Alberta schools are investing more in technology than anywhere else in the country, but critics say higher interactivity doesn't amount to higher learning.
By Michelle Stockal | February 11, 2010
Illustration by Darcy Muenchrath
“Remember – bubbles in your mouth and marshmallows for your feet,” resonates a teacher’s voice over the sound of giggling children in the hallway. It’s a clever method to keep a troop of elementary students quiet as they walk down a hall. Most grade schools have a “be quiet” slogan that reminds children to walk softly and talk quietly, and this is Wild Rose Elementary School’s.
This type of interaction between students and teachers are the familiar sights and sounds common in every level of school life. But while it seems some aspects of school never change, others do and some of the fundamental ways teachers interact with students are changing with technology. If you walk into many Alberta classrooms nowadays, you won’t find a blackboard and chalk; these cornerstones of education are gradually being replaced. In their stead you’ll see interactive whiteboards (IWBs), which combine the abilities of a chalkboard, a computer and a projector. They have turned the classroom experience into something more visual and interactive, with children manipulating the board to take part in some activities or to complete some tasks. In essence, the IWBs operate as large, touch-screen computer monitors. They can provide elementary students with pictures to go with their singalongs, junior high students with a fullscreen, 360-degree tour of Tokyo using Google Streetview or high school students with the experience of an elaborate frog dissection, without the bodily fluids.
“Teaching 50 years ago was completely different from what it is today, and even what it was 10 years ago,” says Catherine Adams, professor of secondary education at the University of Alberta. “Teachers are becoming more like facilitators [of information] than teachers of explicit content.”
Although earlier generations of IWBs have been around for two decades – especially in Britain, where every primary school had at least one by 2007 – Alberta schools have only recently encouraged their uptake. In 2008, Alberta Education’s Innovative Classroom Technology grant pledged $55.5 million over three years to stock every grade 1 to 12 classroom in the province with an IWB, a data projector and a computer for the instructor. The majority of Edmonton schools are investing in the boards. More specifically, they’re investing in Smart Boards, manufactured by a Calgary-based company.
“Alberta is on the forefront of investing in technology in schools,” says Adams. “Alberta Education and the Edmonton Public School Board have always been willing to be pioneers in a variety of different directions and in their willingness to experiment.”
Besides investing in IWBs, Alberta Education is completing a research program called Emerge One-to-One Laptop Learning, where select schools provide each student with a laptop to work from. And some schools are going even further. Richard S. Fowler Catholic Junior High School in St. Albert is putting an iPhone or iPod Touch in every student’s hand to share work with each other and their teachers through the Wi-Fi network and to use programs like Etch a Sketch to draw diagrams.
Erika Englert, a Grade 1 teacher at Wild Rose Elementary, says the Smart Board was part of almost every lesson last year, and she now wonders how she ever taught without it. She says her students are more engaged when she uses the Smart Board because it makes everything seem like a game.
Many teachers share Englert’s excitement about IWBs, but not all of them. “When we first got them, teachers were afraid of the technology,” says Paul Borchert, teacher and resource facilitator at St. Thomas More Junior High, who adds that educators are having to spend more time creating lessons for the new technology.
Dolores Powers, a veteran teacher at Wild Rose who is retiring in 2011, says teachers have much to learn and little time to learn it. “I spent too much time setting up [the IWB] and not enough time interacting with the children,” she says. Powers also believes some educators feel pressure to use the IWB in their classroom because, at $5,000, it’s too expensive a machine to leave sitting idle.
For some schools, the question of how to offset costs for technology next year has yet to be determined. Some, like Wild Rose, have raised funds through casinos. To install an IWB in each of its 11 classrooms cost the school $46,000. No other capital purchases were made that year; funding for art and physical education were shelved for another term.
Adams fears that schools can’t financially sustain the trajectory of this technology. “The transition has been blackboard to whiteboard to interactive whiteboard, and there’s probably some exponential curve to that. Our schools are not funded at a level in order to sustain these kinds of technologies.” She says that if the government is serious about digitally revolutionizing classes, they will have to start budgeting for buying new machines every three or four years, upgrading the software and paying the staff to maintain the whole system – which she doesn’t believe they are doing.
Nurit Reshef, a consultant with Edmonton Public School District’s technology department, believes IWBs are worth the investment because young people today are inundated with technology. “If we are not going to change the way we teach, [we’re] going to lose a whole generation of kids.” She says traditional teaching methods haven’t been able to keep up with the pace of the students’ lifestyle at home; she hopes that IWBs will act as a bridge, speaking to kids in a manner they already know.
A quick survey of fifth grade students at Wild Rose – who were introduced to IWBs last year – shows immediate excitement. Becca finds it “cool how you can write on the board … [it is] easier to read, type and write.” Another student, Kaylee, says, “School is a lot faster and fun.”
But students are also the first to note flaws, such as the board taking too much time to calibrate. When the IWB crashes, Powers says the kids jokingly refer to it as the “dumb board.”
Adams says integrating technology in the classroom is becoming a necessity to ensure students’ digital literacy, but it won’t necessarily improve the learning outcomes for students like Becca and Kaylee. “We know that lower class sizes promote student achievement. We have much higher learning outcomes with lower student-to-teacher ratio. We don’t see those same improvements with investments in technology.”
According to Adams, there’s no independent research showing a correlation between integrating technology in classrooms and better student performance, but she points to some evident potential benefits: enhanced interactivity, the ease for teachers to line up instructional multimedia material and increased student engagement and motivation.
But Adams cautions that any signs of success, especially increased engagement, could be short-term, tied to the general excitement experienced when anything new is introduced to students.
“Twenty years ago, PowerPoint was very exciting, and some studies showed improvements for post-secondary students in some subject areas … But over time those increases in performance have not been sustained,” she says.
Most teaching professionals agree that no matter the gadget or brand, students’ interaction with the teacher is the most valuable part of their education. Sherri Fricker, a lead teacher of technology integration at St. Albert Protestant Schools, cautions that what matters is the educator: “It’s a tool that teachers can use. When the right tool is in the right hands, teachers can make a difference.”