Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Closing digital gap empowers students

Technology can transform learning into real life, relevant experiences.

Not too long ago, it was absurd to say that every Tom, Rashid and Baba should have access to the Internet. For what? Now, since 2011, the United Nations considers it a human right, "underscoring its unique and transformative nature not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole."

And while access to technology is not "the great equalizer," that Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals proclaims will level the playing field for all students, it does close the digital gap and empowers students from low-income families in learning.

Take, for example, educator Sugata Mitra's experiment in an Indian village. In 2000, this professor of education technology at Newcastle University installed a computer in a wall and documented illiterate, slum children (with zero English) figuring out how to use it, and then actually using it to learn and share knowledge.

Mitra has since designed a learning lab in India, where children can explore and learn from each other — no teachers present — using resources and mentoring from the cloud.

Access to the Internet offers children from all backgrounds opportunities to work together and communicate and do research in areas that interest them. It's a platform for developing personalized education and even individual networks that go beyond a classroom setting, offering possibilities only dreamed of before.

Still, "Back in my day, we used paper and pencil!" is a common reaction to the idea of iPads, tablets or other technologies in the classroom.

Reality is, "back in your day" has vanished into the swirling mists of time.

It's a new era, baby. The times require that students be drivers of their own learning.

Educators are forced to ask themselves, "What does learning look like?"

I agree with John Malloy, former director of education of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board that "this is about the tools that help children live in a world that is both digital and physical."

The HWDSB is rolling out Malloy's five-year plan to transform the learning environment and provide all students (no matter their backgrounds) from grades 4 to12 with personal iPads by 2019.

In a conversation with Malloy, he said, "the tablet or iPad is like how we used paper and pencil." Furthermore, "the plan is about changing the relationship between students and teachers and students and classmates, and transforming learning opportunities."

I think truly changing such relationships would mean reinventing the school structure and dismantling curricula-driven learning, both of which have endured — for better or for worse — for more than 150 years and were not designed with student-driven learning in mind. It is going to take more than an expensive iPad in every student's hand to make learning in institutions a democratic process. Still it's a start.

Last year, an initial pilot was run with iPads being deployed in seven elementary schools and three high schools.

Jerry Smith is principal at Dr. Davey School, one of the seven elementary pilot schools. The school is in a "tough area," Smith said. "Half of us are new to Canada and parents have it hard around here."

Smith was particularly excited that kids could record their learning and newcomer parents got to see what their kids were learning and interact with them.

He emphasized how students are learning skills that parallel the real world and the job world they will enter — skills that include problem solving, sharing files, Google docs, enhancing experience and connecting with meaningful activities.

It's not just about academics. Technology ushers in a different set of norms and we worry about kids learning proper behaviour and safety, etc. "We are teaching kids how to be active digital citizens, not be wasteful and so on, in a formal setting," Smith told me. "They are getting real life, relevant experiences that engage and force them to ask deeper questions and not just learn things that are in a 10-year-old textbook."

I also chatted with superintendent Peter Joshua, who added: "Students need time to interact, to develop forward thinking and creativity."

Joshua pointed out that technology enhances learning, not only across income levels, but also across the different learning styles, as we see happening in "special education" situations.

Education is something that you have to want to pursue; no one can do it for you. But educators help pave the way. Provide kids with the technology, guide and counsel them, support their interests, facilitate their networking opportunities, and poverty will become less of a barrier to being educated.

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton. Bekoko.ca

Closing gap empowers students

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