Teachers in New Brunswick are reinventing education’s 3Rs to train students who may one day be the vanguard of the province’s tech industry.
New Brunswick’s NB3 program, which was launched last year, places special emphasis on literacy, mathematics and science.
The idea is to improve the analytical skills of grade school children, according to John Kershaw, deputy minister of education for New Brunswick.
A vital part of the project was the distribution of laptops to around 600 students from grades 7 through 12. These kids were placed in a study program that emphasizes individual research and collaboration across online networks.
The program also redefined the role of a teacher from the conventional “instructor” to that of a guide.
For instance, using their laptops, kids in the program browse the Web to identify projects that fit with the subjects they’re tackling.
Students research chosen topics and are graded on completion of projects.
Online collaboration with teammates, other students, and resources persons is encouraged. Teachers who previously used to direct the course, now “guide” students instead.
The grade 7 class of 2009 is still a long way off from graduating from university, but Kershaw says the program has already produced tangible benefits.
For example, the level of involvement in assignments went up noticeably among program participants, and classroom behaviour has improved. Students with learning disabilities, who were placed in the program, also displayed better class engagement.
The ultimate aim is to help students develop the learning skills they need to meet the demands of today’s world, said Kershaw.
And this, in turn, involves developing key skills, identified by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international outfit that helps governments tackle financial, social and governance challenges of today’s global economy. The skills are:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Ability to work with virtual teams and across various networks
- Agility, adaptability and capacity for lifelong learning
- Initiative and an entrepreneurial spirit
- Effective oral and written communication
- Accessing and analyzing information, including digital information
A new twist to the 3Rs
In recent years, New Brunswick has made great strides developing its technology sector and promoting itself as an IT jobs haven, despite the ongoing tech talent crunch afflicting many North American cities.
Firms in the digital animation, computer gaming, and IT security have set up shop in New Brunswick and two of the province’s cities, Fredericton and Moncton were recently named among the world’s top seven intelligent communities by the New York-based Intelligent Communities Forum (ICF).
The NB3 program is ideal for developing an IT-savvy workforce that will sustain the province’s economic development, says one technology analyst.
“Six decades ago, reading writing and arithmetic were the pillars. These skills remain relevant, but they need to be tweaked to fit the digital age,” said Carmy Levy, London, Ont-based independent analyst.
He said many IT industry insiders have been complaining about the falling interest of students in science and tech-related subjects. “Schools need to raise the awareness and skills to develop and use today’s new tools on which commerce and government depends,” Levy said.
“The economies of tomorrow will need students of today, who can speak the language of technology.”
Not just about technology
The program, however, is not just about technology, according to Larry Nelson, worldwide managing director of Microsoft Corp.’s K-12 learning program. Microsoft, through the Connected Learning program, is providing free use of its office suite and connectivity software tools as well as research funding for New Brunswick’s laptop project.
It’s all about developing an attitude — a desire to use technology for learning, said Nelson.
“In most developed countries, the technology is already there,” he noted. “We finds ways to use technology to help students become involved lifelong learning.”
The capacity for lifelong learning and critical thinking is crucial, the Microsoft executive said, as IT professionals and workers in general are now increasingly exposed to ever changing technology.
Another technology analyst agrees.
Part of the reason the industry sees declining enrolment in science and tech-based studies is because technology has become so pervasive in modern life, noted Jennifer Perrier-Knox, senior analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
“Technology has become a lifestyle as opposed to a career. Kids have laptops, are connected all day and have their iPhones and that’s technology for them,” says Perrier-Knox. “There is no sense of the role technology plays in the development and management of industry.”
Companies, she said, are also constantly looking for well-rounded IT professionals, who are proficient in the tech field but also possess soft skills such as communication and skills and insight to business strategy.
Levy said it’s a “win-win” situation for the province and the software giant.
The development of tech-proficient knowledge-based workers to fuel New Brunswick’s economy is one of the long-term benefits of the program, he said.
When the students graduate, he said, they will probably be more familiar with Microsoft tools and this will benefit the software company.
It’s a strategy many tech vendors have adopted for years. For instance, he noted the popularity of Apple’s products is partly due to the firm’s focus on the educational sector during its early years.
Many students, who grew up on Macs and its software programs, eventually became users or developers, Levy noted.
“It’s not about selling software now, but rather when these kids graduate some would have developed an affinity with the tools and will be speaking the Microsoft language.”