The touch-screen classroom

How technology can reinvent how and where children learn

The touch-screen school

Courtesy of Michelle Lui

At Eden High School in St. Catharines, Ont., students are banned from using their cellphones in the hallways. In Eric Moccio’s classroom, it’s a different story. Moccio, who teaches music and media arts, employs his students’ phones as a teaching tool: he recently had them vote via text message on the topic of an upcoming video project. Moccio projected a live chart to the front of the class, which “readjusted to show numbers as votes came in, American Idol-style,” he says. Another time, he ran a scavenger hunt, texting clues to students as they searched through the school. (That day, he got special permission from administration, and each student carried a signed note of permission to use their phone.) Today’s smartphones can do much more than just make calls; “they’re computers,” Moccio says, and with so many students carrying powerful devices in their pockets these days, “we’d be fools not to use them.”

Despite the technology-rich environment that surrounds kids outside school walls, most classrooms are lagging. Administrators worry that the use of phones, iPods and tablets could cause distractions, promote the rise of cyberbullying and other bad behaviour, and maybe erode literacy skills, fretting that students might start including textisms like “CUL8R” in their essays. While some school boards have resorted to bans on some technologies, not all educators agree that’s a good idea. In September, the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, reversed a rule that personal devices should be turned off and out of sight within its schools, after trustees recognized that smartphones and other devices might actually enhance student learning. Now, teachers like Moccio are experimenting with new ways to use not only smartphones but tablet computers and interactive whiteboards. Indeed, proponents say that, at its best, technology can change virtually any place into a classroom—or transform a classroom into somewhere as remote and different as a Borneo rainforest.

Perhaps no school board has embraced the smartphone’s potential like the one in St. Mary’s City, Ohio, which offers a glimpse of how lessons might be taught in the future: through what’s called “mobile learning.” There, the board buys smartphones and distributes them to kids in Grades 3 to 5. (Calling and texting are disabled, and the Internet is filtered.) These phones come equipped with specialized software, including an animation program and PiCoMap, a brainstorming tool, and each one has a slide-out keyboard.

They’re used in all sorts of ways. For one assignment, a Grade 4 lesson on geometric shapes, students listen to a teacher’s instruction before they’re sent off through school, taking pictures of the shapes they learned about, and use this to build an animation slide on their phones for presentation. “Kids even type assignments on the phone,” says Kyle Menchhofer, the board’s technology coordinator. At first, he admits, the idea of encouraging students to type essays on their cellphones horrified him. “I taught keyboarding for many years, and if somebody told me they’d be typing on a keyboard with their thumbs, I’d argue until I was blue in the face that this would never work. But they type faster this way than at a computer.”

Personal electronic devices used to be banned in the board’s middle and high schools, but this year, these devices are allowed for the first time—part of a new pilot project called “bring your own technology.” The board is facing cutbacks, and “the way technology changes, it’s hard to keep up,” Menchhofer says. Students’ devices will be a resource in class for online research and other purposes. Allowing cellphone use also gives teachers a chance to discuss tech etiquette, like why textisms might be appropriate shortcuts in a text message, but not in an essay.

Phones make ideal teaching tools because, unlike laptops or spiral notebooks, students are unlikely to forget them at home. “They have quite a strong emotional attachment to these devices,” says Patricia Wallace, author of The Psychology of the Internet and senior director of information technology at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. Mobile phones are portable, especially for elementary school kids, who can’t lug a heavy computer in their backpack. And because they’re easy to carry everywhere, they can be used to take advantage of what she calls “micro time slots,” those spare moments waiting for the bus or a friend, when a teen could complete a quick lesson instead of a game of Angry Birds.

Of course, teachers’ and parents’ worries about cellphones aren’t completely unfounded. In a 2009 study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, researchers found that four per cent of cell-owning teens aged 12 to 17 had sent nude or nearly nude pictures of themselves by text; 15 per cent had received them. Cyberbullying is a concern, as is the distraction phones can create, but “when somebody says the phone distracts them, my question is, ‘Distracts them from what?’ ” Wallace says. “It’s partly because teachers expect the student to be looking at them all the time, in lecture mode.” Encouraging students to develop better habits around their devices could help address these issues.

