Is it a brave new world or a threat to the learning environment? Parents and teachers debate the value of technology in a cash-strapped world
Stephen MacKinnon’s students are a worldly bunch. For six months last year, his Grade 12 Internet Technology class in the tiny town of Athens, Ont., participated in a “virtual classroom” contest, teaming with schools in Australia and the United States. Together, the cosmopolitan group brainstormed Mission 2000, an elaborate Internet game that challenges players to save the world from the Y2K computer bug. Across several time zones, the students conducted realtime work sessions using instant-messaging software. It proved to be a winning effort: last May, MacKinnon travelled to Hong Kong—with two students in tow—to accept second prize in the high-school category. “This is revolutionizing the way humans communicate,” says MacKinnon, 46. “And its happening before our eyes.”
Not everyone is enjoying the view. Long before the advent of the Internet, educators and parents debated the value of computers in the classroom. Now, many fear the intrusion of the Internet in the teaching environment. Others worry that the cost of wiring the classroom may threaten teachers’ jobs, or encourage cash-starved school boards to seek corporate support. But advocates argue that the Web makes education more accessible, equipping students with the tools they need in a knowledge society. Says Thérèse Laferrière, professor of education at Laval University: “The teacher ends up being a guide, rather than a transmitter of information.”
Ottawa is wasting no time in laying the groundwork. Last March, Canada was the first country to plug every public library and school—18,263 in total—into the Internet. By 2001, the SchoolNet program—funded by Ottawa, the provinces, school boards and corporations—plans to connect each of the country’s 250,000 elementary and secondary classrooms to the Internet.
The ranks of the wired are growing quickly. Rory McGreal, executive director of the federal-provincial agency TeleEducation New Brunswick, estimates that about 25,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 are enrolled in online courses. In Alberta, an acknowledged leader, 3,500 full-time students and 1,800 part-timers were involved in virtual schooling last
year, compared with less than 200 in 1997 Twenty elementary and secondary schools in the province now offer online courses. Some, such as St. Gabriel Cyber School in suburban Edmonton, are true virtual schools, specializing exclusively in Web-based learning. The province provides a computer and Internet access to families who home-school their children under the supervision of a local board, charging a $ 100-ayear technical fee and $60 for textbooks. All parents are free to choose home schooling, and Net-based courses have become a staple in many of those households. “This technology is very much in its infancy,” says Lyle Oberg, Alberta’s minister of learning. “But we feel it is the way of the future.” In British Columbia, roughly two per cent of the entire school population is taking Web-based credits developed by their own schools or by Open School, a division of the provincial Open Learning Agency. In certain districts, online courses are being used to relieve overcrowding.
In Ontario, the province’s educational channel has been a pioneer in promoting interactive classroom technology. TVOntario’s three-year-old Galaxy Classroom program uses video, fax and computers to teach elementary science and language arts courses to students in more than 300 Ontario schools, including an Internet component that allows classes to collaborate on projects across the province. Jan Donio, creative head of educational programming for the channel, says online education is evolving away from whole courses to study modules, allowing students to learn at their own pace. Says Donio: “If used appropriately, it can make you more confident as a learner.”
The best online courses offer a range of opportunities to interact both with the teacher and other students. Stephen Baker, a science teacher at South Huron District High School in Exeter, Ont., works part time designing his board’s online courses. He incorporates discussion boards that allow children to ask questions of others. And since online students can fool themselves into thinking they know more than they do, Baker includes a quiz at the end of each page. Almost every course includes a real-time chat room that is off-limits to the teacher. “That takes the place of the cafeteria,” says Baker, 48. “What we’re trying to do is replicate a school situation on the computer.”
Technology presents new challenges for teachers, not least of which is additional time. Baker says instructors typically check their e-mail several times an evening. At many schools, the lack of technical support is critical. According to teacher Linda Dyck, the introduction of the Internet last fall at Martha Currie Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., increased the number of computer problems. Dyck, who is also president of the Computer Using Educators of British Columbia, a professional development group within the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, says that her group estimates that hiring a part-time support person for each elementary school in the province would cost more than $300 million a year.
According to Heather-jane Robertson, author of No More Teachers, No More Books, the struggle with computers demeans the teacher’s role. Robertson perceives an almost compulsory enthusiasm for technology. Ultimately, she argues, the cost of computers will force school boards to cut teachers’ jobs. “I’ve never argued that there’s a hard-nosed intent to buy computers rather than teachers,” says Robertson, Ottawa-based director of professional development services for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. “On the other hand, I think it’s obvious that that’s one of the consequences.’ What Robertson calls “technolust,” combined with chronic underfunding, is prompting some school boards to turn to corporate sponsors. This fall, a handful of boards in Newfoundland, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta will welcome the Youth News Network, which broadcasts a 12'‘/2-minute television news program to classrooms each day, with 2xh minutes of commercials—in ex-
change for about $150,000 worth of state-of-the-art computer equipment per school.
Some parents are starting to question the proliferation of online education. In a survey conducted last June by the Angus Reid Group, 56 per cent of those questioned felt students are spending too much class time on computers. Toronto parent Annie Kidder, co-founder of People for Education, a parents’ group, argues that buying computers has become an easy way to placate parents. “What’s of more concern to me,” says Kidder, “is whether there are enough books and teachers in a school.” Cam Gibb, a parent from Thunder Bay, Ont., says his son Randy’s Grade 4 math mark dropped to a D from a B because classroom computers were causing too much distraction. Says Gibb, 39: “He told us that a lot of the kids were rushing their homework so they could get to the computers.”
Many researchers maintain that computers, when used properly, can improve students’ performance. Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter, professors at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, report that students of all ages have achieved superior results on standardized tests through the use of Knowledge Forum, a software package they have developed over the past 10 years. Used in 107 schools in 10 countries, the product allows teachers and students to build on one another’s knowledge by entering questions, comments and information on a given topic into a common database. That communal environment stimulates students’ natural curiosity, fostering self-assessment, teamwork and the ability to transfer ideas to new contexts. All are highly valued skills in a knowledge economy. “The teacher has to be very excited about watching knowledge advance,” says Scardamalia, “rather than controlling it. That kind of environment is pretty revolutionary.” It’s a revolution, like it or not, that is well under way. CD
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