Wiki while you learn

Sean Grainger sees technology for students as being like oxygen — everywhere and seamlessly fitting into their lives. He tries to make sure it’s that way in his classroom as well.

Mattie McCullough Elementary School grade five teacher Sean Grainger works with Logan Jefford as the class works on a computer project in the classroom recently.

Mattie McCullough Elementary School grade five teacher Sean Grainger works with Logan Jefford as the class works on a computer project in the classroom recently.

Sean Grainger sees technology for students as being like oxygen — everywhere and seamlessly fitting into their lives. He tries to make sure it’s that way in his classroom as well.

The vice-principal and teacher at Mattie McCullough Elementary School in Red Deer has his own blog, hundreds of followers on Twitter and started a wiki with his Grade 5 students.

The wiki is a special website that helps students keep up-to-date with their school work, connect with friends and post updates. Students can modify the site to suit their preferences. One student posted information on his trip to Disneyland, while others wrote about their Easter break. There is an area for parents, information on school subjects and photos.

Before a chemistry unit, Grainger posted information on the wiki about the chemistry. Some students had already designed, hypothesized and completed their own experiments before they touched on the subject in class.

“It’s been a really good forum to encourage self-directed learning,” Grainger said. “I think really authentic learning occurs when you haven’t assigned something for homework but they go home and do it anyways.”

It’s just one of the ways classrooms are changing in Central Alberta.

Ron Eberts, assistant superintendent of information technology services at the Red Deer Public School District, said children today are growing up in a different reality than their parents and grandparents. They’re connected to the Internet all the time and have grown up knowing this is the norm. He said students are constantly communicating with many people, solving problems, making decisions and using higher level skills than they did 15 years ago.

Red Deer Public has allowed students wireless access to the Internet using their own laptops, iPods or other devices. Next year at Glendale School, which will have a science and technology focus, students starting in Grade 5 will be given their own laptop, which will follow them through middle school.

“That is part of this 21st century learning, learning takes place any time and anywhere, not just between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” Eberts said.

Jim Gibbons, recently retired superintendent of the Chinook’s Edge School Division, said 21st century learning is a response to how the world is changing.

In the past, schools with their encyclopedias housed great amounts of knowledge, but teachers also had a tremendous amount of knowledge.

Rapid advances in technology and ready-at-hand information and data changes the way we do things in schools.

Part of the difference now is that knowledge is at hand instantly through the Internet,” Gibbons said.

He said in 21st century learning students need to be engaged, not just consuming knowledge and regurgitating it, but being involved in project-based learning, analysis and synthesis.

Chinook’s Edge has given laptops to teachers that are compatible with all the others. The division uses SMART technology and videoconferencing in classrooms and has moved towards students being able to use their laptops and PDAs on the school’s Internet connection.

Larry Jacobs, superintendent of Wolf Creek Public Schools, said students like to learn differently now.

“We know students are becoming more and more independent learners. There is no question anymore that they don’t see school as the sole contributor to their knowledge base,” Jacobs said. He said colleges and universities are putting lesson plans and research in front of young people that are accessible online and students can find that information in a heartbeat.

Wolf Creek has had a project at its Bluffton and Crestomere schools giving each student a computer to see the effect having that kind of access to technology will have. A project the division is looking at for Lacombe Composite High School could allow students to bring their laptops in to use the school’s system.

“Our students are no longer content to learn as individuals. We know they want to share and explore ideas as groups,” he said, pointing to social networks like Facebook and MySpace.

At the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division, Paul Mason, associate superintendent of personnel/technology, sees a key element of 21st century learning as student engagement, with students taking ownership of their own education. He said it is about making the learning more meaningful to the student and taking the learning outside of the classroom, using equipment to collaborate with students in other places.

Mason said students often say when they come to school that they have to “power down” and can’t be connected to others the way they are outside of school, but the division is working to change that. As part of this process, the division has a pilot project at St. Thomas Aquinas School, allowing students to use their electronic devices.

Through a provincial grant, the Catholic division has installed SMART boards in each classroom and there are videoconferencing suites at each school. The division uses a program called Discovery Education, which gives teachers and their students access to 10,000 videos through digital streaming. The Catholic division also has St. Gabriel Cyber School for students with different learning needs.

Brian Celli, superintendent of Wild Rose Public Schools, said students today come wired differently and it is a matter of looking at the potential in that new wiring. He said when people in the past moved from an oral tradition to a text-based tradition, their brains became wired differently and now there is new potential in how students are learning. He said the current education system was set up to transmit information to people that wasn’t easy to get, but now with information at everyone’s fingertips, educators have to rethink what they’re doing.

Wild Rose has videoconferencing and assistive technology for students with reading difficulties. The division has also purchased a classroom set of iPods and digital cameras that travel around the district to be used for different student projects. Schools in Wild Rose use videoconferencing to experience things like the Royal Tyrrell Museum, as well as SMART board technology that allows teachers to poll the class on particular topics.

“As people, (students) need to learn how to develop relationships and interact appropriately in two worlds now. Before it was always face-to-face, now they need to still learn the face-to-face stuff, but they also need to learn and develop the skills to interact in the virtual world,” Celli said.