Archived — What do we do with these computers?

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It is much easier to grasp the potential information technology has for changing our lives than it is to actually start using them. Everywhere they are used, it has taken a few years to translate the promise into everyday practice.

Education is no different and teachers are now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to integrate the new machine on the desk into their teaching practice. The vast amount of literature now available on the subject can make the issue more complicated. Much of this material talks about vague ideals rather than practical applications. Other times, materials are closely tied to particular theories of education that may not fit into everyone's teaching practices.

In the meantime, the computer sits on the desk, or in the box in the corner, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with it. The answer to this challenge is, not surprisingly, coming not from "experts" but from teachers themselves. Everyday, individual teachers are figuring out ways to use new technology and sharing it with others who are building further on those lessons. In this section are a number of teachers who have come up with strategies for integrating technology in the classroom that work.

How can I get students to use technology to work together? Stephen MacKinnon has developed a project-based approach that allows students to create materials for publication on the Internet.

Teaching in Cyberspace

"On-line collaborative work is not easy. Individualism and creativity push and pull the project."

"Project-based learning is at the core of my approach to teaching. Projects put education into meaningful contexts and teach students how to work collaboratively as a team. It's precisely the differences that provide the creative spark."

Stephen MacKinnon

Athens District High School
Athens, Ontario

To anyone still harbouring fears that technology is leading us to a world where individuals don't count for much, Stephen MacKinnon's work at Athens District High School may be a revelation. His success in adapting the Internet to project-based learning is in no small way the result of his sensitivity to human individuality, awareness and creative potential.

Tackling an Actual Project

The first step is to decide on an idea. I encourage you to look around your community for Web projects. I think teachers and students ought to be prepared to put something back into the web, something meaningful that we can contribute to this vast sea of information.

Once the project team has agreed on an idea, everyone must start with some good old-fashioned research: gathering information, reading, interviewing people, asking questions.

I strongly encourage teachers to make the project part of something bigger, such as the AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest, the International Schools CyberFair or SchoolNet's GrassRoots.

Planning is very important. Project team members must develop a vision of the site. They should develop a detailed site plan, thinking constantly about how the visitor will navigate through the site. We have always built some interactivity into our sites to give visitors something to do - a quiz, survey or game.

As the work progresses, it is important to stay organized. Keep the site plan up to date, and keep a list of files and their status. Keep work logs and hold progress meetings regularly.

At the outset, you should plan on the project taking about twice as long as you expect. Every time you think it will be finished tomorrow, something comes up: another bug, new information, a new idea for improvement. The team will need to push for completion. At the final stage, my students work a lot of extra hours putting the finishing touches on the site.

The important point is to get it up on the web. The students get a tremendous sense of satisfaction when they see their work on the Internet.

The evaluation of the project is also important. CyberFair offers a comprehensive rubric for evaluating Web projects using peer review by other students who have created websites. As a teacher, you should remember to evaluate the process of the project as well as the product.

How can I create real learning resources on the Internet? Patrick Wells has established virtual field trips where students can cover the basic material and prepare for the real thing.

Destination: Virtually Anywhere

"Students find field trips exciting and usually have many questions about what they are observing. There is a dilemma, however, if an instructor wishes to maximize time on site: the excitement of the trip may cloud the true purpose of the visit."

"With the virtual field trip, students can proceed at their own pace through the material and investigate in detail. The virtual field trip can be used an infinite number of times, yet is easily modified and so never outdated."

Patrick Wells

Bishops College
St. John's, Newfoundland

Patrick Wells has been fascinated by the ocean since he was a young boy in Nova Scotia. Later as a research assistant and lab demonstrator, he developed an equal enjoyment of teaching. Now the science department head at Bishops College, he combines both interests with an imaginative use of computer technology to create relevant and exciting science labs, assignments and project-based activities for his students.

Getting Your Feet Wet

The virtual field trip didn't start with a spark of inspiration; it just grew naturally from some simple beginnings.

It began with an introductory web page created to prepare students for the field trip. When out on the shore, the learning resource teachers and I took some pictures and added them to the page for illustration.

The photos show the intertidal zones or close-up pictures of seaweed, algae or creatures. These became the images on the website. Captions for the photos turned into explanations of the field trip findings. The rest was just a matter of planning the site layout and writing a narrative for the lesson and a series of questions to lead the students through the material. The site grew very gradually into what it is today as I realized the appeal it had for the students.

Though I designed this project to meet specific course needs, many teachers should be able to develop presentations for their students based on their own local environment. I believe it's important to use as much of the natural environment in your immediate area as possible when teaching biology, ecology or environmental awareness. I think it's a shame not to know and appreciate your own environment. I also believe that when you know and appreciate your own environment, you'll want to take care of it better.

Anyone can use our site to learn about our corner of the world and our seashore, one of Newfoundland's most beautiful physical features. I hope to expand my contacts to other schools from all parts of the Atlantic provinces and North America, adding examples of other intertidal zones and their inhabitants.

How can I use technology in the arts where creativity is essential? George Brasovan, Allan Molnar and Mary Lou Sicoly have combined computers, 24 electronic keyboards and traditional band instruments to create a true multimedia resource centre for the school's music curriculum.

Equal Access to Learning

"We see the computer as a glorified pencil. In an art class, students use it to draw a picture; in a music class, to write a piece of music. The fact that we do not have 'pencil' classes says a great deal about what is important."

"Their enthusiasm has been contagious, and one cannot help but feel that this is just the beginning of future directions for the blending of technology and the arts in education." Education colleague

George Brasovan, Allan Molnar and Mary Lou Sicoly

Dante Alighieri Academy
Toronto, Ontario

George Brasovan, Allan Molnar and Mary Lou Sicoly each contribute to a highly effective collaboration. George is head of the music department at Dante Alighieri, Allan teaches music at both Dante and the adjacent elementary school, Regina Mundi, and Mary Lou is an itinerant music and drama teacher serving several separate schools in Toronto.

Introducing Technology Anywhere in the Curriculum

Set priorities. What is your objective for the class? After making a lesson plan, if you find you can teach the class with or without a computer, then you have relegated the machine to its appropriate role as servant.

Select a platform. The software you want to use should be your main consideration in determining the computer platform. We use Macintosh for three reasons. First, Macs are the platform of choice for music and multimedia. Second, they are easy to use. Third, we can run both the Mac operating system and Windows.

Select software applications. There are many software applications available, so buyer beware! The majority of retail outlets seem disconnected from education. The needs of students and teachers seem rarely to be considered in software development.

Build basic skills. We have developed a series of units to teach students how to "hold and sharpen the pencil." The students are introduced to many of the skills they need to work on multimedia projects.

Make connections. This is the most important step in the process. We created a generic template that the students use for organizing information. The students are instructed to go the library or the Internet to research their chosen topic. They use a real (rather than metaphoric) pencil to design their project on paper before coming to the computer lab to complete it.

To find out more about the team's award-winning work, check out The Percussion Studio and Kidz Kidding.