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Virtual Community Project: Toronto Star Coverage

Virtual Community: Index of Entries

  1. Introduction
  2. The Information Artist Learning Framework
  3. Media Coverage: Toronto Star Article
  4. Media Coverage: Graphics Exchange Magazine

The Toronto Star
Thursday, October 26, 1995, p. F1

Class act Oakville school is at the forefront in bringing hi-tech to ther classroom By Gerry Blackwell SPECIAL TO THE STAR ...

Last May teacher Brian Alger showed a visitor from Industry Canada some work his Grade 7 class was doing with interactive multimedia at River Oaks Public School in Oakville. The visitor was impressed.

Doug Hull, director general of the federal ministry's science promotion and academic affairs branch, decided then and there that he wanted to have the students' work transferred to CD- ROM and distributed to schools across the country.

After he left, things started to happen very fast. Late last month, just four months after Hull's visit, the Halton Board of Education elementary school became the first in Ontario to publish its own CD-ROM.

The disc - River Oaks Public School: A Virtual Community Showcase - has been sent to more than 20,000 schools.

The Virtual Community CD-ROM is just one more first for a school that has been an internationally known trendsetter for the past five years in using new technology

Principal Gerry Smith developed the school's sometimes radical approach to integrating technology into the curriculum even before River Oaks opened its doors in September, 1990.

Smith has been guiding the school ever since. He calls it "a test bed" for developing new curriculum. "My observation was that the educational system was force-fitting 21st century tools into a 1950s or 1960s curriculum," says Smith. "We wanted to try and develop a new curriculum that accommodated technology."

Not that technology is the end all and be all at River Oaks. Students still learn the three Rs, but as often as not they're integrated with learning about science, interpersonal and other life skills - and technology.

"For this to really work," says Alger, "the students have to get a lot of facility with the technology so they don't even have to think about it any more. It becomes transparent." The objective is to get kids to the point where technology is simply another tool.

Older students, for example, routinely go out on the Internet to do research for projects. Younger students use CD-ROM encyclopedias - the school doesn't own any bound encyclopedias. Of course, it means you've got to have lots of computers available.

There are 240 at River Oaks, all Apple Macintoshes. They're all in classrooms - as few as one in kindergarten classes, as many as 16 in Grade 7 and 8 classes. "One idea we think is really important is this notion that information is available anytime, anywhere - and that the real classroom is the world," says Smith.

The Virtual Community project, Alger's brain child, exemplified that. It's typical in many ways of the kind of learning that goes on at River Oaks. The students had to design an ideal community of the future - from the ground up.

Alger used the project to teach everything from math to language arts to applied science to fine art - plus the skills required to create a multimedia presentation on their imaginary future community.

The students developed the concepts for the community, designed buildings and streetscapes using computer aided design (CAD) software, built architectural models and made short films about the project - for which they composed their own music. They even developed a whole Chronicles of Narnia-style mythology for the people who lived in the community.

In a perfect example of how the world can become a student's classroom, one student, Adonia Naidu, began an E-mail correspondence via the Internet with a top scientist in the U.S. to find out more about the use of virtual reality in medicine. It was a technology the students figured would be used in their community of the future.

Some of the Virtual Community material was digitized - movies taken with camcorders, photographs of students. Most was typed - or played in the case of electronic music - directly into the 16 Macs in Alger's class.

The elements in the presentation were linked using HyperCard, a seminal piece of interactive software that lets you create a "stack" or database of pages or screens full of information - a combination of text, graphics, video and animation - and create links between them.

When a user clicks with the mouse on a picture on the screen or on a piece of highlighted text, the system displays another related page somewhere else in the stack. Hull was impressed by the educational content of the multimedia presentation, but he was just as impressed by the sophistication of the "product." And that tied in neatly with the aims and objectives of his department.

"The educational system," he says, "is a powerful force for getting us set for the new information economy. We believe a lot of very interesting multimedia material is going to be coming out of the schools - created by the students themselves."

