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FEATURE: Educators use technology to reach new generation of students

Technology in Schools
Spectrum community school teacher Erin Porter teaches algebra to students using a Smart board.

It’s pop quiz day in Erin Porter’s math class. How well do her Grade 10 students know linear algebraic equations?

No pencils are sharpened, no papers are turned in. Instead, Porter hands out a class set of digital clickers that connect to the Smart board at the front of the room.

The first multiple choice question – on deducing the formula for the perimeter of a rectangle – appears on the large interactive monitor. Instantly Porter can see who’s still thinking, who answered incorrect and that 80 per cent of the class got the question right.

“I’ve seen the positive effects when you change up what they’re learning with some of the kinds of technologies they’re using on a daily basis,” Porter says. “If the engagement is up, they tend to be more focused.”

That’s why she’s devoted a significant chunk of her time as a teacher to mastering the Smart board and translating the usual lesson plans – typically taught on a chalk board, overhead projector or straight from the textbook – to an interactive, digital format.

The Spectrum community school teacher is one of hundreds of local teachers incorporating technology via computers and Smart boards as a way of promoting a new type of learning.

“Students are more interested if there’s a cool factor, and it definitely is cool,” says Grade 10 student Zach Gibson of the Smart board. “It’s a lot easier to stay focused in math this year … I never want to fall asleep.”

The 15 year old, one of Porter’s students, says he and his classmates appreciate when teachers acknowledge the changing times and integrate technology into the lesson.

“We’re so used to having phones, iPods, computers around. When we have the Smart board it’s a lot easier for us because it’s in that same category,” Gibson says.

It’s a sentiment echoed by teachers and administrators supportive of using these electronics as an educational tool.

“I think it’s a complement to existing learning … In education, we have to be careful that we don’t toss out what has been working well,” says Spectrum’s vice-principal Sharoyne Gaiptman.

Computers have acted as a bridge between traditional learning and what many schools are calling “21st-century learning,” or digital learning, says Torquay elementary principal Treacy Roberts-Johnson.

By the time students leave the K-5 school they’re well versed in how to use computers to research, word process and create visual presentations.

“We want them to use the technology to communicate, express themselves,” Roberts-Johnson says. “For us, it was about: how do we integrate technology with what we’re doing? instead of using technology for the sake of technology.”

Porter agrees. She doesn’t use the Smart board simply because there’s a novelty to it. Rather, she sees how it can benefit her and her students.

“This is a lot easier for me. I can be more focused and organized,” she says. “They’re not zoning out. They’re not falling asleep.

“There are so many opportunities with technology, but we’re also fighting the fact that (gadgets can be a distraction) if not used properly.”

For students like Gibson, who says his iPhone is never out of eyeshot, there’s a sense of respect gained for teachers who have the desire to change the format of classroom learning, even if what exists works for them.

“A lot of teachers teach a lot of different ways – that’s fine. But when you get someone like Ms. Porter who brings in something that we’re so used to using anyway, you get the feeling she really wants you to succeed because it’s like she’s reaching out to us,” he says. “She’s showing us that she understands times have changed and you can use technology in class to enhance the lesson.”

Math isn’t Gibson’s favourite subject, but he says he’s made huge strides this semester, which he attributes to being more engaged in class.

“We’re more motivated because we’re so used to being in that sort of environment. We go home and we’re on the computer, we go to math class and we’re pretty much on the computer,” Gibson says. “We’re all so dependent on electronics – the whole world is so surrounded by technology. It just makes sense to allow it to play a role in schools.”

A dying art?

The need to know cursive – the quick form of handwriting in which letters of a word are connected – continues to dwindle. The blame is most often attributed to technology as, more and more, written communication is being done electronically.

To try and keep up handwriting skills, many elementary schools are teaching cursive as a personalized art form rather than as just a way to communicate.

For example, Nicole Grant teaches fourth graders at Torquay elementary school that they can change the letter ‘m’ – an arm first, then two bumps – once they’ve honed their skills.

“Eventually you’ll be able to put your own style into it,” she says.

Cursive is still on the curriculum for students beginning in Grade 3, but it doesn’t get the same attention it once required.

“It isn’t pushed as much today as it was when I was in school because of their use of computers – that’s what they’re using to write,” Grant says.

James Hansen, principal of Doncaster elementary, says the last 10 to 20 years have been the most challenging for teachers trying to stress the importance of cursive to students. The reality is it’s a skill that’s not as vital now as it was for past generations.

“In 1980 it might’ve been a huge part of your success in Grade 3, but not anymore,” he says. “It hasn’t been abandoned here. I hope it doesn’t get abandoned. It’s still very useful for them to know.”

PART 1 of a 3 part feature

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