Why can’t Johnny blog?

Photo illustration by Dave Donald

A growing number of teachers and parents say Ontario’s current school  curriculum will graduate scores of children who are 21st century illiterate. Inside the fight for more technology and social media in the classroom.

Every school day from September to June at 3:30 p.m., Aerin Guy meets her nine-year old daughter at school. On this particular Thursday in February, Guy bundles up in a green duffel coat to shepherd her daughter and the family pet spaniel through their busy east-end Toronto neighbourhood. With only seven short minutes before they reach their semi, Guy launches her standard volley of questions toward the fourth-grader. That’s just enough time to probe for satisfactory answers to that question asked by parents everywhere: What did you do in school today? Guy wants to know if something memorable engaged Scarlet’s attention—besides the fact her tooth fell out. Most of all, she wants to know that she didn’t spend the day tethered to a desk, filling out yet another paper handout.

Scarlet’s grade four classroom has only one or two  computers— that she’s rarely invited to use—and a smart board that mostly serves as a projection tool. There are no mobile phones, no iPods, no laptops (though the grade six class has recently received a few of the latter). For Scarlet, and many of her classmates, it’s a bit like living in the Middle Ages. Here is a girl who can spend hours parked at the dining room table, MacBook Pro resting at her fingertips, a Yamaha keyboard on her right. With easy flicks of her slender fingers, she deftly scrolls through a website that she lovingly planned and designed herself, with a little help from Mom. She’s only too happy to showcase a digital resume of blogs, slide shows, Bitstrips comics, videos (made with a Flip camera and iMovie software), a podcast, and websites. One site promotes a dog hotel; a second focuses on launching a dream restaurant to be managed with friends. Scarlet reports she’s currently at the hiring stage.

Guy and her husband moved into their home in the spring of 2011. They were drawn to the eclectic mix of neighbours, and the proximity to restaurants and shops. Guy was confident the local school’s French Immersion, enrichment programs, music string instruments, and an annual musical would be a good fit for her daughter. Excited, the family packed their belongings, left Fernie, B.C. and crossed the country to resume life in Toronto, where they had once lived. What the digital strategy consultant didn’t bargain for was the divide between her technology-rich home and a school that doesn’t show the same appetite.

Guy is among a growing faction of Ontario parents, teachers, and education specialists who believe kids need more technology in the classroom, from blogs to Facebook, mobile devices and beyond. Without it, they argue, children’s education will become woefully irrelevant in today’s fast-changing world—think of it as 21st century illiteracy. These educators know it’s increasingly difficult to engage today’s student, whose life outside of school is inextricably linked to technology. A grassroots movement of teachers —who are starting to sound more like techies—has mushroomed on Twitter, and now a global network of educators openly share new learning strategies, and spread the word that technology promotes critical thinking, investigation and collaboration. “Without technology,” says Halifax-based Paul W. Bennett, a long-time educator and a senior research fellow with Society for Quality Education, “there’s a real risk that students’ curiosity will be suffocated and their education will be stunted.”

Last September, Guy joined the school’s Parent Council in search of allies in the push to integrate technology into the classroom. Instead of encouragement, Guy says she received blank stares from teachers, a litany of excuses about priorities, such as curriculum and test scores, and apologies. In a school with one computer lab, she was told, everyone had to take a turn. The Parent Council was (and continues to be) more interested in fundraising ideas and lengthy discourses on how to spend fundraising dollars—not rabble rousing for revolutionary education. Short of becoming antagonistic, Guy isn’t sure how to push technology into the classroom as a tool for long-term learning. “There’s just no will,” she says. For too many parents, technology is still considered a toy—and a potentially dangerous one.

Guy isn’t alone. There are many towns and cities in Ontario where parents are not joining the debate about the role technology should serve in the classroom. Some parents don’t even know a gap exists. While some classrooms are transforming into digital classrooms, many school boards continue to agonize over the decision to install WiFi, uncertain how to manage classrooms and control student access to the Internet, and fearful that student devices will compromise network security.

Parents feel powerless to incite change when principals say they are just following board policy. Across Canada, each provincial ministry of education is responsible for creating curriculum, while school boards are given the discretion of deciding whether to install Wi-Fi and to permit the use of Personal Electronic Devices (PED) in schools. Depending on where someone lives, a school may have: Wi-Fi and allow mobile devices, allow Wi-Fi and ban mobile devices, or allow neither. Ontario alone has 72 district school boards, made up of 31 English-language public boards, 29 English-language Catholic boards, 4 French-language public boards, and 8 French-language Catholic boards, and is home to 4,020 elementary schools and 911 secondary schools. With the exception of Quebec, the provinces delegate the tracking of Wi-Fi implementation to the school boards, therefore rendering it next to impossible for parents to gage progress—or challenge the status quo.

