In the NICT of time:
Preparing the classroom for a new era in computers

BRONWYN CHESTER | It goes without saying that the degree of interconnection and mobility that computers have acquired in the past five years has transformed many a home and workplace. But what are the new information and communication technologies doing to our schools?

For the most part, not much, simply because most schools don't yet have the machinery. But, as prices come down and ministries and boards of education get their policies and budgets in place, that will soon change. This leaves faculties of education in the curious position of having to prepare teachers for wired classrooms that, for the most part, don't even exist, and an approach to teaching and learning that is in its infancy. The task is not only to navigate in uncharted waters, but, given the make-it-as-you-go-along nature of the new information and communication technologies (NICT), it's also to synthesize the water itself.

McGill's Faculty of Education began that task four years ago when it became a participant in the federally funded TeleLearning Networks of Centres of Excellence, a cross-Canada research project involving 30 universities, designed to pave the way in education for the NICT. McGill's particular job was to investigate the integration of the technology into the classroom. Working in collaboration with the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal, the Kahnawake Education Centre and Scotiabank, faculty members Robert Bracewell, Alain Breuleux and Kate Le Maistre initiated a sort of living laboratory for the study of the NICT in the classroom by outfitting six classrooms in three schools with 10 networked computers, then providing technical and pedagogical support.

One of the most important changes they observed in the classroom is the altering of roles for both teachers and students. Teachers cease to be pedants and become consultants, says Bracewell, who leads the Teacher Knowledge and Skill Project. He calls the change in teaching style "giving up agency." In other words, the teachers -- all of whom have many years of teaching and computer experience -- have to accept that the new technologies allow for greater sharing of learning, not only between teacher and students but among students, and that they allow students to direct a good deal of their own learning.

"It's neat," says Le Maistre, director of undergraduate studies for the faculty, "because the students are becoming more autonomous and organized learners."

Indeed. Bracewell says the children, who range in age from 8 to 10 years old, have developed their own titles for the particular responsibilities they each have on the computer team, although they all participate in inputting and evaluating the information. The "floater" is the person assigned to do various tasks away from the computer, such as library research, taking a photograph, finding or producing a graphic, then scanning it; the "noise-monitor's" role is to keep the volume of noise to an acceptable level; while the "keyboard person" or "captain" is at the helm, directing the particular project.

Positions are rotated, allowing those with different skills to have their moment in the sun. One of the observations made by both the teachers and the researchers is that frequently, those children who don't shine in class -- due to shyness, for example -- thrive because they are more at ease expressing themselves on the computer than in front of the whole class.

And those who tend to shine too brightly -- "the troublemakers" -- find themselves with too much responsibility to have time to make trouble. Bracewell calls this an "increase in classroom niches." Working in a team, he says, also creates a lot of pressure for everyone to keep up his or her end. "Kids tend to listen to the captain, knowing that when it's their turn, they too will want to be listened to."

The teachers, on the other hand, have to be attentive to the quality of the work and the children's ability to use information critically. One of the dangers of computer-produced projects is the seductiveness of the image of the final product, as compared to the quality of the content, says Bracewell.

The students can be "quick to slap something together that looks nice and not be concerned about the content. For kids the monitor is like a videogame. Teachers have to help them move from action mode to production mode."

They also have to teach children how to be critical of the information they retrieve on-line. Learning how to check information, by using the library or consulting experts through the Internet, for instance, is a skill that must be taught as soon as the children begin using the computer, he says.

From the teacher's point of view, the integration of computers into the classroom has meant having to adapt the curriculum to the computer. In math, for instance, David Trewin, a grade six teacher from Cedarcrest School, decided to computerize his own math program. "We can store the shapes used in logic problems rather than have pieces of paper all over the place." Le Maistre, a math education specialist, believes that computers have the potential to expand the possibilities and enjoyability of math and other subjects, depending on the goal of the exercise.

Regarding triangles, for instance, she says: "If the goal is to measure and draw angles, use a protractor. If it's to show that the three angles of any triangle will add up to 180 degrees, why not use the computer to see what will happen if you pull this or that angle around. You will never be able to draw all the triangles."

Le Maistre views her work on the research project as a way of learning how best to teach new teachers. "The technology is one more thing for them to learn and I think they get a good base to build on here."

For the moment, that base consists of two courses on educational technology, one of which is mandatory. But Bracewell doesn't believe the way to go is to offer more courses. "We don't want courses on computers. We're trying to integrate the technology into their regular courses. If you preach it, you've got to practice it too."

One faculty member who does just that is Chris Milligan, director of the Department of Educational Studies. In 1996, he began having students in his graduate course on global education use the Internet for their projects. "Only two of the 25 had any familiarity with the web but, by the 13th week, they had already completed their own home page, hot-linked to the faculty and McGill, and were ready to create a group project on a theme.

"I say to students: 'It's important to have a home page address; it will impress employers.'"

Milligan, who only began using the web three years ago, when Breuleux introduced him to the possibilities, lauds the web for what it can do to the professor-student relationship. "It makes you more flexible. It gives me the opportunity to treat them [the students helping him design the course] as new professionals."

In this same vein, Breuleux, director of the Office of Learning and Information Technologies, and Sylvia Sklar, director of the Centre for Education Leadership, are offering a course this August at the McGill Summer Institute in which teachers and student-teachers will be paired to create websites for the schools where they teach, or where they will do their fieldwork, respectively.

"The idea is to design or improve the school's website, enhancing the site's learning activities. Each teacher or student teacher will do a home page [answering the questions]: What do I teach and why; How I see my school, etc."

Breuleux believes that such an exercise not only creates more opportunities for education students to practice in networked classrooms and familiarizes teachers and student teachers with the technology and its educational uses, it also allows the school to be visible. "You can visit a school website and find out about its teachers and activities. It's a good way for schools to open up. It can also allow staff to emerge from local preoccupations and get in touch with others."

The role of teachers, says Breuleux, will be to guide children in their learning to use the Internet in a way that's beneficial both to their learning and to their social development. He likes to cite the slogan developed by the Dutch government regarding the integration of the new information technologies: "Care and courage." One of his concerns, for instance, is the potential for a lack of civility in the era of electronic communications. "There's a danger in 'key-pal' projects where a number of the children don't get responses. We're learning that response must be built into the exercise to circumvent negative events. It's part of the civic education in a new world."

To evaluate just how children may function and behave in a "learning community," Breuleux and colleagues from Université de Montréal and several school boards have launched, as of last September, Le fleuve Saint-Laurent: à la découverte de ses richesses et de ses riverains. This three-year project will involve, at its height, several hundred grade five children attending schools spread out along the St. Lawrence, all connected by the Internet and all exchanging their research findings. In Montreal, for instance, Coronation Elementary, a French-immersion school in Côte des Neiges paired with the French-language École Iona in Snowdon, is among the six schools participating so far, while the Biosphère de Montréal is serving as a scientific counsel for the entire project. Later, other schools dotted along the river will join.

"The idea is to look at a project built by students, using a theme that's rich. They're using the technology as a tool for collaboration." Themes for investigation at Coronation, for instance, include water pollution, recreation on the river, animal life in the river and animal life on the shoreline.

Coronation's grade five French immersion teacher, Rola Soueidan, has found that the project has connected the children, who are largely of Jamaican and Indian origin, both to francophone children and to the river.

Soueidan recently took her students to Quebec City and she says they were surprised to see that the river they knew in Montreal flowed by Quebec City as well. "Now the river has a greater significance for them."

Thanks to the careful integration of a powerful technology, what were once uncharted waters for these children are less so.