a three-year, $150-million fund targeted to pay for tablets, netbooks, laptops and professional development for teachers.

“When you break it down it’s not a whole lot of money per school district, but it’s more of a commitment than they’ve made in the last 10 years,” says Mr. Martelacci, adding tech companies themselves could also do more to make products more accessible to schools.

Mobile technology is changing things by steering school boards away from investing in anchored desktop PCs in a computer lab and toward leasing sets of laptops, netbooks or tablets that can be signed out or ferried around from class to class on a mobile cart. The emphasis is less on teaching kids about technology and more on integrating it, where it can be useful, into lessons in a range of subjects, from geography to science.

Although many school boards talk about the dream of “one to one”– a device for every student –most schools bridging the technology gap are doing it through a mishmash of school- and board-bought mobile devices, policies that allow students to bring devices from home, parents slogging it out at fundraising bake sales and silent auctions, and corporate equipment donations.

“If we could ever get to the point where we can outfit every student with a device, that would be wonderful. It just isn’t [possible] given public education and where we are right now as a large, urban school board,” says Peter Aguiar, program coordinator for 21st century learning at the Toronto Catholic school board. “We’ve had to make some wise choices. You don’t need the biggest and most powerful all the time to do some wonderful educational things.”

That board just replaced 4,650 leased netbooks for Grade 7 and 8 classrooms with 7,000 mini tablets and laptops, also leased and for the same cost — $3.3-million over three years — as technology prices start to drop. The focus at its high schools however has been less on providing equipment — it is, for courses requiring computers — and more on ensuring wireless internet access throughout, because students are more likely to bring their own devices anyway.

“Bring your own device,” or BYOD as it’s known is a central plank in the Peel District School Board’s bid to deal with the hardware/infrastructure sustainability conundrum. Since last year, even kindergarteners are invited to pack iPods with their lunchbags if parents let them. Attention is paid to ensuring students from poorer families aren’t shut out, so schools still provide some equipment and students are encouraged to share. The board has also negotiated several deals with tech companies so families can buy devices at a cheaper cost, including a $55 basic tablet.

The board insists this is not about getting more tech into kids’ hands (and at someone else’s expense) but is part of a bigger strategy to  transform classroom learning from an outdated hierarchical teacher-driven model to one where students and teachers learn together and connect with the world around them. That in turn ties into the 21st century skill-related drive in education to inculcate the “four Cs”: creativity, collaboration, critical-thinking and communication.

“BYOD wasn’t just about bringing your stuff to school. It was about opening up a whole world that’s bigger than we know … What it’s become is a whole shift in education,” says teacher Michelle Thompson.

On one fall morning her Grade 5 class at Mississauga’s Munden Park Public School is abuzz as student use tablets, laptops and iPods to apply their knowledge of mathematical place value through skill-testing games and activities. Ms. Thompson regularly uses social media to communicate to parents about what students are up to, including posting videos (all students have media releases), and to communicate with students about their work. That includes reminders about “digital citizenship” — appropriate, polite behaviour while using devices and being online: “Blowing up #Minecraft worlds while we’re working is NOT nice!” she admonishes in one tweet.

To support the grand BYOD venture, Peel spent $7-million out of its reserves to put in a seamless wireless internet system throughout its 240-plus schools. Last year the system handled 65,000 users and has capacity for 100,000.

The TDSB announced a goal in 2009 to have wireless technology throughout its nearly 600 schools by 2015. The date has since been moved to September, 2016, and the aim is not wireless throughout, but wireless zones to provide reasonable internet access. Up to 60,000 devices, mostly smartphones, have been used in TDSB schools under its own BYOD policy (schools can opt in or not) with just over 100,000 computer devices provided to the system. Some have been purchased by schools and some by the board, doled out in a targeted way to specific groups of students and programs.

What the TDSB has lacked is a coherent, up-to-date, board-wide strategy for how it wants to integrate technology into its classrooms. That’s coming this fall, it says.

And that’s the sort of thing needed to make good decisions about the best and fairest way to spend limited dollars on technology to support better student learning, says Mr. Waugh, the York Memorial student who is also a Toronto District School Board student trustee, and sits on the board’s learning technologies committee.

“If you don’t provide the structure for teachers and educators, there’s no need for technology,” he says. “If you provide educators with resources and teaching on how to use it, [and] they can take that and use it effectively, then that’s when we’ll see technology truly making an impact on education as a whole.”

National Post