To date, change has mostly come at the hands of visionaries. Take Ron Canuel, now CEO of the Canadian Education Association (CEA), a Toronto-based group of Canadian leaders in education, research, policy, non-profit and business committed to education that leads to greater student engagement. In 2003, as director general of Quebec’s Eastern Townships School Board, Canuel launched Canada’s first-ever 1:1 laptop initiative. The $15-million project—mostly bank loans with almost no government money—put 6,000 laptops into students’ hands. Canuel was driven by twin goals: Engage kids in learning and enhance the teaching environment. Five years later, drop-out rates in the Quebec Eastern Townships lowered from 42 percent to 21 percent, and its overall ranking rose from 66 to 23 (out of 70 school boards). Despite his success, trustees from other boards were not persuaded to introduce a similar initiative. “That’s what made me think,” says Canuel, “about what is it that really impedes change? It’s that issue of courage, moving forward, challenging the norm.”

Only an hour east of Guy’s neighbourhood, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) is doing just that. On the second floor of Dundas Central Public School, room 208 boasts one board-sanctioned computer, five refurbished computers, one Dell Notebook, one flip camera, one iPod touch, 10 iPad 2s, one digital sound system, one green screen, and a plucky teacher who decided three years ago that something in the classroom had to change.

Heidi Siwak, 47, is the first to admit she was not an ideal candidate to become an early adopter of technology—“I was the Luddite in the family.” But something big had been nagging this teacher with 21 years of practice: the students were no longer engaged. They were just “going through the motion of school.” Siwak recalls days when students showed waning interest in the curriculum, and days when she lacked the luxury of time to indulge student-driven learning. She finally conceded the world was changing. “I would have to learn what technology meant to kids,” she says, “I needed to understand the genres. I needed to be using them myself as writing tools, as thinking tools, as reading tools.” So in the fall of 2010, Siwak changed everything.

This year’s eager grade six students who inhabit the large classroom with majestic ceilings don’t know how many hundreds of hours Siwak sat in front of her home computer preparing for the shift in education. They are, however, thrilled they no longer need to rely solely on textbooks to find answers. Now when they need to research, Siwak is more apt to lecture on good web search practices or, better yet, suggest they Skype an expert and ask their questions directly. Siwak has watched the world become the new classroom: students are immersed in digital citizenship and good practices for working in an online environment—all components of the 21st Century Fluencies program promoted by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

In her new role, Siwak has morphed from teacher to coach. Rather than stand at the front of the class spouting content, she teaches thinking and encourages students to find opportunities where they can produce meaningful, original work that adheres to curriculum standards. They haven’t done away with paper and pen, but students are encouraged to record their stories, and to produce video posts on personal blogs that are shared with peers and parents on a board-supported social media platform. Last year’s class even made headlines after collaborating with a New York digital media artist, an Australian app designer, and a developer in Finland to plan and produce content for an augmented reality tourism app that promotes their town of Dundas.

The door to principal Barry Morlog’s office at Dundas Central Public School is wide open. He and vice principal Jennifer George (who has since been promoted to principal of another school) banter back and forth, finishing off each other’s sentences like a married couple. “I’m a computer dinosaur,” he says. “You were,” George says, placing emphasis on the past tense. “But I’m getting better,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter. My skills are not that important. It’s the people we have in this building who rolled this out for Jennifer and me.” He’s right: Morley has been blessed with a techie staff. He also works in a school board that was quick to recognize how students would benefit from the integration of technology.

The floodgates opened to this new way of doing school seven years ago when Morley’s district unveiled a plan to introduce Wi-Fi into their 94 elementary and 18 secondary schools. To date, only a third of the schools have Wi-Fi, evidence that implementation is a costly process that requires time to fully roll out across a school board. John Laverty, the superintendent of student achievement at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board believes they have been successful, because the people coming into the board share a vision to make teaching relevant on three levels: at the student level, teaching level and board level. Their philosophy is to create an environment where students and teachers working in groups can access mobile devices, rather than interrupt the work flow to access technology stored in a separate lab or library. “We’ve been able to personalize instruction,” says Laverty, “without losing that contact with the teacher.”

Despite such successes, however, training Ontario teachers to leverage technology in the classroom remains a formidable task. Jim Hewitt, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, describes the Siwaks of education as “maverick teachers” who are creative and resourceful enough to experiment with technologies in the classroom—and who are also among the minority. “We are currently not doing a great job of training our teachers to use technology in educationally effective ways,” Hewitt says. He adds the Ontario government is exploring the idea of mandating longer teacher preparation programs, which would allow for more in-depth study of critical topics such as educational technology, among other things.

