For the Love of Learning

Volume IV: Making It Happen

Chapter 13: Learning, Teaching, and Information Technology

Poorly motivated students, of whom our system has more than its fair share, are poor students. Information technology can become the link between the school and the real world of Ontario's young men and women - the component that makes schools, at long last, seem relevant to their lives, and that provides the motivation to re-think their attitudes to learning and the education system.

Technology stands out in our classrooms as a symbol to teachers, parents and students that schooling can and will change, that classrooms may have some bearing on the 21st century after all.(1)

When this Commission began its work, the concept of an information superhighway was familiar to only a handful of Canadians; well before we had finished our work, no-one could escape media focus on it. When we began, CD-ROMs were a series of letters decipherable mainly by "techie" insiders; now CD-ROMs are barely avoidable, and it is widely understood that we have only begun to scratch the surface of the capabilities of interactive, multimedia technology. Who knows? One might even have Royal Commission reports in the form of CD-ROMs. (In a recent cartoon, one youngster announces to his pal: "I'm only attending school until it becomes available on CD-ROM.")

When we started, the Toronto Star did not have a weekly section devoted to the world of technology. Nor was it possible to submit a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen through the National Capital Free-Net (based at Carleton University) or the world-wide Internet, nor to access our entire report, at no cost, on a brand new Toronto Free-Net.

In fact, at the beginning of our work some members of the Commission, like many Canadians, did not have the remotest notion of how information technology could influence the education system. But awareness among Canadians is growing: according to a 1994 Gallup poll (reported in the FreeNET conference on TVOnline), 54.4 percent of Canadians are aware of the information highway and, among the services of interest to them, education ranked first.

This report, like much of our work, was written (and it is being produced) electronically. We received e-mail on our computers, whether in the office and at home (although we found that e-mailing at home can be a wondrous, but sometimes frustrating, endeavour).

We teamed up with TVOntario to sponsor a computer-based, on-going conference on education issues, where more than two thousand messages were posted. Each of us had a voice-mail system, and we checked our messages from as far away as North Bay. We also used voice-mail in conjunction with our 1-800 number, as another way for people to share their views with us.

We received submissions on audio cassettes and videos, and sponsored both a tele-conference when we were in Timmins, and a video-conference, linking groups in Ottawa and Toronto.

Like a rapidly increasing number of people world-wide, we recognize that the revolution launched by the microchip is permanent; it will only accelerate from here, at a pace that is unimaginable to most of us.

But, while technological innovations revolutionize every aspect of life, and while some Ontario schools have begun to recognize the promise information technology holds, much of our education system remains relatively untouched by it. We are persuaded that, if it were introduced and organized properly, and if teachers were adequately prepared, information technology would have a wonderfully positive role in education, right from the earliest grades of elementary school.

This chapter discusses that potential. We define information technology as one of our four engines (see Volume I: Introduction), and think that in the classroom its essentials comprise a computer, printer, CD-ROM player, and modem, although it does not necessarily follow that each computer needs all that equipment at all times. There are, of course, expansion components, such as stereo speakers which enhance sound quality, and plotters for certain kinds of computer-generated drawings.

Certainly, there are other technologies that may be useful for instruction, such as the relatively new videodisks and that old standby, the overhead projector; as well, there are technologies used for other school-related purposes, such as voice-mail to allow parents to verify homework assignments; and there are specialized software programs for everything from planning the school bus routes to controlling energy use in the school. For the purposes of this report, we refer to these broader instruments and applications as instructional technologies.

We begin by identifying information technology in the context of educational reform, based on what we heard and read about the way technology is driving world changes - though less in education than in other areas. We note the conditions needed to integrate information technology successfully into teaching and learning, and then consider more specifically how computers help students learn, teachers teach, and all learners link with each other and with experts on-line.

We discuss student assessment, students using networks to gather information, and the natural affinity students seem to have for information technology. We also talk about the networks that are linking teachers together, allowing them to learn more easily from each other and to share lesson plans and teaching strategies.

We develop a plan with some fundamental elements: developing teacher knowledge and skills, providing appropriate hardware and high-quality software that has Canadian content and perspective, and linking such computers to local and regional networks. We look at other instructional technologies, such as interactive video, and note the importance of TVOntario in this field. Finally, we group our recommendations to emphasize the co-ordinating role we would like to see the Ministry play.

Before proceeding, however, we want to emphasize that we are talking about information and other instructional technologies as tools for learning and teaching. Almost as a by-product, students also learn computer literacy, how to use the intimidating box that sits on the desks of too many managers unable to turn it on. Our children will learn the skills to exploit its full range of capabilities.

In Chapter 8, we recommended that computer literacy become one of the five foundation skills in the common curriculum. (New Brunswick has already established a computer literacy requirement for graduates of high school and community college, starting in 1996.) This will provide students with the crucial skills needed to use technology in the workplace - and, increasingly, in the home. Moreover, "technology education is more than computers,"(2) which is why our discussion of curriculum includes the place of broad-based technology.

A new environment

While we are concerned that information technology has barely had an impact on Ontario schools, it does not mean we are suggesting that technology is an automatic good in the learning process. As Professor Ursula Franklin reminded the world in The Real World of Technology, the 1989 CBC Massey lectures:

Many technological systems ... are basically anti-people. People are seen as sources of problems while technology is seen as a source of solutions ... When students are seen as not sufficiently competent, it is likely to be computers that the school purchases rather than extra teachers' time and extra human help.(3)

We acknowledge that machines must be at the service of humankind - not the reverse. That is why we insist so vigorously that, without appropriate teaching strategies, information technology will not do the job required.

To realize any vision of smarter schooling by using technology, [we] must prepare teachers to use the technology. Apart from funding considerations, adequate teacher preparation is probably the most important determinant of success.(4)

We are also wary of the excessive claims made for technology's potential contribution to learning. We were told of a claim made in the United States that "over 20 years of research shows that when technology is used to enhance the instructional process, teacher productivity doubles and students experience at least 30 percent more learning in 40 percent less time at 30 percent less cost."(5) Such statements, with their precise quantification of uncertain qualitative processes, do little to add credibility to the genuine case that can be made for the role of technology in education.

