Technology makes teaching “come alive” at Canadian School Board

“We can’t always build the future for your youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Franklin Roosevelt

Building our youth for the future.

For Laura Williams, chief information officer (CIO) at the Peel District School Board that’s what education should be all about.

For Canada to prosper, she says, we need to be training students entering the educational system today for the year 2020…the year they would graduate.

“And our responsibilities aren’t just from K to 12,” Williams says. “They include understanding the competitive arena in which we operate and preparing our children to meet the demands of the future.”


As CIO of the second largest school board in the country, each day Williams personally experiences the challenge and thrill of striving to make that vision a reality.

She shared some of those experiences last week at the CIO Peer Forum 2008 in Toronto, an event organized by the CIO Association of Canada that brought together CIOs and other C-Level Executives from across the country.

Williams recognizes that preparing students for the world as it will be in 2020 – a world that has yet to exist – can be quite a daunting task.

For one, she said, we need to come to grips with a rather peculiar reality of “digital immigrants” teaching “digital natives” – a phenomenon so vividly portrayed by author Marc Prensky in a 2001 article.

Prensky had used the analogy to depict the generation gap separating today’s students (the “digital natives”) from their teachers (the “digital immigrants”).

In his article, Prensky had advocated a radical re-invention of “Digital Native methodologies for all subjects, at all levels, using our students to guide us.”

Teaching with Technology

At the Peel Board that re-invention began in the Fall of 2004 with the launch of the Teaching with Technology program.

The goal was to use technology to make learning more engaging and collaborative.  It was also to offer teachers access to reliable technology tools and support them as they integrated these into their programs.

The model put in place makes it easy for schools to participate.  Today the program has been rolled out in 31 elementary schools and four secondary schools.

From a hardware and facilities perspective, requirements for participating schools are pretty straightforward – one LCD projector, one computer per classroom – and a computer lab.  

Williams said so far participating schools have been provided with the equipment. The initiative fast-tracks schools so they receive all the equipment at the same time.

Coaches support each school by working with staff, instructing them in the use of the technology.

Improving the student’s learning experience is the sine qua non of the Teaching with Technology initiative, and Williams says that goal is well on its way to being realized.

“Seeing is understanding” – the slogan Grade Five students from a participating school came up with – epitomizes how “technology is helping learning come to life,” Williams said.

And this phenomenon of technology making routine activities interesting is something even tiny tots experience.

As a proof point, the Peel School Board CIO cited the runaway success of Reading with Technology initiative (a facet of the Teaching with Technology program).

Typically, she said, in a kindergarten classroom, during shared reading activities, teachers read out from a little printed book. “But this is the Much Media generation. So when you have an onscreen 4×6 feet book, every kindergarten kid pays attention.”

And that, she said, is just one instance of the kinds of media rich and shared experiences students are enjoying – thanks to the program.

“Even the basketball team uses a Web site to review and analyze the movement of players on the court.”

Williams said staff members are also exhilarated with the new ways they can integrate technology into their programs and the impact this is having on their classes and their ability to interact with students.

Cool collaboration tools

For instance, participating schools use electronic collaboration tools – built on SharePoint – a Web-based collaboration and document management system from Microsoft Corp.

These tools have proved to be invaluable in setting up and sustaining learning communities include:

  • A Coaching portal – Coaches put a lot of resources that can be used by teachers on this portal built on Microsoft SharePoint. Most of the coaches are teachers themselves, Williams notes.

“So we have teachers coaching teachers on how to enhance their teaching practices.” She said this practice of sharing information and best practices with colleagues is absolutely critical to the success of the project.

“We want to foster organic professional learning communities that enable people – through tools such as wikis and blogs – to participate in a social network where they continue to grow and learn from one another.”

  • MySchool – This tool has been pushed out to 230 schools, and is used differently in each school. “The idea is to provide schools with a space where they can share calendars, a space for discussion – and engage in social networking,” Williams said.
  • MyClass – enables teachers to create class-specific Web sites that allow them to connect to students and parents. So parents would know when the homework is due, when there are critical tests scheduled and more.

From the students’ perspective, a great thing about the MyClass Web site is the fact that it’s “available anywhere, anytime – at home, at Starbucks, wherever students may be,” Williams noted.

On the site, there’s a space for general and homework assignments, and for other resources.

Currently 3,000 teachers use MyClass, Willams said. “Getting 3,000 teachers on board means we’re serving around 70,000 to 90,000 students with these Web sites, and as many parents.”

The hallmark of all these tools, the CIO said, is simplicity of use. “They are intuitive, and teachers could begin using them without any training.”

The Peel Board’s accomplishments with these collaboration tools have earned it widespread recognition.

Last year the board won the CIO 100 award for innovative use of Microsoft SharePoint to deliver school collaboration tools and homework Web sites.

And using these tools to connect with parents is also a vital part of the program. “We know parents can help every day to help our students succeed,” said Williams. “We’ve witnessed that anecdotally. Now we want to measure that.”

Awareness – the high-road to innovation

At the Peel Board, developing programs that harness technology to make learning more compelling is just one facet of the challenge.

The other is ensuring these programs and tools benefit as many of its students, teachers and parents as possible.

Given the magnitude of the Board’s operations that’s quite a daunting task. Williams cited some stats to illustrate the point.

The Peel Board, she said, is:

  • The largest employer in the Peel region with 20,000 (permanent and part-time) employees;
  • Has 145,000 students (and this population grows 3 – 6 per cent every year);
  • Opens around 4 – 5 new schools every summer


Issues and challenges encountered by the various board schools and students are very different, Williams noted.

She said a key learning from the Teaching with Technology initiative is that technology per se – though important – is just one piece of the puzzle.

Another equally important component, she said, is a grassroots “understanding [of] the business and culture.”

To get this understanding, Williams goes out personally to elementary and secondary schools around once a week on average.

“I actually walk the halls, sit in classrooms. It’s difficult to find that time, but it’s hard to explain how incredibly helpful this is to understanding the business.”

Harmonizing business and IT

Two other vital “learnings” that emerged from the program, have to do with IT-business collaboration.   Williams says this happy alliance is fostered in three ways:

Joint leadership – Right from the start of the project, a decision was taken that it would be jointly sponsored by Williams and a superintendent of education.

“This isn’t an IT project or a business project,” the CIO says.  “It’s an integrated project.”

“So all presentations and documents are co-sponsored. Our staff go to presentations together, [create] documents together, and get accolades together.”

She said to achieve this integration in practice takes hard work, but the results are well worth the effort.

Non-IT business meetings – Williams spends around four hours a week in meetings where no IT is discussed.

“Instead, I try to identify things affecting the organization today.”

She attends school board meetings and educational conferences, and reads education journals also help broaden her understanding of the business.

These activities, she acknowledges, do take time away from the “technical” work.  But the remedy isn’t to do it all.

“At one time I tried that but realized it wasn’t doable.”

She said CIOs thinking of assuming a greater business leadership role may have to let some of the technical stuff go.  “Rely instead on gifted people in your organization to do that for you.”

IT efficiencies creating capacity for innovation – With tight public sector budgets, the one way to fund innovative projects is by looking for other efficiencies within the IT organization.

“Essentially through efficiencies we would find the money to fund innovation projects.”

To accomplish this, Reynolds spends around 10 – 20 per cent of her time reviewing financials.

“I look at the numbers and consider where we can shift where we spend our money to create funds for innovation.”

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