Ontario school’s students put tablet PCs to the test

By the time students and their teachers at an Aurora, Ont. school figure out what’s so great about using tablet PCs in the classroom, they’ll be gone.

That’s because the pilot project, which involves a partnership between the York Region

District School Board and Acer America Corp. Canada, Intel Canada, Microsoft Canada and several other vendors, will be over in six months.

During that time, however, the Grade 8 students and teachers at Northern Lights Public School will all be outfitted with Acer tablet PCs using Intel’s Centrino mobile technology. Students will be able to access Aurora Cable Internet’s wireless network throughout the town, including at home. They will use the computers for virtually all aspects of their schoolwork, ranging from taking notes to creating artwork and presentations.

The school opened last September. It has 458 students, most of which are in the primary grades.

The vendors have contributed 30 per cent of the cost of each $2,900 tablet PC, said board CIO Nick Vollebregt. The board has been able to justify the expense, he said, because the 32 devices will be deployed to administrative staff, principals and vice-principals once the project is over. As well, the board will benefit from the research findings that come out of the project, he said.

“”I’ve been in IT over 30 years, and this really will be a breakthrough,”” said Vollebregt of the tablet PC’s ability to merge note-taking, printed and audio content, as well as its ability to save and search that content. “”I don’t think even Microsoft understands the (potential impact of the) functionality.””

Maybe not, but Grade 8 teacher David Brownlee seems to. “”The best part of the project is that it allows me to model collaborative learning,”” he says.

According to Brownlee, the introduction of mobile technology in the classroom, along with large LCD screens, has allowed him to become more of a mentor or facilitator than a traditional teacher. As well, it allows students to interact more with the educational material than they would normally be able to, he adds. For example, he said, students learning about cell structure can go online to an interactive Web site where they can see 3D images of a cell and take an interactive quiz at the end.

In another class Brownlee teaches, students are using their tablet PCs to develop mini-corporations that design assistive devices. That project, he explained, involves students creating logos and mission statements as well as product plans, tests and finished products. And while students could still do the same projects without tablet PCs, he admitted, it would take much longer.

According to Northern Lights principal Jim Forbes, the tablet PC project is part of the district’s push to introduce sustainable, replicable technology into the classroom.

“”We want to introduce technology into our educational strategy,”” Forbes said. “”We want to know how we can benefit and how we can share that knowledge with other schools. That’s the more difficult challenge.””

As well, the board has introduced a professional development component in order to make sure teachers know how to best use the technology to serve the board1s integrated content strategy.

To help ensure the benefits of the project trickle down to other schools in the district, teachers are on three-, four- and five-year contracts at Northern Lights, after which they will move on to other schools.

But the tablet PC project is only one of several high-tech initiatives the district is undertaking. Northern Lights, which is the only York Region elementary school wired with fibre-optics – including all its high schools and board offices — is rolling out a voice-over IP implementation over the next month or so, Vollebregt said. The board has chosen Nortel as its provider, largely because it already has so much Nortel equipment, he said.

“”Nortel has provided all the switches in our closets,”” he said. “”When this opportunity came along we went to (Nortel) and said, ‘We have an opportunity for you to demonstrate the technology you keep telling us is so wonderful. Are you going to actually help us and financially contribute towards it?'”” The benefit for Nortel is that the school can be used as a reference site, he added.

The VoIP system will not only be integrated with the school’s wireless system – meaning staff can access voice and e-mail seamlessly over any wireless-enabled device anywhere – but it will also cut down on the long-distance charges the district incurs due to the wide geographic area it spans (from just south of Aurora up to Lake Simcoe).

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