Used improperly, a computer in the school is nothing more than a wasted resource. As one brief put it, "The educational technology road of the last two decades in this province is littered with the wrecks of unused and ineffectively used equipment."(6)

Clearly, this is not just an Ontario phenomenon: at least one American educator and futurist asserts that "many schools are barely entering the Information Age. They are using computers as data processing devices. Whenever any technology comes into education, it's generally used to do the old job better."(7) We saw classes in which inadequate teachers were using computers and educational television, but still teaching inadequately.

However, the new information technologies do offer the first qualitative change in the potential for learning since Gutenberg, whose book-based information technology structured the education process for half a millennium.

McLuhan's global village has finally become a reality in the world of education: learning need no longer be bound by time and place, and continuing education is transformed from rhetoric to reality.

Something new is happening, with profound consequences for our schools; the only question is whether we harness it, or it overwhelms us. "In the space age, an improved horse and buggy remains a horse and buggy."(8)

Understandably, overloaded teachers may view information technology as just the latest set of bells and whistles that complicate their daily lives. They may recall that educational television, which does offer some programs teachers can use, was once over-zealously promoted as the classroom of the future, where there would be no need for teachers. Or they may remember the new math, and open-concept classrooms, both of which came and went.

The fact is that many - probably most - schools are barely in a position to make a serious commitment to information technology. As a study for UNESCO points out:

[Information technology] can also be a source of frustration within the present tight and rigid organizational structure of education. Work pressure, lack of (hardware and software) facilities and the frequent lack of proper integration within the syllabus have a negative effect.(9)

That is why the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC) is so persuasive when it stresses that, "it is time that educational technology be presented to teachers as a useful tool with appropriate supporting resources rather than an additional burden for the teacher to master."(10) We agree with the AMTEC member who insists such technology is "a teaching tool, not a teacher."

But if many schools and teachers are not yet ready for the brave new world of information technology, two other key players in our society demonstrably are. The education system has become a major target of the gigantic information technology industry, which has a huge stake in every kind of software and hardware, and is taking aim at schools across the continent in an effort to expand its markets.

While the Canadian push is being led by such large firms as Rogers, Southam, Corel, Unitel, and Stentor (an alliance of Canadian phone companies), the international drive is being conducted by some of the most powerful corporations in the world: Time Warner, Paramount Communications, Microsoft, the computer manufacturers, as well as the dominant players in the gargantuan computer and video-games industries.

Indeed, some of the biggest Canadian concerns have formed links with vastly larger American corporations; AT&T, in concert with Rogers and CP, owns 20 percent of Unitel, while Stentor has a marketing agreement with MCI Communications Corporation.

There is a second, often-ignored stakeholder in the school "business" who is more than ready for the information technology culture: the "client" - the student. "It is not entirely facetious," according to some educators, "to say that Sega and Nintendo are in control of our children's educational future."(11)

There is a portrait of today's family that has a certain ring of truth: the child can set the VCR and play video games, while parents, however many university degrees they may possess, are left baffled.

However, not all youngsters have expensive Super Nintendo games at home, and certainly not all have home computers, with or without CD-ROMs; it is estimated that about one in four homes now has a computer, and that as many as two in three will do so by the end of the century. Obviously, children who already have the greatest socio-economic advantages will be the most likely to have the latest, and the best, information technology.

But, regardless of background, children know about Game Boys, television, music videos, VCRs, video cameras, CDs, portable CD players, and the like; especially among boys, even in poor neighbourhoods, arcades open to them the world of video games and multi-function remote controls.

Children do not regard these as marvellous or breath-taking, but as part of the furniture - in precisely the way their parents were brought up to regard telephones. Indeed, even in the quintessential low-paid, dead-end job, the McJob at McDonald's itself, everything depends on computerization. "This technology, in their minds, is and always has been."(12)

This goes a long way, as the UNESCO report notes, "to explaining why teachers armed with chalk and a blackboard are no match for these powerful new media."(13) And it is why York University's committee on technology in education organized a 1994 conference, "Chalkdust to Chips."

Nonetheless, we are aware of schools in Ontario where students at the senior elementary level have a computer class only once in each six-day cycle, with two youngsters sharing a single machine for 35 minutes. Furthermore, if the computer classes fall on a holiday, or when a student is absent, the opportunity to learn computer skills can occur perhaps once every three weeks.

This kind of scheduling may be done in good faith, but it is a bad joke for students, especially because of the strong affinity this generation shows, under the right circumstances, to moving from games to the most sophisticated computer applications (e-mail, world-wide bulletin boards, computer-animated graphics, electronic file transfers, computer-assisted instruction, etc.).

While it may be difficult to credit - for those who have never had an opportunity to observe school children working with computers - we saw many remarkable classes and some schools where technology is real and is having an impact on both teaching and learning.

At River Oaks in Oakville, an experimental elementary school that begins at the junior kindergarten level, we were stunned by the sheer energy and enjoyment we observed. We later wondered why every Ontario school should not generate the same sense of excitement.

This seemed an especially sensible question because our personal impressions are apparently borne out by academic evaluation. Professor Ron Owston, associate dean of the Faculty of Education at York University, and director of the university's Centre for the Study of Computers in Education, recently completed a three-year analysis of the effect of computers on the writing skills of River Oaks students from Grades 3 to 6. Compared to a control group who wrote without use of computer technology, Owston found that "computers improved the structure and organization of students' work both in narrative and personal writing."

By Grade 6, students with keyboarding skills were writing 3,000-word stories and were impressive in their ability to organize these very long tales. Finally, their ability to access information through the Internet or on CD-ROMs - atlases, encyclopedias, image banks, "conversations" with peers in Japan allowed them to create richer works. "Interestingly," Owston says, "while the quality goes up, so do the students' expectations."(14)

However, it is crucial to note that River Oaks is far more than a high-tech school: it is a highly structured operation based on a cogent philosophy of learning that is shared by all its staff. As principal Gerry Smith writes:

Technology is a tool to help realize a school philosophy that is qualitatively different from most schools in this province. Restructuring the curriculum has been the major focus of River Oaks since its inception. Curriculum should be meaningful and relevant. Curriculum should focus on a blending of theory with practice. There should be provision for both the "old basics" and the "new basics" such as accessing, managing and processing information, collaborative and co-operative working skills, problem-solving and learning how to learn. Learning should be integrated. Children need to learn with context.

