The York Region District School Board has installed a videoconferencing program to help teachers learn how to integrate technology into the classroom in partnership with Microsoft Canada.

Microsoft Canada Thursday said it added the York Region District School Board (YRDSB)’s Literacy@School program to its roster of 11 international Innovation Schools programs (under Microsoft’s Partners in Learning initiative), which includes schools that are trying to enrich learning through technology.

The YRDSB is no stranger to integrating technology into the learning environment. Four years ago it opened Northern Lights School, with 450 students ranging from kindergarten to grade eight. There, all teachers had laptops, and between every four classrooms there is a discovery pod a little larger than the size of an average classroom that contains laptops, workstations, and an electronic white board.

The YRDSB-funded Literacy@School project is not an actual school, but is, rather, a “soft-walled” school composed of 20 demonstration classrooms. Its services include a kindergarten class using an electronic white Board to learn how to read, a kindergarten/grade one class using digital stills to build stories, a professor using open source program Moodle to communicate with their students and the parents, and a grade four through six class trying their hand at designing and producing digital video for class projects. Each is equipped with several laptops, an LCD projector, and desktop workstations.

The YRDSB put together the program, said Literacy@School principal Jim Forbes, to experience the use of technology as a tool for literacy — not just normal literacy, but digital literacy and media literacy. “There’s a changing role for the teachers — they used to be the experts who disseminated information, but now students have access to a lot of information. It’s not about getting the information, but about synthesizing that information, which is a higher-order skill.”

Forbes said that a major challenge for teachers is teaching their students what information is real, and what isn’t. “Kids go on the Net and they assume if it’s printed, it’s correct,” he said. So, in addition to using up-to-date tools like the Internet and software to teach their kids, and trying to integrate tools into the classroom, they need to know how to educate children on the Internet, said Forbes.

Director of Partners in Learning Jacinthe Robichaud said, “It’s unique to respond to this need and provide development for the teachers.”

Forbes wanted to take what the teachers had learned at the Northern Lights school and spread the word to other teachers, encouraging professional development that would engender technologically-augmented learning for the modern kid, as well as ensure their tech-savviness. “The York Region school district has 150 elementary schools and 28 to 30 secondary schools –we need to change their practices,” said Forbes.

“With this IT, it’s like, ‘Great: now what do we do with it?’ It’s a different world for a lot of us,” said Todd Wright, the YRDSB’s administrator of ICT and e-learning.

Literacy@School’s first project is a videoconference, set to take place on Feb. 15, that will give more than one hundred administrators a glimpse into demonstration classrooms that have successfully parlayed technology into a literacy tool. The YRDSB has employed Polycom’s PVX software to run a videoconference of three consecutive blocks in different demonstration classrooms. The feed will be beamed onto four large screens in the district’s Newmarket-based Leadership Centre.

Hong Kong-based literacy expert Carmel Crevola and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Barrie Bennett, along with the laptop-equipped administrators, will watch the three blocks, entering questions and comments for the teachers into’s blogging tool. At the end of the blocks, Crevola and Bennett will have a “face-to-face” dialogue with the teachers about their teaching methods and have the teachers address the administrators’ questions.

In the future, said Wright, Literacy@School activities could happen more regularly. Teachers who wished to take a peek into a technology-filled classroom could arrange a time with the teacher, then borrow a kit from the project that would include a camera, computer, and microphone set-up. Since they instituted a high-speed network last year, Wright said that in the future, he hopes that teachers will be able to patch in remotely to watch a class take place.

“A bridge unit that would dial in to a centre board would allow for that,” according to Wright, who is also working on setting up a communication tool for real-time chatting in tandem with the videoconferencing that could augment the VOiP abilities of verbal chatting. Multiple Polycom units would also enable classrooms to videoconference to work on projects together.

To keep this project up and running, Microsoft is contributing very little funding, said Robichaud, but it will offer its support through lending their experts to share their technology expertise. “We have to build this, and they’re offering capacity building,” said Forbes. While primarily motivated by philanthropy, Robichaud said that Microsoft Canada does benefit from a more technologically-skilled population. “It creates economic competitiveness and economic development. Kids need skills to work in the twenty-first century.”


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