Zoe Branigan-Pipe, a seconded teacher in the Hamilton-Wentworth district, pre-service instructor and co-hort advisor who trains student teachers at Brock University, champions technology’s potential to help elementary and secondary students learn, especially those who typically rank in the bottom half of the class. Thanks to audio and video, for instance, students can learn without relying completely on text. It should be mandatory, she says, for teachers to learn how to teach literacy using technology. Yet even her enthusiasm is tempered when she considers that some teachers, though comfortable with technology, may not be confident with using it effectively in education—even if they do have access to it. Others may not be able to use it at all. “It worries me,” Branigan-Pipe says, “that we are encouraging students to use tools that we ourselves [the profession] are not proficient at.”

Take Robert Bell, who teaches a split grade 4/5 class just down the hall from Siwak’s. “The problem is that I’m learning five minutes ahead of my class,” he says. “I’ve taught older grades and I’m about five minutes behind them.” And while the introduction of technology has been an adrenaline boost for Bell, he has his reservations. He believes technology is a good tool for teaching literacy and math skills, but also that it’s not that simple. Technology will not make a bad teacher shine. Ultimately, he says, it is a teacher’s energy and enthusiasm that will engage students.

Yet, if teachers do not use technology in the class, can they realistically prepare students to meet tomorrow’s workplace challenges? Geoff Roulet, a Queen’s University education professor with a specialty in information and communications technology, says no. Roulet tells parents: “You’re training students for irrelevant and unpaid work if you restrict their learning to memorizing things and doing very basic skills that can be programmed.” The question is: Are parents listening?

Annie Kidder is the executive director and co-founder of Toronto-based People for Education. Her organization talks to parents every single day—sometimes up to twenty a week—and fields even more questions online. The organization was established in 1996 to engage parents, school councils, and communities in matters about public education policy and funding changes in schools. It also does research, provides support to parents, and works with policy-makers. Kidder says there are parents calling and fundraising for technology in the classroom, and feels that many parents care about the role technology should play in school.

If you talk to enough parents, most concede that technology is so pervasive in society that it cannot be ignored by schools. Many, such as Whitby-based father of three, Derek Marsellus, however, attach a caveat. “We shouldn’t be using it just because we have it,” says Marsellus. “We should look at it and say, ‘What kind of educational benefit is there to using it?’” Like many administrators and educators, he is cautious and wants to know what long-term impact technology will have on learning. Sometimes, he says, it seems like educators grab hold of these things and do not thoroughly ask a vital question when it comes to technology: Is this really going to help?

“I see that it makes it very exciting for the kids,” says Nadia Heyd, a Scarborough-based mother of three, who volunteers at her children’s school. She describes her first impression of watching a grade two class draw with their fingers on a Smart Board: “The way the teacher used it was very interactive. The kids are right in there. They’re very physical and they want to be part of it.” But Heyd, whose children are not plugged in excessively at home, is unconvinced that technology is essential: “If you have learned how to learn, you’ll learn whatever technology you need to know.” Neither Heyd nor Marsellus believe limited technology in the classroom puts their children at a disadvantage.

Branigan-Pipe is not surprised by this reaction. The new generation of teachers she trains for the classroom also cling to a back-to-basic mantra, because that is how they remember school, and—more importantly—they thrived in that environment. “They see tech as scary and bad. They’ve always been told, ‘No computer in the school. Don’t go on the internet. Don’t put your picture on the internet.’ Now I’m coming in and saying, ‘Do it.’”

There are pockets across Canada where this urgency and excitement is resonating. But outside these pockets, administrators and educators’ vision for school hasn’t changed dramatically. The call for action is still very new and many are unaware of the sophisticated tools that are transforming classrooms elsewhere. In communities where school boards and administrators are resisting change and guarding policies, teachers sense there’s no support. Sometimes lone teachers advocate for change, hoping principals will appeal to school boards, but as one teacher says: “It’s really a stressful thing to do. The easiest thing for a teacher to do is to pick up the chalk and ask the kids to open their textbook”—especially if parents are not demanding change.

Unfortunately, many parents, and even kids, still think of technology as a toy—and toys are major distractions, not assets, in the classroom. Few realize the power behind technology’s potential to teach. Once, Branigan-Pipe had a parent complain her child wanted to blog every night as part of their homework. When Branigan-Pipe tried to explain the blogging was an authentic way for students to express their voice and share their ideas with peers, the parent told her, in unequivocal terms, “No, it’s a game.” Parents, she adds, need to become familiar with the tools and discover what technology can do for their child’s learning. “If parents are not shouting for it,” Branigan-Pipe says, “and we’re not saying that our students must have these things, it won’t be on the top priority of funding. And change will come slowly.”