Associated with our curriculum restructuring are the three E's. The curriculum should be able to engage, enable, and empower students to achieve their full potential. That's why we can't stress too forcefully our conviction that computers used improperly are merely another wasted frill and a poor investment in a time of relative scarcity.(15)

At the Lambton County Roman Catholic Separate School Board in Sarnia, we saw a board-wide information technology project that was similarly impressive, and we looked on as students at Sir Wilfrid Laurier High School in suburban Ottawa used their spare periods to practise high-level computer graphics. We heard descriptions of enviable programs across the province, from Thunder Bay to Lively to Scarborough, where innovative teachers are ensuring that female students are full partners in technological areas that, traditionally, were assumed to be masculine enclaves.

We've seen highly cost-effective experiments, such as the one at the Wellington Separate School Board's Holy Family Centre: timetables at three area schools are co-ordinated, and school buses provide transportation so that students, including some younger students, can use the centre's computer classroom.

We had compelling briefs detailing how computer-based technology could be used, for example, to individualize a child's education from age 4, based on special needs and aptitudes. In Cochrane, a Grade 11 drop-out who is now involved in computer training for adult learners, told us how her three-and-a-half-year-old grandson uses a computer to do word recognition exercises.

Of course, computers are used for distance education. We were told that the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has experimented with a course taught exclusively on a computer network. With disks and CD-ROMs, courses can be distributed to students who have access to computers. Where correspondence courses used to consist of books and, more recently, audio and video tapes, the 1990s calls for files and data to be downloaded from networks.

We studied reports of a large number of information technology projects and experiments in American schools, which those involved describe as transforming the nature of learning for kids and teaching for teachers.(16)

Possibilities and concerns

At this point, it is useful to step back in order to indicate our concerns about the entire area of information technology and education. There are, of course, some limitations related to the current state of the art of computers - limits over which we have no control and which will shrink constantly as science and technology progress. But we are looking at those caused by the system and, therefore, within our ability to affect.

First, most of the success stories we have described involve specific projects, carefully prepared and operated by intensely committed and often knowledgeable individuals; the projects have usually received special funding. Therefore, it requires quite a leap of faith to extrapolate from their findings to a system of mass learning. And there are many other conditions that will need to be met before we can reasonably expect all classrooms to reflect the successes of the few experimental ones.

"Technology is not likely to have a qualitative impact unless it is deeply integrated into classroom purposes and activities."(17) In other words, information technology by itself does not lead to change: the determinants are the ways it is used and integrated into all learning and teaching, the quality and appropriateness of the software that is chosen, and the abilities and interests of teachers.

Higher-order learning skills, for example, are not developed unless the right software is being used in the right way. Similarly, traditional didactic approaches are left behind only if there is enough equipment and if the particular teacher using the technology feels comfortable with the changes involved.(18)

In sum, all the changes in innovative schools across Ontario and elsewhere are the result of new approaches to learning and teaching, facilitated by the introduction of information technology.

Second, we want to emphasize that, in the end, computers and the related technology are nothing more than machines - even if their ability to process information still dazzles the human imagination. In fact, we doubt they will ever replace the joy of reading a great book as a form of continuing education.

Paradoxically, however, technology's very dynamics, and the furious pace at which it is being pushed, leads to a fear that the ability to control its evolution is already beyond our control. Is technology in the saddle, riding humankind? Perhaps not yet, but unless we attempt consciously to harness it for socially useful purposes, we may soon be overwhelmed.

Third, major questions remain unanswered about decision-making on the information highway. Indeed, the fascinating issue, given our mandate, is whether we are talking about an information highway, where the public interest prevails, or about an information mall, where commercial concerns dominate. Who will decide whether the interests of the public and the community or of the private sector will be paramount?

There are also very important equity issues related to the educational use of information technology, which must be subject to the same high levels of equity we expect in all areas of education.

We are concerned that, unless it is handled sensitively, the introduction of information technology may well reinforce, not minimize, artificial barriers to learning.

Common sense tells us that financial constraints determine students' access to technology; obviously, children from poorer families are less likely to have computers at home than those who are more privileged. Statistics Canada reports that 23.3 percent of Canadian households have computers, excluding those used only for games or business, but that this figure doubles in households with incomes of more than $60,000.(19) In that sense, schools equipped with information technology may give poorer students far greater equality of opportunity than they have now.

We believe that all schools need adequate numbers of up-to-date computers and that all schools must be part of a net. The only disparity that might exist between and within boards should favour communities where fewer homes have computers.

Unless we find a way for poorer children to have access, outside the school, to information technology equipment (linked to a network), it is quite likely they will eventually fall behind. The possibility of creating a new class of technological literates, with disproportionate privileges, is only too real. And, of course, this new class comes disproportionately from the more affluent sections of society. That is why schools must offer all students the opportunity to master this literacy. Indeed, whether high school students choose the more applied or the more academic focus (as we describe the new options), it is certain that almost every conceivable future work possibility - even at McDonald's - will require knowledge of technology and its uses.

In developing and using software, we must ensure that negative stereotypes are not reinforced. If software were assessed centrally, using the skills of professional educators across Ontario, it could eliminate the need for every school board or school to carry out such assessments. This would probably ensure that all software in Ontario classrooms, whether distributed directly by the Ministry, the Ontario Software Acquisition Program, or simply recommended as a resource, was of high quality and was balanced. It is important that the effects of information technology on various social groups be monitored.

There is some concern that boys may grasp much of the new technology more eagerly than girls, presumably for the same socially conditioned reasons that girls are less comfortable with science and math.(20) The introduction of information technology to all school children when they are very young, as a routine and integral part of their lives in school, should go a long way to making technology gender neutral; if necessary, particular interventions should be considered to accomplish this. In positioning computers as centres of learning, we must take care that girls are not relegated to the periphery, or to mastering only the superficial aspects.