There’s also the worry that personal technology can exclude some kids, since not everyone can afford their own device. But mobile phones are in some ways an exception. According to a 2010 Pew study, cellphones actually “bridge the digital divide.” Teens from low-income households are “much more likely than other teens to go online using a cellphone.” (In Moccio’s class, students without cellphones are provided with laptops or tablets so they can join in.) The study also shows that most schools have some rules regulating cellphone use, but 65 per cent of teens at schools that ban phones bring them along every day anyway. “We haven’t even begun to tap these devices,” Wallace says.

Smartphones are just one tool within the high-tech classroom. Jim Slotta, Canada Research Chair in education and technology, oversees a group at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) working on what they call “smart classrooms.” One such classroom is at the University of Toronto Schools, a university prep school for Grades 7-12, where a small room has been fitted with screen displays on three of its four walls, and is transformed via projections into a Borneo rainforest. “The idea is, you can step into it and you’re transported,” says Ph.D. candidate Michelle Lui, who designed it. As part of their Grade 11 biology class, students visited the room to track clouded leopards, proboscis monkeys, fig trees, and other species indigenous to Borneo, studying everything from the food they eat to how they evolve over time.

Working with tablet computers, they logged their findings, which were then displayed at the front of the room on two interactive whiteboards, called SMART Boards. “Notes on the SMART Board can be filtered by their tags, and moved around the board by students and the teacher via finger drag,” says Ph.D. candidate and collaborator Cresencia Fong. This serves as a springboard for “thoughtful class conversations,” she continues, as the teacher helps students develop a deeper understanding of the material. “We’re trying to get kids to think about learning as something they’re doing as a group, and the teacher has to think that, too,” Slotta says. “It’s been done without technology, but technology certainly makes it a lot more possible.” He points to Wikipedia and Flickr, which show “the power of people building on one another’s ideas.”

The rainforest simulation is just one of the projects the OISE group is working on. Another, called Wallcology, is an eight-week class that aims to teach Grade 6 students about the diversity of life; students at the the Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study in Toronto were told that an entire ecosystem of plants and insects lived inside the walls of their classroom, and four monitors were installed to show their activity (the bugs, which weren’t identifiable as a certain species, were animations modelled on real bugs).

“Students got to understand the ecosystem, watching their life cycle, and developed an understanding of how different variables like light and humidity could affect it,” says Cheryl Ann Madeira, senior associate researcher and lecturer at OISE, who worked on the project with a team including members from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Students were paired off and given tablets on which they could track their investigations. At the end of the term, a “predator” was introduced that threatened one population of insects; using their knowledge of the ecosystem, students had to fend it off.

These cutting-edge “smart classrooms” are still in the experimental phase, and widespread adoption is years away. Even so, the price of technology is dropping fast, which brings gadgets closer within reach. “We know it’s not going to be in every school within five years,” says Mike Tissenbaum, a Ph.D. candidate at OISE, “but we’re blazing a path ahead, knowing these things will become more affordable as we go.”

Nevertheless, some of these tools are already spreading through schools. SMART Boards, which were invented by a Calgary-based company, are proliferating; about one-third of classrooms in Canada are now equipped with an interactive whiteboard, according to a company spokesperson, the majority of them manufactured by SMART. (In 2008, the province of Alberta announced a three-year, $56-million education initiative that included getting an interactive whiteboard in every classroom in the province.) Even so, Canada has a ways to go. In the U.S., over 42 per cent of classrooms have interactive whiteboards, and in the U.K., roughly 77 per cent of classrooms do.

There’s a lot of excitement about technology’s potential to build a better classroom, but it’s important not to introduce technology for technology’s sake alone. Slotta’s team isn’t trying to force high-tech gadgets to conform to tried-and-true teaching methods, he says. “It’s really about looking at new approaches in their own right, and thinking about the technologies you need to make that happen.” As for how classrooms could change over the coming years, as equipment becomes more sophisticated, “I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he says, “but teachers won’t adopt anything different if the kids aren’t learning better.”

Moccio, in St. Catharines, believes it’s inevitable that we’ll see more technology infiltrate the classroom. “It seems funny that you can pull out a pen and paper, but not a digital tool” like an iPhone, he says. As teachers, academics and students start to learn all the ways these devices can enhance a student’s learning, that should slowly start to change. “Education, unfortunately, is slow to mimic the real world,” Moccio says, “but it will.”

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