"We want to encourage the educational system to produce not pretend stuff but real product with real commercial possibilities. This is a good example of that."

Hull's radical concept is that students coming out of the school system shouldn't just have good academic credentials, but also a portfolio of work that will demonstrate their skill levels - and their employability.

DOES IT WORK? Parents whose children do not attend River Oaks may at this point be wondering about a couple of things. First, is there any proof that the fascinating new approaches Smith and his staff have developed at River Oaks actually produce results? And, if there is, why aren't more schools following the Oakville public school's lead?

Early in the life of the school, researchers from the University of Toronto and York University investigated the effectiveness of River Oaks' emphasis on teaching kids to use technology to present the new knowledge they had acquired in working on projects and other activities. The researchers used another demographically similar school in the Halton board as a control group.

The other school was sticking with tried and true teaching methods and curricula. Over the course of the study, investigators regularly tested communications skill levels using standardized tests. "Our kids were considerably behind the other school when the study began," says Smith. "But at the end of the three years they had caught and surpassed the students in the other school."

The Ontario government recently introduced standardized testing at the Grade 3 level across the province. Although students at River Oaks wrote the tests last school year, the government has not yet published results, Smith says. He says one other positive byproduct of the school's unique approach is that discipline problems at the school are virtually nil.

Why? "We think it's because the curriculum is very engaging and empowering," Smith says. "Kids here want to learn."

The new technology and the new ideas are being introduced at other schools, of course. It's not just River Oaks. Schools in North York and Etobicoke have exciting programs involving computers.

For example, as part of a U.S.-based project, students in the North York Board of Education last year submitted building designs they had created on computers to an Internet site where designs from all over the continent were being integrated into a virtual cityscape.

When the CitySpace project was complete, students could log on to the Internet site over a high-speed connection and navigate through a three- dimensional model of the city in a futuristic hovermobile.

Peter Skillen, program leader at the North York board's Computers In Education Centre got the Toronto kids involved and also got the Ontario Science Centre involved. "It was fascinating," Skillen says, "because we had this fast Internet link between the Science Centre and the San Francisco Exploratoreum (where the event was taking place), we could interact with the 3D model (of the city) in real time.

"As we're flying through the city, we're sharing the same virtual space with another group. At one point we came around a corner and we could see their hovercraft on the screen."

Skillen, who has published papers and made speeches to learned bodies inside and outside Canada on computers in education, subscribes to the same basic philosophy as River Oaks on what kinds of software to use in the classroom.

Both eschew what they call program learning - what Smith refers to as "drill and kill" programs. These programs control the student's behavior, prompting for input and rewarding "correct" behavior. Most commercial edutainment falls into this category, Smith notes. Much better are programs such as HyperCard that let students be creative and "construct" new knowledge or "express" the knowledge they've learned in classroom activities.

Skillen adds a caveat, though. Using multimedia creation tools in and of itself does not make for good learning. "The question should be how can we use multimedia environments like this to effect cognitive processes," says Skillen. "It's not so much the technology that's important as the classroom culture - the classroom values, the curricular intent. "I see kids constructing multimedia products and it's clear they've learned to manipulate the tools. But they've learned exactly what about the material they're supposedly studying?"

The teacher has to create the right learning environment, Skillen stresses. Students can't be just left to their own devices. In fact, students should be constantly communicating with each other and their teacher as part of this type of project. Skillen developed a piece of software for use in multimedia creation projects that works something like business-oriented groupware products such as Lotus Notes.

Kids record in a journal what they're doing and publish these notes so In one case, a student announced she was going to build a HyperCard stack on potato farming in Prince Edward Island as part of a larger classroom project. Another student responded by pointing out that the class had earlier studied acid rain.

She wondered if acid rain had had any impact on P.E.I. potato growers. "That kind of social collaboration can lead to acquiring new and relevant knowledge that otherwise might not emerge," Skillen notes. A new enrichment program, Cyber Arts, will give North York students a chance to work on their own high-level multimedia creation projects under expert guidance. One possibility, Skillen says, is that students will develop Web sites for their schools on the Internet's multimedia World Wide Web.