Astonishing work has been done in developing software specifically for students with learning disabilities.(21) But it can hardly work if these youngsters lack access to the proper tools. Therefore, teachers in information technology programs geared to individualized instruction can guide all students who have special education needs. Gifted children can move ahead at their own pace, and can even become mentors to their peers perhaps even to their teachers.

Another concern is a vital component of schooling, its social aspect. Our aim is not to have students retreat into themselves, talking only to the computer. We were pleased to see many situations in which students work in teams, teaching each other on the computer. This is important. It is also important that they have the opportunity to learn the implications of computer technology: how is society dealing with automation in the workplace? in leisure? in learning? Students should be exposed to the ethical dilemmas of all technologies. "A technologically literate person must ... understand the relationship between technology and social change."(22) And we emphasize again how much we want students to read books, not just computer screens: books have a different smell and feel that must not be lost, no matter how attractive technology may be.

Infusing our schools with information technology equitably and using its impact to re-create schools, curriculum, and teaching will not occur overnight. There are costs to consider, the need to develop skills and knowledge among educators, and the development and acquisition of software. And, of course, we want to create a network (or "net") to link schools together, so that they can learn and share as a global community.

The next part of this chapter deals with the elements of a successful transformation of the school system, driven by the engine of information technology. We note the need for co-ordination, so that networks can speak to each other, so that software is evaluated only once. We discuss the kinds of software needed in our schools, emphasizing that - like books and other teaching materials - there must be a strong Canadian presence in information technology; and, of course, we discuss the need for more and better hardware in our schools. But first we bring this and another engine - teacher development - together, because teachers have a key role in bringing computers to life in our schools.

Information technology's contribution to learning

Information technology makes a number of singular contributions to the world of learning. First, as is abundantly clear from all the examples we have described, it makes schools feel relevant in a way that nothing else has or can. Student after student appeared before us complaining persuasively about the irrelevance of schooling to their lives. "Nothing motivates students to higher performances," writes Professor Graham Orpwood, of the Faculty of Education of York University, "more than a sense that what they are studying is of real relevance and importance to themselves, their lives and personal aspirations ... the key to a door to rewarding work or exciting opportunity ... [a] link to the real world of students."(23)

Poorly motivated students, of whom our system has more than its fair share, are poor students. Information technology can become the link between the school and the real world of Ontario's young men and women - the component that makes schools, at long last, seem relevant to their lives, and that provides the motivation to re-think their attitudes to learning and to the education system.

American educators use almost identical language to describe the consequences of strategically introducing information technology into schools where they teach, supervise, or have studied. "Teachers reported and were observed to interact differently with students - more as guides or mentors and less like lecturers," one writes about high school. "At times, students led classes, became tutors, and spontaneously organized collaborative work groups."

After several years, "significant change" was observed in the way students thought and worked. In fact, the greatest difference between students in a carefully planned and structured information technology program and those in conventional schools is "the manner in which they organized for and accomplished their work. Routinely they employed inquiry, collaborative, technological and problem-solving skills uncommon to the graduates of traditional high school programs."

At the same time, teachers, "began teaming, working across disciplines, and modifying school schedules to accommodate ambitious class projects," while, in elementary schools, "traditional recitation and seat work have been gradually balanced with inter-disciplinary, project-based instruction that integrates the same advanced technologies in use in high school."

No wonder the writer concludes that "the catalytic impact of technology in these environments cannot be under-estimated. We have watched technology profoundly disturb the inertia of traditional classrooms. For example, technology:

  • encourages fundamentally different forms of interaction among students and between students and teachers;
  • engages students systematically in higher-order cognitive tasks; and
  • prompts teachers to question old assumptions about instruction and learning."(24)

While the Commission largely avoids the cliche "paradigm shift," it is surely appropriate in this context. Certainly, such changes in a school environment, if real, constitute nothing less than a transformation of the learning culture for those involved. Education is being re-invented for them.

Other researchers make equally irresistible claims. The heads of the Institute for the Reinvention of Education at Pennsylvania State University insist that new technology can help students learn and develop at different rates; make them proficient at accessing, evaluating, and communicating information; foster an increase in the quantity and quality of students' thinking and writing; help them learn to solve complex problems; make them globally aware and able to use resources that exist outside the school; create opportunities for them to do meaningful work; and even nurture artistic expression.(25)

In an earlier chapter, we pointed out that computers have a role in giving students immediate feedback on their progress. Computer-mediated assessment can allow students to test themselves, checking to see if they have mastered a new skill or have the knowledge required to move on to other work. There is evidence such techniques teach students that they have the capacity to improve, while immediate feedback has been shown to motivate students who might otherwise have very little interest in school.

Students who get into the habit of checking their own learning and understanding are self-assessing, an important skill at a time when, increasingly, people are required to consider how well prepared they are for jobs and a society that changes rapidly around us. As students take greater responsibility for assessing themselves, the pace of learning changes and becomes more individualized. All of this may unavoidably alter the way schools and learning are organized. We believe it is vital for schools to manage this process rather than simply being bystanders to it.

However, our discussion would be only half complete if we were to focus solely on how students make use of computers to learn more, better, and faster. The other half of learning in school is teaching; teachers have shown that they can make innovative uses of information technology to change the way they teach, responding to more student needs, and facilitating the better learning we have been discussing.

Of course, it is probable that good teachers always want to use direct instruction, as needed, to convey certain lessons. Nevertheless, we are satisfied that information technology can be beneficial in fostering the diverse techniques of teaching/learning that the best teachers employ.

No doubt it is true that neither all teachers nor all parents will welcome the greater role for student initiative and independent learning that is virtually the guaranteed result of using any good software program. They, after all, allow the user to navigate through the material independently, exploring directions and pathways well beyond any teacher's possible control or planning. We welcome this new capacity, and are confident that the overwhelming number of children in our schools, if directed by well-versed teachers, will be able to use it productively and constructively.

With these tools, we can "move classrooms away from conventional didactic instructional approaches, in which teachers do most of the talking and students listen and complete short exercises on well-defined, subject-area-specific material. Instead, students are challenged with complex, authentic tasks, and reformers are pushing for lengthy multidisciplinary projects, co-operative learning groups, flexible scheduling, and authentic assessments."

