Canadian teachers shown how technology can make classes come alive

For the past year, Hewlett-Packard has been working with the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and teachers at Simcoe County District School Board, in Midhurst, Ont., helping teachers embed technology into every day lesson plans.

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Building on the pilot’s success, 14 new teachers in western Canada will be embarking on HP’s Technology Integration Professional Development Program for the 2009-2010 school year; collaborating with Canadian experts and students worldwide, to improve student engagement and achievement.

The program seeks to better prepare Canadian students for the workforce, said Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE, a Washington, D.C.-based, not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting the use of information technology in teaching and learning.

While the 21st Century classroom is hard to define, Knezek portrays it as being media-rich — with strong connectivity, an environment which encourages students to interact with peers, experts in the field or celebrities in non-conventional ways, enables them to work on problems with worldwide implications, such as social justice issues.

The HP program, he said, would focus on teaching teachers about the skills their students need to succeed today — and these go far beyond academic distinction. They are skills that exemplify creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration and understanding the responsibilities associated with digital citizenship.

“Gaining academic skills is important, but not everything.”

The new skills, Knezek said, would focus on more collaboration, rather than isolated learning and testing. “I think we’ll see less individual dependence on tests and exams.”

Students blogging as a specific author, such as Edgar Alan Poe, for two weeks would be an example of a creative English-literature lesson, Knezek said. And technology would enable real-time interaction, feedback and comments — not just from classmates , but also from students or experts around the world.

While innovative technology is being used incresingly in Canadian schools, but not at the same pace at which multimedia is being integrated into students’ personal lives, according to a report by the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, “What If? Technology in the 21st Century Classroom.”

“Many students feel that when they come into school they have to ‘power down’ to fit into an environment that offers fewer options for learning than are available in the life they live outside of the school,” the Association notes. “This can erode students’ perceptions of the relevance of education as they experience it in many schools today.”

It cites Canadian research that found a huge decline in intellectual engagement for students from grade 6 onwards, leading to higher dropout rates and difficulties moving to university- and college-level education.

As Carmen Fang, a grade 11 student featured in the Ontario-based report put it, “You can see it quite clearly — the students most advanced in the use of technology are those who are most disengaged in the traditional classroom.”

The Program works with a team of teachers within a school board, and assigns an educator-mentor for ongoing, year-long support for the creation of online, collaborative projects.

ISTE provides the research resources for the program. Each teacher team is assigned an account with ISTE that and allows them to participate in a discussion board, or forums for brainstorming new ideas.

Simply purchasing new technology for a school, such as a lab of new computers, won’t suffice for improving technology presence in a school, said Wendy Crawford, national education marketing manager at HP Canada in Mississauga Ont. Instead, she said, schools must shift their IT focus to the teacher, improving their comfort levels with new Web-based tools. 

By using ISTE’s National Education Standards and performance indicators, HP hopes Canadian educators will embrace technology to improve student engagement and help students use the Internet in a mature and responsible manner.

The program is customizable and can be adapted to meet each school board’s or private schools’, objectives, Crawford said.

The focus of the pilot project at Simcoe County has been literacy, or the way a student is able to articulate ideas in society.

The school board has recognized that schools which fail to include Web-based communication tools in lesson plans are not properly preparing students for the real-world.“We really became involved out of necessity and a sense of urgency that we needed to make changes to classroom instruction,” said Anita Townsend, principal of curriculum, K-12, at Simcoe District School Board.

“We recognize that students learn differently these days and want different things from a classroom experience. They are so involved with technology outside the classroom, so we are doing them a disservice by asking them to check technology at the door.”

Twelve teachers participated in HP’s first pilot project last year at Simcoe County District School Board, which allowed students to create digital products, as well as written work, Townsend said.

The teachers also used the Web to conduct real-time research, using video-conferencing to connect with experts, improved classroom collaboration through building blogs and wikis, and enhanced classroom lessons through simulations and interactive whiteboards.

According to the Ontario Board report, one of Simcoe County’s schools connected with a school in the United States and a school in Iraq, as part of the Machinto Project, an international ICT initiative, which sends picture books to children in war-torn countries, and facilitates interactive discussion about social justice.

Projects like these have resulted in an increase in student engagement, Townsend said, with teachers citing increased enthusiasm for learning when technology was involved.

And students with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactive disorder may have found learning in a typical classroom environment difficult, but have become more interested in learning when asked to build a multimedia presentation rather than write an essay.

 There was also an increase in teacher motivation and creativity, Townsend said, with more teachers expressing interest in the project and hoping to become involved again next year.

 “Once there is an immediate network with a few teachers, it becomes somewhat infectious, people start listening to their conversations and asking questions about how they can start the same thing in their classrooms.”

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