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Laptops versus pen and paper

Schools debate changing world of technology

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The kids' fingers dance across the keyboard as easily as Harry Potter wields a wand, these almost weightless hunks of plastic and wire conjuring up a world of information.

But how and how well are those students learning?

Are these students any better off than they would be with a pen and paper and a book?

More and more educators believe so.

A lot of eyes are watching Dakota Collegiate, where students in grades 9 and 10 are bringing compulsory laptops to class.

Louis Riel School Division is expanding the program to grades 11 and 12 over the next two years and considering whether to introduce it in other schools.

"It creates a whole new dynamic," said Ron Canuel, chief executive officer of the Canadian Education Association, a charitable research organization formed in 1891. "I ask the researchers, 'Can you show me research that shows the effectiveness of the ballpoint pen?' "

In 2003, Canuel was director general of the school board for Quebec's Eastern Townships, which gave every child in grades 3 to 11 a laptop.

Over five years, dropout rates fell by half, student performance rose and students wrote far more than they ever did on paper, Canuel said.

He's spoken internationally over the past decade and he's heard every argument against technology in the classroom, Canuel said -- cost, social and financial inequity, a loss of writing skills, kids wandering off to forbidden websites.

First, Canuel said, his Quebec school board spent 18 months preparing, prepping teachers and installing the wiring in every school.

"People assume everything else gets thrown out the window -- they polarize things," he said. "The research is unequivocal, it's not the amount (of technology) you use, it's the quality."

Don't assume just because students understand technology and are attracted to it, that they understand how to use it effectively, Canuel cautioned, and do not assume younger teachers will adapt more readily than veteran teachers to teaching through technology.

"Very, very clearly, lay out the outcomes you want the kids to have," he said. "Just let the evolution happen -- don't try to steer it."

Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson is no Luddite, but said any teaching tool works only when used appropriately, whether it's pen and paper or technology.

"It's great if it's used when appropriate, it's bad if it's used because it's there," Olson said.

Olson said using laptops, even when school divisions cover the cost for families who can't afford one, may work in some neighbourhoods in which almost everyone is online. However, some neighbourhoods have few homes that are online, sometimes only five per cent, he said.

"The idea that you have good saturation from one division to the next is just goofy," said Olson.

University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy said earlier this month that his school is embracing technology in the classroom with all the enthusiasm it can muster -- students coming out of high school speak that language.

"We're finding out in universities, if you don't Twitter, you don't teach. Digital phones and online are (students') primary sources of information," said Axworthy.

At his state of the university address, Axworthy called technology a transformational experience: "It seriously challenges traditional pedagogy.

"This is not some kind of fantasy -- we are engaged in a fundamental reordering. We need to determine our own digital information strategy," said Axworthy.

At the Interlake School Division, Stony Mountain School is in its second year of having laptops in Grade 5.

The division provides laptops free for the year or parents can buy at wholesale price. "That's the key -- as long as we can provide the laptops at no cost to parents," superintendent Ross Metcalfe said from Stonewall. "We're moving into that at (kindergarten to Grade 4) Bobby Bend School."

Connectivity to the Internet is a clear split between rural and urban schools, Metcalfe said. "You want to talk about the level of the playing field?

"I don't have a Silver Heights high school to sell, to put fibre into the ground," he said. "(Minnedosa's) Rolling River School Division laid its own fibre -- they took out a 10-year loan."

Education Minister Nancy Allan agreed. "It's an equalizer in education."

"Broadband is a huge issue. We've been in negotiations with MTS until the cows come home," Allan said.

Saskatchewan was able to do it because the phone company there is a Crown corporation, Allan said.

Far less enthusiastic is University of Manitoba education Prof. Denis Hlynka, a professor of education technology, curriculum teaching and learning.

"It's as if we're drunk with the new technology, and we don't know what to do with this," Hlynka said. "Writing is thousands of years old -- are we ready to throw something out?

"Isn't it nice to be able to do both and to read a book?"

Hlynka said if educators want to use laptops, then why not an iPad or a smartphone?

The key issue, Hlynka said, is students' learning.

"What's magic, what is the unique contribution? It can't be answered that quickly."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2012 A3

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