Technology can be a powerful tool in the classroom
In today’s tech-filled world, a parent who inquires what a child did at school is likely to hear that students created a PowerPoint presentation on endangered animals or used an online encyclopedia to research ancient Egyptian burial practices. From high schools that require each student to have a laptop computer to schools with Smart boards (essentially an interactive, digital whiteboard) in each classroom, technologically-based tools are changing how and what students learn.
However, no matter how many computers or iPads a school might have, that alone is not a guarantee that these tools are being used effectively. Rona Katz, technology integration specialist at The Akiva School in Westmount, urges parents to ask questions about what their kids are doing with these tools rather than focusing on the number of computers in a classroom.
“Today’s children need to be producing content, not just absorbing it,” she says. “Parents should be looking for technology that is being used mindfully and in ways that are creative, effective and progressive, not just as a video screen or to correct workbooks.”
Katz takes the example of Smart boards, digital whiteboards that many schools are installing in every classroom. Katz says that too many teachers end up using them as a screen for showing PowerPoint slides or video clips. But what makes these boards special is that they can be used in an interactive way.
“Kids really like to come up and move things around on the Smart board,” she says. And students should use these boards in participatory ways — drawing illustrations for a math problem, for example. Katz offers another example of students who have used the Smart board and videoconferencing services to interview a former classmate who had moved to Europe.
Katz says that technology should also help broaden a student’s horizons beyond the classroom walls. For example, last spring, she had students exchange videos about daily life in Canada with students from a school in Japan. Organizations like iEarn Canada and Epals safely link students and teachers via technology (usually email or online forums) from schools around the world in order to create and work on different projects. These might include a forum where students post information and artwork related to holidays and festivals celebrated in their country or a project where students use six ordinary objects (a pencil, a plastic water bottle, a plastic bag, a rubber band, a paper clip and a piece of paper) to build as many things as possible.
Another trend Katz sees is using the Internet and/or email to make students’ work accessible to a wider audience. Last year, Katz oversaw the creation of various “wiki” sites, publicly accessible websites where people can add or comment on the information. Students at Akiva created wiki pages on the topics of Black History and the Holocaust. Katz is also involved in a music project where students at different schools use the GarageBand application to share different drumbeats, eventually weaving them together to create a collaborative piece of music.
In fact, Katz says successful use of technology in the classroom should focus on collaboration, something she sees as a critical skill for students. In a world linked by email, social media and instant messaging, working with other people is going to be a necessity, not an option. So Katz urges schools to develop projects where children use technology to work together, either within or even between institutions. She offers cloud-computing projects as one example, where the students use online software to collaborate on a single project worked on by many children, but accessed remotely and independently. This means a child in one classroom or school can work with other kids on the same document, by logging in separately and adding to the group effort.
Computers can function like a window onto the world when used properly, and Katz says the key is making sure that technology adds real value to the learning experience. “We need to integrate it into learning, the same way we need to integrate it into our daily lives.”
7 questions to ask teachers
- Is the use of technology in the classroom part of a wider school policy or an individual teacher’s decision?
- What computer and technology skills are teachers expected to know?
- Are teachers offered training on new developments on a regular basis?
- How is technology use incorporated into projects my child will be completing this year?
- How are computer resources made available to teachers and students: computer labs, computers in classrooms, Smart boards, laptops available to lend?
- What precautions are taken to ensure student safety online?
- How can parents support the efforts of schools to thoughtfully implement new technologies in the curriculum: fundraising for resources, assisting teachers with projects, holding information meetings for other parents, petitioning school boards for change, etc.?