ARCHIVED—Technology: A Tool To Enhance Learning
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In recent years, school boards have invested countless dollars in upgrading their computer equipment and teachers have invested considerable time and energy trying to figure out how to integrate technology into their teaching. But has technology really proven its worth in education? Does it really enhance learning?
Several of the Prime Minister's Awards recipients are actively involved in exploring the opportunities, challenges and limitations of making computers, the Internet and other related technology an effective classroom tool.
A distinct lack of data about the actual effectiveness of computers in the classroom caught the attention of David deBelle and his colleagues at Joyce Public School in Toronto, who were involved in a university research project a few years ago about knowledge building - having students share ideas and build on what each other knows, rather than just getting tasks done. Given the presence of technology in the school, it was also relevant to ask whether technology could facilitate this, and whether this was a practical thing to do in a public elementary school.
"With technology, there's always a cycle of great promise, hope, and selling," says deBelle. "But you can't just plunk the machines down and expect that we'll all get smarter. Technology is change. If you want to implement a program, there's going to be culture change, a ton of work, and plenty of opportunities to not use it well."
As a result of this project, deBelle and his colleagues have probably gone farther than most in making technology an effective classroom tool. And they learned a few interesting things along the way. For example, there are some simple things that computers can be used for to make schoolwork so much better. By teaching their students basic keyboarding skills, deBelle's students were able to hand in assignments that looked the same as their peers. From that point forward, he could focus on the content of the work not necessarily how it was presented.
Reading is another area in which a computer is helpful. Children can take a computer reading test, at the end of which they get a score and a suggested reading range. The latter helps the school librarian guide the children in their reading choices. Students can also read a book and then take a comprehension test on it, which the computer marks. Students, particularly boys, love the immediate feedback, deBelle says.
Special education students are also well served by technology in the classroom, says deBelle. He teaches his special education students to use Microsoft Word to help with their writing. And there are programs that say the words out loud as the student types them. Another program co-writes with the student. For example, if a student wrote "Once upon a" but did not know what came next, the computer would suggest the word time to help the student complete the thought.
As another Prime Minister's Award recipient, Grant Etchegary, found out, special education students also thrive when given access to video conferencing technology (see "Video conferencing connects school to the world"). Special education students who meet this way have no trouble introducing and talking about themselves, and playing games together. "It's amazing to watch with what great ease they use the technology," Etchegary says. The students at his school have developed friendships with their long-distance counterparts, and one group developed a website about their experiences with its sister school. A music therapy program has also proven very effective; with special needs students able to see and interact with music students.
After looking at all these examples of technology at work in the classroom, deBelle and his colleagues determined that the technology they were using was, in fact, enhancing their students' learning. A large provincial grant then allowed the school to see what the students and teachers could do with a bit more and better technology.
The school now has a digital music lab, which is unusual for an elementary school. deBelle co-wrote a unit integrating math and music, which focuses on areas in which the two subjects intersect, such as fractions and patterning.
deBelle also teaches his Grade 5 students robotics. In most school boards, this subject is not taught until high school, but deBelle is convinced that it helps even young children to think and solve problems in new ways. (deBelle recommends two books on this topic: The Children's Machine and Mindstorms by Seymour Papaert.)
deBelle gives the children a problem to solve - for example, getting a car out of a defined area - and has them build a device to do it. When they run into difficulty, they have to figure out how to fix what is wrong. "This is very motivating,"
deBelle says. "I've never seen kids so excited." And it is not just the boys; girls get really excited too.
For deBelle, it is a matter of staying a few steps ahead of the kids. There is also a big time investment required in terms of set up, and "lots of little pieces to keep track of," he notes with a voice of experience.
deBelle says that for all the sophisticated programs that his school runs, other teachers should not feel they have to use the latest, newest things to teach their students. KidPix and HyperStudio are both great programs to use with young students; they have been around for many years and are easy to learn. deBelle and his colleagues started small with simple tools such as these, and then, through grants and by participating in research projects, became known as technology leaders.
Susan Chow takes a similar approach. As North Surrey Secondary School's technology coordinator for the past five years, she has been focussing on increasing technology integration across the school's curriculum. She started out with her fair share of ancient equipment and technical limitations, but it didn't deter her from developing innovative learning activities that involved technology. In fact, Chow believes strongly that "courses, except technology courses, should not be dependent on technology but rather use technology to enhance learning outcomes."
Regardless of what actual hardware and software a school has, the bottom line is that the technology seems to be making children more interested in learning, comments deBelle. "It's amazing what kids will do when they want to. They listen and are focused. Many of the behaviour problems that are sometimes evident in the classroom just aren't there in the computer lab. Students are engaged in what they are doing, and what the Grade 5s used to do, Grade 2s are doing [now]."
Another benefit of simple technology, such as a laptop loaded with a graphics program and hooked up to a projector, is that difficult concepts come a lot easier to many of Andrew Hickey's high school science students at Holy Heart High School in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Instead of Hickey having to draw complex diagrams on the board, he could show animations with movement and colour on screen that set out the ideas much more clearly. "I had students come up afterwards to say that they had learned more in that one class than all of the previous year, because they could now see what I was talking about."
One remaining challenge is tying everything into the elementary curriculum. Fortunately, deBelle and his colleagues have discovered that technology helps them teach many of the things that their students have to learn, such as how to read, write and do basic math. In addition, they get to compose music and build robots!
"We surveyed our parents," deBelle says, "and they are very happy that their children are learning all of this in the school."