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Mountain high schools set to pioneer digital revolution

Printed text to take backseat to tablets in two-year pilot

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Two Mountain high schools will help lead the way this September on a plan to provide computer tablets to every Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board student and teacher in grades 4 to 12 over the next five years.

Education director John Malloy said a two-year pilot project will include Mountain and the soon-to-be renamed Barton, along with seven elementary schools in the north end and special needs students from Parkview who are shifting to Delta.

He said the initiative isn’t about technology, but rather “about how kids learn and how we as educators support that learning supported by technology.”

“We would argue that we need to provide our students with the tools to engage in both the physical and digital world at the same time. It’s no longer something that we can simply wait for, it’s upon us,” Malloy said.

“It doesn’t mean we’re ignoring foundational skills or the important expectations in the curriculum,” he said. “It’s about looking at subjects in a more creative, interdisciplinary way. It’s about ensuring that each student’s needs are met.”

Malloy said he will present a business case to trustees next month and seek conditional approval of a plan to roll out computer tablets to all schools by 2019.

While he didn’t have a price tag, he said the plan is based on existing school budgets covering the cost, including by reallocating spending on textbooks and supplies.

“Obviously, we’ll have some printed text in every school because we’re not saying there’s anything wrong with that,” he said. “But complete reliance on printed text does not give us access to this digital world that our kids are living in, that we are living in.”

Malloy said although only a few school boards around the world have provided computer tablets to all students, there is already a successful Canadian example in Quebec.

The Eastern Townships School Board there issued laptops to 5,600 students in 2003 and in the next five years saw its ranking  jump to 23rd among the province’s 70 boards, up from 66th, according to a study by two Montreal university professors.

The study found the laptops brought a dozen benefits, including that students were more motivated, paid more attention, took charge of their learning and had better interaction with teachers and parents.

On the downside, the study identified “two major challenges”: occasional technical breakdowns disrupted learning and some students visited unrelated websites when they were bored, especially during math exercises.

But study authors Thierry Karsenti and Simon Collin found the latter “did not appear to be the norm among the students.”

“Most students stated that they preferred to use their laptops in class for education rather than social or recreational purposes,” they stated. “In fact, neither students nor teachers particularly enjoyed using their laptops for recreational purposes.”

Malloy said the goal in Hamilton is to broaden classroom learning by allowing students to explore questions they may have about a subject, rather than having them memorize facts and figures.

He said when studying the Second World War, for instance, the teacher might convey the key concepts and then let students tackle issues of interest, like how they might have approached a problem or how the conflict applies to today’s world.

That’s important because the board is hearing from employers and others that students need to have an “inquiry mindset,” he said.

“We are allowing students to tell us more about what they wish to study, where they have questions and how they want to proceed. We’re trying to create more of a learning environment that is like a think tank.”

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