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Quebec success points way on Hamilton board’s tablet plan

Academic ranking soared as dropout rate plunged

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

A plan to eventually provide computer tablets to every Hamilton public school student in grades 4 to 12 is a “courageous” investment that could pay huge academic dividends, says a former education director who oversaw a similar venture in Quebec.

Ron Canuel said he’s heard “virtually every argument” against using technology to enhance classroom learning, but the experience at the Eastern Township School Board speaks for itself.

When the board first began issuing laptops to students in grades 3 to 11 in 2003, it ranked 66th among Quebec’s 70 school boards academically and had a 42 per cent dropout rate.

By 2008, its ranking had jumped to 23rd and the dropout rate today is around 17 per cent, he said, crediting the laptops for a big increase in students’ motivation and interest to learn.

“It’s probably the most significant decline in dropout rates in North America,” said Canuel, who is now president of the Canadian Education Association.

“People think, ‘How do you pay for such an initiative?’ Well, look at how many kids have been saved and look at the cost to society that has been avoided. It’s in the tens of millions of dollars, in the Eastern Townships’ point of view.”

John Malloy, education director for the Hamilton public board, said he will present a report to trustees next month on a proposal to roll out the computer tablets over the next five years without increasing the budget.

He said the board can do so by reallocating spending on items like textbooks and supplies that will be in less demand as students access online resources.

The plan is contingent on the success of a two-year pilot project that begins this fall and includes Mountain and the soon-to-be renamed Barton high schools, grades 4 to 6 at seven north-end elementary schools and Parkview students who are moving to Delta.

Malloy said teacher training for the first phase began last fall for the seven elementary schools and will start this September for the other participants.

The goal is to foster a more creative “inquiry mindset” by allowing students to use the vast array of online resources to explore questions they may have about a subject, rather than having them simply memorize facts and figures, he said.

“It doesn’t mean we’re ignoring foundational skills or the important expectations in the curriculum, but it is a shift to instruction,” Malloy said.

“We live in a physical and a digital world. It’s not the case any longer where one is a nice thing to do – i.e. technology,” he said. “We live in both worlds and our kids need to have the experience.”

Unlike inHamilton, Canuel said the Eastern Townships board had to go into debt to cover the $15-million cost of providing laptops to 5,600 students, a bill still lower than other options favoured by skeptics, like hiring more teachers.

His board spent more than $2 million on teacher training, which he said was crucial to the transition’s success, as was striking a balance between digital and more traditional learning.

“Everything has to be in moderation and what I would tell my teachers, and I continue to say this today, is that it’s not a question of quantity of usage, it’s the quality of usage,” Canuel said.

“Give me a teacher who’s going to use the technology 10 per cent of the time in a truly, truly effective way over a teacher who says I’ll use it 80 per cent of the time (and does it) in a poor way.”

Chantal Mancini, president ofHamilton’s Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation local, said she still has several outstanding questions about the tablet plan, but agrees proper training is a must.

While “teachers love to learn,” their training has to reflect a diversity of skills that require different approaches to be successful, she said.

“It just can’t be add it and stir. It’s got to be meaningful, it gives time for teachers to reflect and to be able to connect the use of technology with the curriculum,” she said.

“It’s got to be enough time that teachers actually get to practise, use it meaningfully and make sure they have support to ask questions if they need it.”

Mancini said the board must also ensure there is the proper technical support.

“They absolutely have to have staff and resources to support the technology, and it can’t be teachers assuming that,” she said.

“What happens if a student is working on their tablet and it malfunctions? Who do they go to for support? All those things have to be worked out.”

Canuel said based on his experience, it’s a smart move for the Hamilton board to roll out the tablets over five years.

“It allows you to adjust your professional development so that you’re meeting the need of the teachers,” he said.

“They will have some teachers that will take off with it, they will have some teachers that will move incrementally with it and then they will have some other teachers who will move a lot slower with it.”

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