DAKOTA Collegiate in the Louis Riel School Division is making laptops part of the school supply list this year, which means information technology is not just a part of the learning experience in those classes, it is the means by which students will learn. That is a quantum leap in teaching, learning and education in Manitoba.

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This article was published 15/8/2012 (3360 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Editorial

DAKOTA Collegiate in the Louis Riel School Division is making laptops part of the school supply list this year, which means information technology is not just a part of the learning experience in those classes, it is the means by which students will learn. That is a quantum leap in teaching, learning and education in Manitoba.

Computers have been in schools for a long time, but in computer labs where students go to become computer literate. Some classes have laptops, but few schools make one-to-one availability standard.

While it is intuitive that the day will come when websites and software replace textbooks, it is a murky field into which schools are entering. Not much research exists on how best to use computers in the classroom. That is curious given that individual laptops in the class were adopted in the mid-1990s in some jurisdictions. Some adopted them wholesale, then regretted it and scrapped them. An expensive mistake made worse given that improved academic achievement scores were not realized, according to some studies in the United States.

Terry Borys, superintendent of LRSD, says he has seen that using laptops can have beneficial effects but his evidence is not scientific in that no causative link has been clearly established. In four Louis Riel schools, laptops were given to all students in grades four to eight over recent years. Reading improved among students who were "reluctant readers," attributed to the ability to select their own material. The same results have not been seen in numeracy, however.

Laptops for Grade 9 students at Dakota Collegiate became mandatory in 2011. A survey of parents, teachers and students indicated that student engagement rose with the laptop use. The division has decided to require them in Grade 10, as well.

It is expensive, either for schools or families when student computers are required. The division helps those who cannot afford a laptop, but it hasn't considered buying them across the board.

The ad hoc way in which computer use is evolving points to the real issues that Education Minister Nancy Allan has not grasped. What is the future of computers in the class, and what are the economic implications of moving to individual laptops? Will they replace textbooks? How will mandatory laptops, tablets or other devices be paid for, especially when technology can change rapidly?

Manitoba's Education Department has done none of that scoping yet, although, seeing LRSD's lead on the matter, it is starting the discussion about equity -- making the same tools available regardless of location or affordability -- everywhere. Equally important is finding good evidence that moving to computer-aided teaching makes students better learners.

A review led by Mark Warschauer at the University of California at Irvine, as yet unpublished, found that 24 peer-reviewed studies showed that academic benefits of computer use were either small or none. The most evident improvements were in English language arts, particularly in writing. Math results equally showed small improvement or none.

Mr. Warschauer stresses that computers are simply tools. There is no magic in them that will turn students into learners. "Laptops make a good school better but they don't make a bad school good." Discipline, monitoring and expectations are key, he notes.

Gerald Farthing, deputy education minister, says he will put the question about improved learning to high-tech gurus when he heads to Apple's headquarters, at the company's invitation, next month. Manitoba children made electronic devices a part of their lives a long time ago. That was recognized, especially in the U.S., almost 20 years ago. A Winnipeg school board took the lead here, on what that means in the classroom. The Education Department, with a lot of ground to cover in short time, needs to fashion a provincewide policy on this technological shift that serves, equally well, all Manitoba students, not the high-tech industry.