Five years ago the technological innovation of choice in Ontario schools was the ‘Smart Board’. Originally available at a cost of about $3,500.00 per unit, these portable, large screen interactive whiteboard systems promised access to learning resources which would make traditional text books and chalk boards seem obsolete. Challenges with student engagement could also be overcome, as “digital natives” would embrace the technological platform as their gateway to learning. The underlying assumption seemed to be that for young people growing up with devices in their ears, hands and pockets, the traditional classroom “medium” was a barrier to the curriculum “message”.
School administrators and parent councils across the province apparently agreed that interactive whiteboards could invigorate and exponentially expand learning opportunities, and so they organized fundraisers and prioritized their budgets in order to purchase this tool for as many classrooms as possible in their schools.
To my knowledge, a systemic study of whether the capacity of these devices has been fully utilized has not been undertaken. I suspect that if we were to investigate on a school by school basis we would find a huge variation in teacher comfort and skill, resulting in a range of applications, from a very expensive film projector to full integration with the learning curriculum.
The recent announcement by Apple that they believe that the iBooks 2 interactive textbook app, accessible on their iPad platform, will revolutionize how and what students learn is a testament to how rapidly technological changes are advancing. However, the suggestion that each student should now learn independently with their own personal unit, rather than as a class with all eyes focussed on the same screen, represents not just another upgrade, but a fundamental paradigm shift.
While we may envision a system in which every student is provided with an iPad along with their timetable and locker number when they register in September, there are a number of significant challenges to consider, including some which have yet to be resolved in relation to previous iterations of technological innovation.
For example, we may query whether the education system as it is currently structured could support the kind of breadth and depth of professional development which would be necessary to capitalize on the potential of a new delivery model. Whereas young people typically have several hours a day to hone their technological skills, adults do not. Comedian Brent Butt captures some of our grown-up angst when his Corner Gas character Brent LeRoy boasts of reading something on the “interweb”. Brent and his audience may not be the only ones who still think of slate, rather than ‘smart’ when they hear the phrase “put that up on the board”.
Before we can expect teachers, many of whom were trained in their craft before the first iPad, iPod or iPhone had ever come to market, to integrate new apps into their classroom method, it will be incumbent on school boards to provide them with the necessary professional development to do so effectively. Many school boards cover vast geographical areas, and are already struggling with how to fairly and effectively deliver staff training in the six annual Professional Development days allowed under the Education Act. Collective agreements and ministry policies further limit a board’s flexibility when it comes to introducing new training initiatives.
A student is responsible for the learning of one, and so is understandably drawn to any opportunity to experiment with the personal opportunities inherent in each new technological advance. Educators and their colleagues in administration, facilities, and business services, are responsible for the learning of many, and can be forgiven for seeing the challenges, along with the possibilities, in Apple’s proposal that public education embrace the educational revolution it suggests it can deliver. In Part II and III of this blog, I will continue explore some of these inherent structural and legal challenges.
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