Despite the growing pervasiveness of technology, it has been banished from the classroom for years. Seen as distractions, cell phones and handheld games were confiscated. Screen time was limited to computer class and the teacher controlled the pace at which all students learned.
But somewhere along the line, we hit a turning point: educators realized technology could help them teach more effectively. Enter Blended Learning: an educational philosophy that advocates the combination of face-to-face learning with course material available online. Instead of forcing students to keep up with the teacher in the classroom, they can take the material home and control the pace at which they learn. Because the definition is so broad, the practical application of this philosophy can take on different forms.
Administrators at Talmud Torah Elementary School and Herzliah High School say they believe their schools are ahead of the curve when it comes to bringing technology into the classroom in Montreal schools.
Students coming into school now are much more tech-savvy than their forebears, says Talmud Torah Principal Michelle Toledano. “The visual stimulation and that whole aspect of technology must be reflected in the school environment, otherwise children find school irrelevant,” she said.
They began the process about six years ago, acquiring the hardware and software, and then training the teachers. Since then, there has been a lot of trial and error to see which programs will engage students and ultimately meet the goal of giving them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in our technology-centric society.
“We want to make sure students are taught in the way they learn best,” said Ellie Grumberg, the educational director for the two schools. Students in first and second grade are given login information for an online reading homework program. They must read three times a week for at least 10 minutes. The student chooses a book, which at first is read aloud to them, and then the student reads it and takes a reading comprehension quiz. Each student starts at level one and progresses to books that are slightly more difficult, depending on their ability.
Certain programs produce data on each student’s progress, which is then sent to the teacher, who can monitor for trends and tailor their lessons to address what the students aren’t grasping.
Then there’s the Flip Classroom strategy, which, true to its name, flips the traditional role of the teacher and the way class time is usually structured. The student’s homework is to listen to the teacher’s lecture, which is recorded for them. At home, they can pause, rewind or replay the lectures as many times as they need to. The teacher can then use class time to clear up any questions the students may have about the material and spend more time on more complicated concepts.
Kindergarteners at Talmud Torah are learning about the principles of engineering and coding by programming robots made of Lego. The children use step-by-step images to create simple commands for the robot to stand, lie down and walk backwards, among other things.
Even parents were surprised their kids were learning such seemingly complicated material at that age, Toledano said. “For (the students), it was really just about programming a robot in a fun and interactive way,” she said.
Students from kindergarten to Grade 11 benefit from the school’s approach to integrating technology into learning, but there’s no blanket approach, Grumberg and Todelano believe. Not every subject has a technological component, and the school doesn’t send every student home with an iPad.
And despite the emphasis on letting students learn at their own pace, both educators are aware that at the end of the year, each student has to meet government-set criteria in order to move on.
Toledano pointed out that the blended learning model allows teachers to identify struggling students earlier in the year. “At the end of the day, every child is unique and we want to make sure that we meet their needs to the best of our ability,” she said.
Toledano and Grumberg say it’s too early for the schools to have any empirical data that can indicate what kind of impact, if any, this model has had on their students.
But they do say that integrating technology has changed the game in their school. Grumberg said at the high school level, students are better prepared when it comes to content creation – like making podcasts and building slideshow presentations, skills they will need when they move on to CEGEP and university.
Toledano said the approach lets the students get more involved in the learning process.
“What we’re seeing is that the children are extremely motivated (and) hugely engaged when it comes to their learning,” she said.