In this kind of reformed classroom, "authentic tasks are completed for reasons beyond a grade. Students also see the activity as worthwhile in its own right." This attitude is greatly facilitated because students "take great pride in using the same tools as practising professionals," not to mention producing work that often resembles that of a professional.(26)

In the longer term, the increasing independence of most students should provide teachers with some relief from time pressures, time they might then dedicate to students having difficulty.

Vicki Hancock and Frank Betts of the Education and Technology Resources Centre of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development stress that, in information technology programs, teachers "expect far more of their students and present more complex material. The range of learning experiences extends far beyond those offered in traditional classrooms."(27) At the same time, more individual attention by the teacher is possible, allowing different learning styles to be accommodated.

Teacher-centred classrooms tend to evolve into student-centred ones. The teacher acts more as a coach than an information dispenser. More collaboration and small-group work occurs.

Another computer specialist, this one in Maine, tells of a school that cancelled the computer classes in its lab and integrated computers into its curriculum, so that students would not just learn to use computers but would learn ideas. The exciting results: "Students have become even more actively involved in their work ... [and] ?average' students grew as involved and interested as 'gifted' students."(28)

Similarly, an English and journalism teacher in San Diego reports that the use of technology in her classes has led "all students, from gifted to special education, to take control of their learning." In a community with high drop-out rates, she found students fully engaged, and notes that "co-operative learning is encouraged," enabling her to spend "more of my time as a facilitator of learning rather than an all-knowing expert."(29)

These findings are entirely consistent with our impressions of Ontario schools we visited, as well as with what both teachers and students throughout the province say about their own reactions.(30)

From their experience, educators in the Netherlands add that while "the computer will never replace the teacher ... it will change the role of the teacher to increase the time and attention that can be spent on groups of pupils who are often neglected at present - exceptionally gifted children and pupils who lag behind."(31)

In its brief to us, the Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC) described studies that concluded:

Educational technology can create new avenues for social exchange and co-operative learning. Fears that computers will result in students working in isolation removed from all forms of human interaction can be dispelled by watching students in classrooms organized to promote peer interaction. Students solve problems collaboratively, often with their teachers as partners.(32)

They also discuss a 1990 project of the University of British Columbia and the Educational Technology Centre of British Columbia, to integrate computer-related technologies in 12 schools. The result was that teachers found the computers had a positive impact, not only on children's learning but also on their social and emotional growth. "There was a feeling," according to the report of the project, "that the motivational aspect of the computer encouraged the students to spend more time at the computer, which led to developing skills in critical thinking, creative thinking and problem-solving."

Moreover, when multimedia programs were used, "teachers commented that children put more effort into their learning and reached high success levels." Those who have seen a group of Grade 8 boys at River Oaks - hormone-hoppers, as they are quaintly known ignore the lunch-hour bell so that they can continue working on a collective project will recognize this rare school syndrome.

The British Columbia project also concluded that computers positively enhanced students' attitudes toward learning in general, and belief in themselves as learners:

There was some speculation that the intriguing mechanical/technical aspect of computers was a factor in motivating children, but more often teachers felt that the contribution computers could make to building self-esteem, empowering and enabling the learner, and building confidence and feelings of success were what really sustained the high interest and use.

With the tools of technology, students can dramatically raise knowledge levels, learn problem-solving techniques, develop the skills required to manage massive amounts of information, analyze concepts from several different perspectives, and develop the hard-to-quantify higher-order analytic and critical thinking skills that are required in the global marketplace.(33)

We know that individuals learn at different rates, and, while Howard Gardner's theory - that each of us has many different kinds of intelligence(34) - has gained widespread acceptance, in the real world of a large classroom, it is extremely difficult for a teacher to act on this knowledge. Information technology begins to make it feasible to order learning to fit the individual child's characteristics.

Further along the continuum, a digital electronics program at Humber College in Etobicoke has resulted in a computerized learning infrastructure that made it possible to offer individualized instruction, continuous intake of students throughout the year, and computer-managed learning (CML). According to the creator of this program, "perhaps the most important advantage of individualized instruction is the fact that students are forced to learn how to learn on their own ... Most become confident learners and are very pleased with themselves."

Under CML, each student progresses through his or her courses. The program

delivers homework assignments, supervises examinations, checks answers to assignments and examinations, provides students with reports on test achievement, allows entry of grades from faculty graded projects such as labs, checks data gathered from lab measurements, and provides comprehensive statistics of the student's grades, classes, objectives, and test-question success.(35)

In addition to enhancing student learning, information technology offers teachers ample opportunities for using computers (and the communications networks they access) to share ideas, learn from each other, and form collaborative networks of professional educators.

The Commission learned a great deal from the Culture of Change Electronic Village, a province-wide network of the Ontario Teachers' Federation, which allows teachers to link to each other. OTF has structured the network so that, in many Ontario communities, it is only a local call; the system features "conferences" of all types, where teachers can discuss issues, share lesson plans, and pose questions.

According to Globe and Mail education writer Jennifer Lewington, who solicited comments from participants, the results are encouraging.(36) Said one teacher, "It is one of the best sources of professional development that I have come across and made use of in the past 18 years." An external evaluator commented that the network "is one of the most powerful tools for policy feedback."

We envision this network growing, increasing the number of teachers involved and expanding the topics for discussion. We also foresee the possibility of school boards, education faculties, and others using the net to send educational research, the material for an in-service course, or new Ministry curriculum guidelines. The possibilities are exciting.

