At Strathcona elementary

Digital literacy in the computer age

The Chilliwack school district is in the final stages of a $3 million technology makeover.

The Chilliwack school district is in the final stages of a complete technology infrastructure overhaul, laying the foundation for creative, high-tech instruction to emerge.

The three-year $3 million project will be completed in October, and will see every school in the district with fast wireless connections, ceiling-mounted projectors and speakers in classrooms, secure computer servers, and new wiring and switches.

Prior to the upgrades, only 20 per cent of Chilliwack’s elementary schools met these standards, according to an analysis completed by IBM. The district consulted with the company to create a list of recommendations to follow throughout the project.

“Our technology was very old, and it wasn’t supporting learning to its potential,” said Kirk Savage, the school district’s director of instruction leading the upgrades.

Throughout the project, the school district also purchased 1,800 new computers, about 55 per school, to outfit the computer labs and mobile laptop carts. All computers are now Lenovos on Windows 7, as opposed to the previous glitchy Linux systems.

The upgrades aren’t about teaching students Word or Excel, but about using the tools relevant to today’s society to teach the same age-old skills, such as communication, and critical thinking, explained Savage. In the past, the tools were pen and paper, then typewriters, then computers. Now, the tools are online applications, and the laptops and wireless connections that allow access to that.

“At the end of the day, we’re really teaching kids how to communicate. The tools changed,” said Savage.

With reliable WIFI, projectors, and computers, schools in Chilliwack have taken individual initiative to purchase devices such as Smart Boards. The large touchscreen whiteboards allow students to share their typed English homework with the class, or analyze math problems as a group. Schools have also purchased iPads and iPod Touches to share among students for education apps. And they have purchased specialized microphones for teachers to wear around the neck to enhance the voice.

“Having an increased reliability of bandwidth is really so critical for us to be able to really grow technology in the school,” said Aaron Parker, principal at Chilliwack Middle School. “When you’re working with low bandwidth, you’re getting knocked off the internet frequently, your systems are down often. You can’t rely on that.”

These structural improvements have meant that CMS could take its new robotics program much farther. Integrated last year into the Grade 8 science curriculum, students build small robots from specialized Legos, and program them — using the mobile laptop carts — to complete various tasks.

The technology upgrades have allowed Chilliwack students and teachers to be more creative, said Ian Gardner, vice-principal and Grade 5 teacher at Strathcona Elementary. For instance, blogging has replaced traditional journaling in Gardner’s classroom. Because he’s able to sign out one of the school’s two mobile laptop carts, each containing 15 computers, Gardner assigns a “topic of the day” writing assignment to students through Edublog, a free, third-party educational blogging website.

Students now embed videos into their journal entries. They format and post other class assignments, such as social science projects. They share their work with their friends in other classrooms, read the blogs of other students, and provide comments.

The basic, sometimes mundane grade school journal has become fun and authentic for students, said Gardner, because it now has real-world relevance. It isn’t just a teacher reading the entries; it’s the peers.

Through the blogs, Gardner also teaches about being responsible online, including safety and politeness, which is especially useful in an era when most students have Facebook and other social media profiles.

“The possibilities really are limitless. Now it’s a question of how comfortable teachers are with the new technology, and how easy it is for students to access it,” said Gardner.

Learning is also becoming much more personalized. With WIFI capability at schools, the non-traditional classroom at Watson Elementary that serves students with special needs is now full of iPads. The devices allow students who struggle with verbal communication to express themselves and participate in classroom learning more effectively than before.

The Chilliwack school district’s $3 million infrastructure upgrades, made possible in part through a budget surplus, have equalized local schools. Children from East Chilliwack to Greendale to Little Mountain now have the same tools.

“We don’t want to have schools that are ‘have’ schools, and schools that are ‘have not’ schools,” said Savage.

Students are also better equipped for the future.

“The jobs that the kids are going to have when they graduate school aren’t even created yet,” said Savage. “It’s an ever-changing landscape when it comes to technology and what’s going on out there in the field. If we don’t keep our kids current and digitally literate, then we’re doing them a disservice.”

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