Schools need to take advantage of technology

By 
  • August 25, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - When Saskatoon Catholic Cyber School student Erika Shervan has a basketball or volleyball game, she doesn’t have to worry about catching up on her math homework. Shervan can take her Grade 11 math class at home or anywhere with an Internet connection.

This flexibility and the ability to learn at your own pace are the main selling points of taking the online course, said the 17-year-old.

Schools need to wake up to the digital reality of students’ lives and learning habits, says a new report by the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association .

“Innovative use of technology is proliferating in our schools but it is not matching the stage of development of our students and it is not offering a clear and preferred alternative to the flexibility of virtual schools,” according to the April report entitled “What if? Technology in the 21st-century Classroom.”

Several Catholic school boards across Canada say they are embracing new technology and integrating it into the classroom. With declining enrolment and tightening school budgets, schools are finding creative ways to offer more choices to students and prepare them for an increasingly wired world.

In Ottawa and Edmonton, Catholic school boards have been installing SMART boards which are upgraded versions of the traditional blackboard. These devices can be connected to a computer for Power Point presentations and Internet access.

And this fall, high school students at the Toronto Catholic District School Board will be able to enrol in online classes. The project is affiliated with the Ontario government’s e-Learning program which provides schools with online resources.

Laila Sisca, the Toronto board’s e-Learning co-ordinator, said in the face of declining enrolment, online courses save the board money because it can offer the courses which students can take elsewhere, including at a private school. The board normally pays about $500 each for these outside courses.

Meanwhile, at the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario , smaller schools and great distances between school communities can also mean fewer course choices for high school students. The solution? An online summer school program. Students can still e-mail a teacher if they have questions, or contact their guidance counsellor or chaplain at their regular day school for assistance.

In Edmonton, e-learning can be eco-friendly.

Mike Carby, superintendent for technology at Edmonton Catholic Schools, says schools also save money when students use online encyclopedias instead of replacing hard copies. And there is less paper to throw away when assignments can be submitted online.

But will there come a time when a virtually plugged school will mean no face-to-face interaction between students and teachers? University of Toronto e-learning expert Tim Richardson doesn’t think so.

Computers can’t really replace teachers, he argues, because the Internet is a source of information and needs people to generate its content.

“When you see something on YouTube, you need to be able to evaluate it,” he said.

Most students at Saskatoon Cyber School still have direct interaction with other students because they also attend regular day classes. Some only take an online class to fulfill outstanding course requirements.

But there are also drawbacks to virtual learning, such as the potential of cheating.

For Saskatoon Cyber School chaplain Fr. Andrew Wychucki, any future model of Catholic schools, virtual or not, should be rooted in its Catholic identity.

Wychucki manages the school’s cyber chapel where students can post prayer requests or debate issues about faith.

“It’s a new kind of evangelization tool,” he said.

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