Making it happen

Teacher education

Almost all reports of successful projects in information technology describe its profound transformative effect on the role of the teacher. In the long term, UNESCO reports, the teacher goes from "know-all to guide, from soloist to accompanist."(37) He or she tends to become more of "a facilitator: someone who creates the conditions for learning and organizes the learning processes."(38)

What gives these many diverse reports credibility in our eyes is the sensitivity they show towards the teacher's place in the new world of information technology. Virtually all the researchers believe that information technology can work only if teachers are intimately involved. Some wax almost poetic:

Some things only teachers can do. Teachers can build strong, productive relationships with students. Technologies can't. Teachers can motivate students to love learning. Technologies can't. Teachers can identify and meet students' emotional needs. Technologies can't. Technology-based solutions can, and must, free the teacher to do the important work that requires human interaction, continuous evaluation, and improvement of the learning environment.(39)

But no-one, however excited or knowledgeable about technology, believes that teachers can play their new roles without professional development. "Our teachers need training," the Council of Directors of Education of Ontario told the Commission. "We are asking professionals, educated in a paradigm of the teacher as information dispenser, to be cognizant of the powers and potentials of the [new] technologies. Without funding and support, teachers will not likely be able to equip themselves with the tools necessary to be an educator in the 1990s and beyond."(40)

Teachers, says an American educator, must be given the opportunity "for not only learning how to use the technology but also learning strategies for using technology with students."(41)

The first step is to make current teachers comfortable with information technology - using it themselves, teaching with it, and selecting the software that will best fit their courses. In fact, a number of teachers are already familiar with the world of educational technology. But the majority, quite naturally, are probably as intimidated by the new technology as people elsewhere - including those on this Commission.

We do not expect tens of thousands of Ontario teachers suddenly to be transformed from techno-peasants to techno-pedagogues, able to turn traditional schools into cybercentres where teachers and students surf the techno-waves.

But there is no reason why all teachers cannot learn to be modestly at home in the world of information technology, as long as appropriate time and resources are made available to prepare them properly. Nonetheless, we have been told that the commitment to teacher in-service is woefully inadequate in most school boards across the province. While some are taking necessary action, it appears that most boards, already resource challenged, do not provide anything like sufficient resources for technological development.(42)

The other step is to provide more and better technological education to all those entering the teaching profession. We can surely take for granted that most of them will already have some considerable knowledge of the world of information technology: at the minimum, all are likely to have prepared their university essays on word processors, and each new year's crop can be counted on to take the latest technology more for granted. But, as they undergo the long process of becoming really accomplished teachers, it is crucial that they know about technology and especially how to teach with technology. That is true whether they intend to teach in elementary or secondary schools, or whether they become calculus or literature teachers.

In earlier chapters on teacher selection, initial preparation, and on-going development, we recommended that students' prerequisites for entry to a faculty of education include a demonstration of a basic familiarity with information technology. The definition of a basic familiarity will change as more and more applicants see computers as just another tool; however, we would suggest that all applicants should be able to use a word processor (and use it regularly to do papers), know how to use other types of software, such as databases and drawing or painting programs.

Given our emphasis on computer-based communications networks, all applicants should have used communications software to link to an electronic bulletin board. Happily, there are hundreds in this country, including many that are school based, school-board based, or public.

With student teachers who are equipped with this background, the task in initially preparing them for their profession is to give them knowledge and skills in applying information technology in the classroom. This means knowing how to integrate computers in all areas of the curriculum.

While we are not suggesting that teachers know a given educational software program, we do argue that they need to know how to select high-quality software, appropriate to the age of the students and their current tasks, which might be available in a school or board resource centre. Teachers, with the assistance of their school boards, the Ministry, teacher federations, and education faculties, must develop a level of comfort with information technology.

We emphasize that this is a joint effort: teachers must see the value of information technology in their work and in their daily lives, while school boards must see the importance of computers in the classroom. We suggest that teachers take advantage of the educational discounts for computer hardware and software available to them, as well as to training courses provided by school boards and others. Each person must take responsibility for achieving a level of technological comfort and expertise necessary for being a teacher in Ontario's modern school system.

But we also suggest that the range of courses be enhanced to give practising teachers the knowledge and skills to use computers in the classroom successfully. Aside from schools in which there is a shortage of computer equipment, all teachers not now using computers in the classroom should be expected to modify their teaching strategies and to become involved.

There is nothing irrational about teachers being afraid of looking stupid in front of students who know more about computers than they do; similarly, the difficulties of integrating computers into daily classroom practice with no system support are not imaginary.(43)

Teachers who regularly use computers in their regular classroom work, should have opportunities for advanced study. Universities, school boards, federations, and the Ministry must work together to ensure that both types of professional development are available.

Throughout this report, we have attempted to demonstrate how the four engines assist each other synergistically; in this instance, the relationship between technology and teacher preparation must be organic.

At the same time, if we are correct in believing that early childhood education predisposes children to learning, schools that offer the kind of motivation provided by strategically directed technology are building welcoming institutions. And as more and more homes computerize, the possibility of families working together on technology-related projects becomes increasingly likely; this makes the availability of computers especially important for students from poorer families who, while they may not have computers at home, will at least be systematically introduced to information technology at school.


Common to much of what we heard and read is the matter of access. Unless both the software and hardware become widely available throughout Ontario schools, the bright promise of technology will remain a dead letter for the great majority of Ontario students. It appears that, in the past, the government saw meeting this need as a high priority. Paul Ryan, a Windsor teacher and president of the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario, told us that

There was a time when the province of Ontario, through the Ministry of Education and Training, provided vision, and leadership, and the funds to make things happen. The development of the Icon computer; a comprehensive computer science curriculum; the initiation of the GEMs [grant-eligible micro-computers, those that met the Ministry's criteria and were, therefore, jointly financed by the school board and the Ministry] to allow schools to purchase hardware and software; the encouragement of the development of Ontario software for Ontario schools by Ontario companies; [and] the establishment of a Ministry department to facilitate technology use across the curriculum helped us leap ahead of other provinces and states. The result was not only a significant improvement in the classroom experience for both students and teachers, but a burgeoning of Ontario's high-tech industries.

Over the last few years, though, the vision has clouded, the drive has been lost, and the funds are drying up. Schools are hard pressed to continue existing programs, and Ministry policies created through hard work and consultation with educators and industry are downgraded to "suggestions" ... The recent decision to cut the existing GEM grants by 50 percent was not a positive move.(44)

Of course, funds are drying up for all manner of worthwhile programs, and it is hardly surprising that the computerization program suffered its share. As aware as we are of the financial realities, we strongly urge the Ministry to give priority and budget increases to policies and programs for acquiring information technology, as well as for the development of networks in classrooms, and that it maintain a separate budget line in this regard.

