Technology Moves to the Head of the Class
- 18 July, 2008 14:07
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 is the second largest board in Canada. In 2007, it was given a CIO 100 Award by CIO magazine in the US 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."
Rolling out the initiative
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."
Creating a class Web site
'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 its 2007 CIO 100 Award.
MyClass was an initiative enabled by the prior adoption of an integrated Microsoft Email and SharePoint environment. This was implemented with the support of Concept Interactive, a local Canadian company that specializes in SharePoint.
"We wanted to create tools that extend the classroom. That's why we introduced MyClass, which provides a set of easy-to-use integrated tools that enable teachers to create Web sites for their class," said Williams. "Not every teacher will find that such sites are helpful for their particular students or subjects, but for those who choose to have one, we wanted to move the technology out of the way. A teacher shouldn't have to be a Web guru to publish basic information on the Internet."
The MyClass application was developed by teachers and IT staff working in concert. The two groups talked conceptually about what the initiative was trying to achieve, and then the IT department created wireframes, or mock-ups of what screens would look like. The teachers then provided feedback on what was being built.
"It was a very collaborative model for development," said Williams. "Teachers were very much involved throughout the process. We were always surprised at how they wanted things to look and feel."
Sometimes the teachers working on the application used it live in their classrooms, which sparked interest from other teachers and at times created hotspots of interest from those in particular subject areas.
"It's a much more formative way to do development compared to the traditional user specs," said Williams. "For something of this nature, I don't think you can use that traditional methodology as easily."
MyClass was piloted at a number of elementary and secondary schools in 2006, and the uptake was extraordinary.
"We were overwhelmed by the level of participation. We had over 1,000 teachers use it, and clearly it was helpful to them," noted Neal Larsen, manager of classroom technology at the Board. "Much of the success of the project can be attributed to the close partnership of the IT department with our curriculum department and participation of teachers in the initial design."
MyClass was quickly adopted by over 200 schools when it became available in the 2006-07 school year, and in 2008 the Board had 4,500 class Web sites in operation.
The effectiveness of the program has been confirmed by the huge response from parents, who affirmed that they are now better able to help coach their children and prepare them for tests. Instead of finding a two-week old spelling list crumpled in the bottom of a knapsack, for example, parents can now find such lists, and many other educational materials, on the class site.
"The parents like to be able to go in and see the assignments there on the class site, together with their kids. About 80 to 90 percent of our teachers are using MyClass," said Linda Galen, principal at Harold M. Brathwaite Secondary School. "By posting homework, important dates, resource lists, ideas for improving math skills, and links to helpful and relevant resources, teachers make the road to student success very transparent."
A side benefit of MyClass has been increased resource sharing among teachers. For example, one teacher did an excellent introduction to the Brampton library and published it on her MyClass site, and another teacher saw it and asked her if she could reuse it.
Said Williams, "What we're finding is that there's a great kind of spontaneous collaboration going on. There's a community beginning to form of teachers who are borrowing resources from each other for their own MyClass site. So internally we have to figure out how to make that sharing easier for them."
SharePoint has been a big help in this regard. Even though there's been huge take-up of the technology, no classroom training has been done to get users up to speed -- only online training has been provided.
"That tells you how easy it was for them to pick up and use," said Williams. "It was compelling enough for them to learn on their own, and that was important for us because we're pretty geographically dispersed and training is always a big consideration in any IT initiative."
When developing MyClass, there was a lively internal debate over whether or not to make the class sites password-protected, which would enable them to present a wider range of information. But with 145,000 students and 300,000 parents to deal with, managing passwords would be an enormous task. What's more, passwords would be hard for younger children to remember, and perhaps pose a barrier to new Canadians. So in the end, it was decided to make the sites open. That means no student photos, no information about class trips, and no publishing of marks. The sites are essentially used for the one-way dissemination of homework assignments and resources.
Another issue around MyClass is student access to a computer at home.
"I get asked about that a lot," said Williams. "The Canadian statistics for home computers are pretty high -- around 90 to 95 percent of households have a computer. What we find is the differentiator is the type of Internet access they have. Some households might have really high-end Internet access while others may have little or no Internet access."
Because MyClass is document-driven, it's fairly accessible with low-speed access. The Board also publishes software-based Microsoft viewers, which are free, so that households that don't have Microsoft software suites can still look at the documents.
The IT team at Peel District School Board has its sights set on delivering even more technology tools in the near future. "Our next focus will be what we call teacher-to-teacher," said Williams. "We want to increase the level of spontaneous sharing among teachers, and to do that we'll be creating an internal SharePoint application that will improve teachers' ability to share resources. With some help from our library people, we're now figuring out how to tag resources so that people will know where to find them."
A prototype for the teacher-to-teacher application has already been developed and several teachers are already fairly actively using it. The IT department will take the feedback from this and figure out how to improve the application. The department has already been told that the tagging needs to be done differently, so this will be remedied before the application is released more broadly this fall.
Another major project on the books for the IT team is the delivery of a Video-on-Demand server. "We're moving off of physical media so that we can deliver video into the classroom online. It'll be like Rogers on Demand but within our walls and for education," said Williams. The Board will buy the digital rights to educational videos and make them available electronically to classrooms throughout the district. This will eliminate the inconvenience of having only one physical copy of a video and will enable simultaneous broadcast to many classes at the same time. As well, videos can be bookmarked so that shorter clips can be shown. With Video on Demand, perhaps the Board will even screen some old movies, showing kids what schools were like when their parents' and grandparents were young -- back in the Dark Ages, before technology came to the classroom.
At just about any IT management conference these days you'll hear talk about the changing role of the CIO. And there's one question that's often raised: Does the CIO need to be part of the business? We asked Peel District School Board CIO Laura Williams to weigh in on this question, and her answer was unequivocal.
"I believe the answer is yes," she said. "In my role, I need to absolutely understand how schools work. I need to understand the teaching and learning process, which means the teacher teaching and the student, hopefully, learning.
"We hear a lot about how the CIO role is changing -- that it's not about being the senior-most technical person. And my personal challenge is letting go of some of that, because I love technology, I think it's fascinating. But you only have so much time and you need to spend that time really understanding what's important to the business and what's going to make a difference."
Williams believes that projects don't have to be technically difficult or sophisticated to be of high value. The challenge for the CIO is to knowing which projects are going to have the highest impact, regardless of their complexity.
"Around here we're always saying: How is life going to be different for a student? How is life going to be different for a teacher? These are key considerations affecting our technology decisions," she said. "Take, for example, vendor-driven upgrades. We've taken the stance that we're not going to do them unless it's going to make a difference to the school administrators, teachers or students. We've pushed back on a number of such upgrades because we don't see the value to our organization."
Williams said she's probably an example of how the CIO role is changing. "I spend a lot of time going to different schools and to board meetings, education conferences, workshops and things like that to really understand this business I'm in. The education sector has a language of its own. It's a people business, so it's more subtle than understanding something like manufacturing. A lot more subtle."