Private lessons in mobility

A Toronto private school for girls may have a lesson to teach other organizations as to how best to incorporate mobile technology.

“”There is a strong partnership between IT and curriculum,”” says Mary Anne Ballantyne, director of information technology at the Bishop Strachan School. “”Anytime

you have a large initiative anywhere, whether it’s business or education, there has to be a strong link between the business and the technology.”” In this case, she says, the business is education.

“”We think the success of our program is owed to the fact we’re joined at the hip in terms of implementation,”” adds Kim Gordon, the school’s vice-president of curriculum. “”We started our laptop program six years ago. We started by actually giving the teachers computers a full year before we decided to take a look at the curriculum. Throughout the years we’ve put together an implementation plan that has had teachers entirely re-write the curriculum to integrate technology. We think that’s different from a lot of places that layer the technology on top of an existing curriculum.””

Bishop Strachan’s IT plan is strategically aligned with its plan for curriculum, says Ballantyne. “”Whatever we do in technology, it has to be in line with the plan for curriculum.””

The IT department’s staff, which includes teachers, has a mandate to provide seamless technology in the classroom, she says.

“”There’s consistency of technology, there’s professional development that’s provided to the teachers so they know and understand the technology they’re using, and there is support in the classroom in the form of IT curriculum specialists and other support people when the teachers require it,”” Ballantyne says.

A private boarding school for girls in Kindergarten to Grade 12, Bishop Strachan’s curriculum includes technology-oriented projects in every grade and every subject matter.

After four years, Bishop Strachan’s first set of secondary school using notebooks are graduating, and the school has been able to gather useful information from their experiences, says Ballantyne, by surveying 150 students, as well as staff.

“”We have some preliminary data in from the students surveyed which is quite compelling,”” she says.

Since introducing the laptops to teachers and later to students, Bishop Strachan has used Hewlett-Packard technology, which has passed its rigorous testing every year.

“”We have specific criteria when we make a decision about our laptops,”” says Ballantyne. “”We conduct a two-month review of the existing technology. We take a look at the manufacturer we are using and we take a look at at least three other manufacturers.””

The school is currently in that evaluation process, she says.

“”The manufacturers come in and talk to us about their products and their laptop roadmap,”” she says. “”The next step is to get an evaluation product in, and we spend several weeks imaging them and putting them through a robust series of tests, including having our teachers and students look at them.””

The school particularly looks at the robustness of the case and the components, the weight and ergonomics, cost, as well as warranty and support, “”not only in terms of physical repairs,”” says Ballantyne, “”but the support of the manufacturer for what we’re doing. We have used HP products throughout our whole program, even though we evaluate it every year very stringently.””

Ken Price, marketing manager for HP Canada’s personal systems group, says Bishop Strachan is an example of how education has done a good job articulating the payoff for mobile computing.

“”They can change the collaborative experience, the teaching experience, the where-does-learning happen experience.””

HP Canada can also offer other related services, he adds, “”so they can come to us for infrastructure, for advice and consulting, devices, partnerships, wireless infrastructure — we have one-stop shopping.””

He says what makes mobile computing more practical is improvements in network infrastructure.

“”The concept of mobility until recently was not really accompanied by a stable and high-performance network,”” Price says. “”That’s what’s going on in the schools. (They) don’t want all of the learning to happen just in the classrooms.””

Bishop Strachan is always piloting technologies, says Gordon. It’s currently looking at where iPaqs and Tablet PCs could be incorporated into the curriculum, as well as wireless access.

“”Teachers are really skeptical and afraid of wireless,”” she says. “”They’re afraid of cheating and all of the issues we’re afraid of even without technology, but we have to pilot these things to get them over their worries.””

Late last year, Bishop Strachan set up its Technology Task Force, says Gordon, with a mandate to look at how technology can benefit the school and its students.

“”We want our scope and sequence to be one that will lead us into the next five years,”” she says. “”Our strategic plan looks at how to get the best darn learning tools into the hands of our kids and teachers to align with whatever the school wants to do.

“”You can do all sorts of things with technology that isn’t good.””

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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