But we are all perfectly aware that financial constraints will remain, and that, for the foreseeable future, the provincial government cannot realistically be expected to computerize the province's education system on its own. In fact, it is not possible to equip schools for the technology revolution without the full participation of the wider Ontario community. As the Information Technology Association of Canada said in its "Education Statement" of January 1994:

All levels of government, industry and the academic community must work to equip Canadian classrooms with the necessary tools (modern computers, communication capabilities, qualified educators and a learning infrastructure) to make IT (information technology) a serious learning tool.(45)

Given that everyone knows government alone cannot afford to cover these costs, we see this as a direct challenge above all to the business community, which has the opportunity to use its resources to back its often-stated educational concerns. Business demands that schools produce graduates who are creative, thoughtful, and problem-solvers. Because so many business spokespersons believe that future Canadian prosperity depends on the ability to exploit high-tech's new tools, we assume they will want to help schools technologically enter the 21st century. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to see that happening.

In fact, while we were very impressed with the computer environment at River Oaks, we could hardly fail to realize that it is very much an experiment, apparently made possible only through donations from the private sector. The Holy Family program - a pilot project whose concept can be adapted to families of schools, school and public libraries, and school boards serving the same geographical area - was also able to acquire hardware at special prices.

Lambton County, whose information technology project impressed us so greatly, sacrificed its music program in order to move toward the information superhighway - a Hobson's choice in a world that already has far too few good music programs. Education partners in this province must find ways to provide all students with cost-effective, technology-based learning, without having to sacrifice other valuable learning experiences.

There is a need for more, and more up-to-date, computers. We have seen the way computers are distributed in Ontario's schools, and we are less than convinced that computers dating back to the early 1980s are going to help us move into the next millennium. Many very creative teachers are successfully using the 20,000 Commodore 64s and Pets (including SuperPets and 128s) that, according to Ministry data, were in schools in 1993.

While it is better for students to have some familiarity with computers than none at all, these old machines even lack hard drives, let alone have the capability of running today's software or connecting to CD-ROM players and modems. A Commodore 64 built in 1983 has the same relationship to today's basic desk-top that a horse and buggy has to a jet plane; it becomes increasingly difficult for these primitive machines to play the role we believe is potentially possible in transforming the very nature of learning.

In 1993, the federal Department of Industry, Science and Technology announced it would redirect surplus government computers and processing software to school systems across Canada. As of September 1994, some two hundred computers had been delivered to those Ontario school boards designated by the national advisory board that had been established to oversee the allocation process. (A survey carried out for the program showed that more than 100,000 computers were requested nationally.)

Although we have some concerns that equipment considered obsolete by industry is not going to help schools stay on the leading edge, we think it a worthwhile project for the Ontario government and the business community, many of whose members regularly discard large numbers of used computers. As it happens, computers donated to schools may be considered a charitable donation for the purposes of federal tax.

Of course, the private sector can do more than simply contribute computers it no longer needs. Just as they come together in the Learning Partnership (formerly the Metro Toronto Learning Partnership), computer companies and others can help to ease computers into schools. While competition may drive the economy, it is not always the best way to support schools. Companies that refuse to work together, for example, which leads to different and incompatible operating systems, do not help schools. We are encouraged, however, that computer companies are part of the Learning Partnership.

It also seems to us that students who have access to computers after school, on weekends, and in the summer have access, in effect, to the school. They can continue their learning as if they had never left the building, while those without access may be left behind. Therefore, we are heartened by such examples as the North York Public Library's Children's Computer Centre, which consists of nine computers in three branches, used by children during library hours. While some 25,000 did so in 1993, the centre is not linked to a net, and a library is not the same as having access at home.

In the meantime, we believe that as part of a community's support system, such facilities and services as community recreation centres and public libraries should have computing centres where families can learn about and through computers. While we have been told that such a program existed some years ago, we are not certain that it was given the resources and priority required to establish it for the long term. Such centres might well be located in schools but, wherever they are, they must be accessible for extended hours.

The best hardware is just a great paperweight unless it can run excellent software: the instructions that tell computers how to compute, that make up the programs which tell them what function to carry out, and that are necessary for communicating with other computers.

There are two types of software for schools: first, the many programs that have been developed especially for schools and that revolve around some particular part of the curriculum (geography or problem-solving, for example), and second, the kinds of programs that are widely used at home or in the workplace: word processing, databases, CADD, communications, graphics, and machine control, for example. Both are needed in our schools; relying on only one is not in the best interests of students. Educational software can become outdated and boring very quickly, while business or personal software can help students learn or practise certain skills, but is not directly linked to the curriculum.

We are concerned about the quality of software, educational software in particular, and about who creates that software. The Ministry has taken a very positive step by making CorelDraw and ClarisWorks available in every school, but much more needs to be done. It appears, for example, that software is not reviewed for quality, appropriateness, and bias in the way books are in the Circular 14 process.

Software is shared haphazardly, and teachers do not have effective ways of sharing their evaluations of software with each other. We know that individual boards are dedicating scarce resources to writing software and selling it to other boards, when joint projects or provincial initiatives might be more appropriate.

It seems to us that if a piece of software is effective, there is no justification for it being used only by boards that can afford it; there is a need for far more cost sharing and co-ordination in this area.

Above all, a wide range of high-quality Canadian software is needed: using American-oriented software is no more acceptable in Ontario schools than using American-oriented textbooks. When Microsoft Corporation and Sega decided to produce educational software, as they have done aggressively in the past year, we can be confident that the Canadian perspective will not be among their priorities.

For that reason, we agreed with the suggestion of the Minister of Culture, Tourism and Recreation that Circular 14, the list of texts approved for Ontario schools, be broadened to include other learning materials, such as videotapes and software, and that it focus more on Canadian materials.(46)

We note that some progress has been made. For example, the Ontario Software Acquisition Program (OSAP) exists to obtain educational discounts on selected software and to distribute a catalogue of these titles to school boards. Its advisory committee includes teachers from across the province who recommend exemplary software to the Ministry, based on suggestions from school boards. OSAP also arranges for discounts; individual school boards are free to buy the software they deem most worthwhile at the discounted price.

Through its role in distributing master copies of the software, TVOntario is a partner is this process. We believe this model has a good deal of merit, and we hope it can be the main vehicle for software acquisition in Ontario.

