Tiny Ontario school emphasizes guided online learning

Teachers at a small, isolated school in Northern Ontario are using technology to enhance the learning experience, and help students develop technology skills on par with students in any urban high school.

Located in Shining Tree, a small community North of Sudbury, MW Moore Public School

has 12 students from kindergarten to Grade 10 served by a principal, a teacher and a learning assistant. For Grades 11 and 12, students can either take remote courses online from MW Moore with some onsite instruction, or bus to another community two hours away.

When the school decided to upgrade its technology infrastructure last year it decided to go wireless, equipping each of their nine students in Grades 7 through 10 with a laptop and installing a wireless footprint that covers the school’s two buildings and campus.

MW Moore’s principal John Capin said technology was a part of their learning environment before but it was more of an afterthought rather then an integral part of the learning experience.

“If we’re working on a science lab and we need to input data, it’s a lot easier to bring the machine to the lab rather then have the students work in a lab and then go to a computer room,” said Capin. “Because it’s wireless, it’s mobile; they can go to any building or go outside with it.”

When they head outside the school for an environmental science activity they can also take the laptop with them, doing research in the field while they’re doing the work.

“It makes it possible for the students to develop more technical literacy skills by using it not an add-on but as an integrated tool in their everyday studies,” says Capin.

In addition to enhancing the learning experience, the technology also helps to guide it. A school intranet is accessed through an icon on the desktop, with a page for each grade mapping out the day’s activities. Students find each assignment, the expectations and hyperlinked reference Web sites. Students can read material, work on activity, and then discuss what they’ve learned with their teacher.

With the multi-grade environment, it lets the teacher plan activities so they can work with one grade for a certain amount of time and then move to the next grade. Capin said he was careful to build in lots of interaction with the teacher though, so students don’t feel they’re working in isolation and their level of understanding can be assessed.

“We don’t want to isolate the students so they’re just working with the technology and not having any interaction,” said Capin. “But it develops quite strong skills in self-guided learning, independent learning and literacy development.”

John McDonald of JV InfoTech Solutions is an IT support person for the school and helped plan and implement the upgrade. McDonald said the school’s isolated location presented some challenges, but he’s really excited about the way they’re using the technology.

Three D-Link wireless hubs were installed in the school’s two buildings to provide wireless access. The bulk of the software programs the laptops run are installed on the server, so McDonald said distributing the load to make sure no one access point gets overloaded, degrading network performance, was a challenge.

“Linking to the file server is critical to this operation,” said McDonald. “The file server also allows them to get an IP address and access the Internet.

Students are using the Microsoft Office suite of programs, as well as a library of licensed software from Ontario’s Ministry of Education, developing skills in Web design, flash animation, and other areas.

The nearest community with broadband Internet access is two hours away, with dial-up performance usually topping out at 28.8 kpbs, so Internet access for MW Moore is via two-way satellite. It offers access comparable to low-end broadband access.

“With their resources, small schools rely on finding reliable sources of information for school purposes on the Internet,” said McDonald. “A small school can’t have a large library, so they have to get it on a CD or get it by Internet and even some of their software, such as their career software, is Web-based.”

The laptops are from Dell running Windows XP Professional supported by a server running Microsoft Active Directory. McDonald said Windows XP offers some great capabilities around multimedia, but the enhanced network security made it difficult to run some of their older programs.

Since he works four hours away in Wawa, McDonald said one advantage to the new network is with each laptop running remote administrator his support task is made much easier.

“For many tasks, as long as the computer can connect to the Internet, I can often work from Wawa on the computer,” said McDonald.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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