At Marc Garneau Collegiate in Etobicoke, students use the school's Tech Lab 2000, a sophisticated computer network, to learn how to use CAD software, to desktop publish the school newspaper, to capture images from photos and learn to write their own programs. Other students at Marc Garneau are operating two school bulletin board systems - databases of information that computer users can log into using a modem. One is for the school itself, one for the school's Space Resource Centre.

Garneau students are also working on school Web sites. Dozens of other schools around the province are undertaking their own technology initiatives - but without a lot of co-ordination. The Ontario Ministry of Education and Training did produce a guide two years ago on how it thinks technology should be used in the schools. Computers Across The Curriculum: Junior Kindergarten To OACs even incorporates some of the same ideas and objectives as River Oaks. (The document is available from ministry offices.)

But the implementation of these ideas is dependent on the individual school boards and school principals. Many schools are dragging their feet because old guard educators don't see the value of technology, don't have the training to use it or are too set in their ways to change.

Sharon Allan, treasurer of the home and school association at St. Mary's Separate School in Simcoe County, reports that at her school, the only qualified computer teacher was recently reassigned to teach other subjects.

As a result, the school's computer lab was dismantled and the computers disbursed to classrooms where teachers for the most part don't know what to do with them. Allan at first put the change down to budget cuts, but on re-examination now believes it has more to do with "politics." "We have a classroom just for art, and regular art classes," she says. "Kids take French every day - but not one minute of regular class time is spent on computers.

It doesn't seem right." Of course, most schools don't have the quantity of computers that River Oaks has, or the skilled staff. But River Oaks got where it did by making some deliberate decisions early on.

The ratio of students to computers across the province is 7.3:1 in secondary grades, 11:1 in elementary grades, according to a Ministry of Education and Training spokesperson. At River Oaks, the ratio is closer to 3:1. The school gets no extra funding to pay for computers or technology training.

Apple Canada, one of several corporate sponsors, did donate a few computers in the first year, and Apple and other sponsors provide technical support and occasional training. But since the first year, Smith has used his regular learning materials budget to buy computers and other technology.

How he does it could be a model for other schools. By building the curriculum around learning on the computer, he has eliminated the need for textbooks, except math texts. By giving teachers notebook computers and insisting all communication be by E-mail, he saves paper costs.

Although the school has a good library with thousands of books, it doesn't buy bound encyclopedias. "Why buy an expensive set of encyclopedias that are out of date by they time they arrive," says Smith. "We pay $25 apiece for the Groliers Encyclopedia on CD-ROM. That's just good use of money."

To keep the computers in the school current, he sells off 30 to 40 of the River Oaks complement each year to other schools in the board, then uses the proceeds from the sale, plus funds from his annual budget, to buy more up-to-date computers. And right from the outset, Smith hired as many teachers as he could with technology expertise. Some of those are designated as technology coaches. They help the other teachers in the school, providing technical support and in-service training.

The school has successfully experimented with innovative scheduling ideas to free up the coaches from regular teaching duties to help their colleagues. For example, a specialist music teacher takes three or four classes at a time for a "choir" class - which frees up those teachers to work with the technology coaches. Smith says other schools in his board are now beginning to implement some of these ideas.

In many other parts of the province, though, things are moving much more slowly. It's a dilemma. If you're worried your child's school is falling behind, that your children are not able to build the technology skills they will need when they leave, contact your principal or your board of education. Find out what your school is doing. Suggest they take a look at the River Oaks experience.
The Toronto Star : education computer technology OntarioEdition: METLength: Long, 2091 words Copyright 1995 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Topic: The Virtual Community Project

  1. Virtual Community: Index of Entries
    1. Introduction
    2. The Information Artist Learning Framework
    3. Media Coverage: Toronto Star Article
    4. Media Coverage: Graphics Exchange Magazine

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