GRADE 10 Dakota Collegiate student Austin Patterson's laptop tells him if he's figured out correctly how to rank the numbers produced by five square or cube roots, both positive and negative, from least to most.
If he hasn't, the machine shows him what he did wrong, then gives him a tip and lets him try again until he gets the answer right. "It's better than handing in an assignment and getting the answer wrong," but not knowing that until the next day, Austin said.
Dakota Collegiate opened its doors to the media Wednesday to see the school's compulsory laptops for grades 9 and 10 in action.
Louis Riel School Division superintendent Terry Borys said the program will extend to Grade 11 at Dakota in 2013, and then to Grade 12 in 2014.
Trustees are still considering expanding the program to other schools.
No eraser, no cramped writing hand in language arts when you're on a laptop, said student Janessa Turner: "If you have a lot of ideas, you can type them out" and then edit them. "It's a lot easier to access the work that the teacher wants you to do."
"It's a lot faster. It's funner to do homework than with pen and paper," said social studies student Thomas Busch.
There are misconceptions out there, principal Jill Mathez said.
Indeed, every student seen Wednesday had a pen or pencil and paper and was using them, sometimes concurrently with the laptop.
Dakota staff emphasized repeatedly the laptop is a tool -- the teaching and learning through technology are what everyone should be scrutinizing.
"It's really not about the hardware, it's about the headware," said math teacher Joel Shimoji, who emphasized Dakota is teaching kids for the 21st century with the tools they understand.
Vice-principal Allie Hassin said Dakota prepared for two years before starting the project in Grade 9 a year ago. The school got wired, teachers had training, financial aid was made available for those who couldn't afford devices and staff fanned out to talk to graduating Grade 8 classes headed for Dakota.
"We had to look at the pedagogy, at the way people were teaching kids in the 21st century," he said. "We really feel we're enhancing the way students learn."
Shimoji said math students each receive a different question when working on a laptop, use the same process, and then work with the technology. "We use it as a homework site," with the software providing tutorial support, he said.
Using the laptop simplifies the course, intended to get students ready for pre-calculus, he explained: "To put in the cube root of negative 45 is just awful" the old way, he laughed.
Language arts teacher Roy Norris showed the students clips of the original True Grit film online while also posing questions they were to answer about a specific chapter in the Charles Portis novel. "This is far more immediate. You can also get this website at home," Norris said.
Grade 11 student Shreyas Devalapurkar said while he's not part of the new program, Dakota gave him the option of doing chemistry, biology, and physics homework online. "We use multiple programs online," he said. The system gives him a tutorial and sample questions, finally posing a question on which he's marked.
"I find you can be more creative," said Grade 10 student Kirsten McWhirter. "You can put down pictures, change the fonts, it's right at your fingertips. I don't see much difference in the actual ideas -- that comes from your brain."
And, Kirsten pointed out, handwriting legibility is not an issue.
Mathez said there have been no concerns about some students potentially not having Internet access outside school. "Our library is open until quite late in the evening," she said. "There are (public) libraries, there are quite often resource centres in the community."