While we do not want to prohibit the use of software from other jurisdictions, we do want to ensure that students have access to software with Canadian content and a clear reflection of the Canadian perspective. There is a strong federal regulatory process for the electronic media, which ensures minimum levels of Canadian content. We believe that nothing less should be acceptable for educational software. We considered two routes: either to provide incentives for software development in Ontario or Canada, or to contract with Ontario or Canadian software companies to develop software that meets the curricular needs of schools. Given our earlier recommendation that the Ministry take direct responsibility for developing a provincial curriculum, we are drawn to the latter option.

On-line: Learning it on the grapevine

At the beginning of the century, the little red school house contained more knowledge than the surrounding community; today the opposite is true. Schools leading in this area are creating links using the technology to these information resources using modems and networks.(47)

The potential educational value of such networking should not be underestimated. It opens up a way of exponentially expanding the physical limits of the school. Some students and teachers already have access to other students, teachers, experts, and resources, including the Internet. Although such networks as the OTF Culture of Change Electronic Village (to be further developed into the Educational Network of Ontario), TVOntario's TVOnline, the LearnLink Network, and SchoolNet exist, and the Ontario Education Highway is "under construction," most schools and students are not on-line.

We believe that, while every school should probably have its own net, every school - every classroom, in fact - should have access to at least one net beyond the school, one that has a link to the Internet.

Another wonderful example is the writers in electronic residence program (WIER). Begun in 1987 by Trevor Owen, then a high school teacher but now teaching at York University's Faculty of Education, it began with two schools and was originally networked through Simon Fraser University. Today, the program has links with 70 schools, where 2,500 students from as far away as Baffin Island and the Northwest Territories can ask any one of seven distant poets and novelists to critique their efforts. Owen calls it an electronic literary salon.(48)

One of the exciting implications of such a program is that it is genuinely equitable, As anybody on the Internet knows, social leveling is intrinsic to information technology; Trevor Owen calls it "on-line equity." Suddenly, students are not judged on where they live, what they look like, what gender or race they are, or on anything other than the quality of their communications. However unintended, this is potentially an enormously gratifying consequence of information technology.

It is worth noting that, aside from other benefits, networking schools and school boards can produce significant cost savings. By making documents such as curriculum materials, policy documents, and news releases available on-line, the Ministry could reduce expensive printing and distribution charges - a good example of working smarter.

The investment in the creation of a province-wide "electronic highway" would guarantee small schools in remote parts of the province or schools with limited library budgets the same access to the information source as large schools in affluent, major, urban areas.(49)

The Ministry's announcement, in mid-1994, that it would be providing $5 million to link existing computer networks in the education community is a positive first step to strengthen existing alliances among education partners. But it is only a first step.

The private sector has been active in this area. Rogers Cable Systems is testing the use of cable (in place of telephone lines) in delivering access to information networks in schools in North York, Ottawa, London, and Woodstock.

Their competitor, Bell Canada, is working in communities around Sault Ste. Marie to enhance their ability to access networks.

School and public libraries must be one of the major resources for storing and transmitting electronic information. Some of the most valuable software is expensive, and cannot and need not be duplicated in each classroom.

In either case, students and teachers should have access to such information, and both school and public libraries should be developed as public access points. It may also be possible for software to be located physically in one building but be accessible by modem to a family of schools.

We have already recommended that the provincial government support the establishment and operations of community computer centres. If these are to achieve their full potential, they will have to have access to national and international networks at rates they can afford. The public libraries of Ontario have already signalled their interest in developing and participating in networks to provide every Ontarian with access to information.(50)

Other instructional technologies

As we said at the beginning of this chapter, we focus on information technology as one of the four engines for change, recognizing the power of the computer, especially when it is linked to computer networks beyond the school.

However, there are other technologies that are potentially useful. Most students and teachers are already familiar with overhead projectors, film projectors, video cassette recorders, tape recorders, and calculators. There are, in addition, other technologies that are, or should be, used in classrooms.

We are particularly excited by the potential contribution interactive telephone and video-conferencing can make to learning. Where there are too few students in one school to warrant a course in a specialized field of enquiry, interactive conferencing offers a solution. If schools are equipped with a conferencing facility, one teacher might be able to teach students in a number of schools, thus giving them the opportunity to take the course without incurring the high cost of human resources.

Naturally, there is an advantage if students can both see and hear each other, rather than just hearing their peers. We believe there is room for the development of an interactive video-conference facility, perhaps in every secondary school in the province, starting with those that are small or isolated.

A more mundane use of technology involves the telephone. We have all faced the sometimes-daunting task of climbing through a voice-mail tree, trying to reach the right person. However, we believe that, despite sometimes negative experiences, voice-mail can be a very useful tool for schools. It might, for example, provide a menu of recorded messages for parents with such information as a schedule of report cards and parent-teacher interviews, plans for an open house, or other events. Or the system might be structured to allow parents and students to verify the evening's homework.

Another device, now being used by some schools, is recorded messages on public libraries' telephone lines. This, too, might be used to give parents important information.

Here is a role for the private sector - the phone companies in particular - if these technologies are to become a reality in the education system. Schools can be given special rates, for example - also an important element in achieving the networking of Ontario's schools that we described earlier.

There are other technologies that are familiar today or will become so in the future, including videodisks, which are superior to videotapes. (As we note later, TVOntario is working with videodisk technology.) Computers equipped with software and hardware that convert text to speech are useful for students with disabilities. There are other innovations, such as pen-based computers, computers that recognize speech commands, and others. Each may have a role to play in enhancing learning.

We cannot overlook the usefulness of technology in the business side of schooling - administration, human resource management, busing, property management, etc. Already, the Ministry has taken a leadership role in this area, working through the Educational Computing Network of Ontario (ECNO), a partnership with Ontario school boards, which can use the software ECNO develops. We laud this initiative, and encourage the Ministry to extend it, in order to eliminate any existing duplication in the development and purchase of software that could be centrally developed and distributed.

Because they reach beyond local communities, conferencing facilities are an important component of distance education, which is an area where others around the globe share our concerns. UNESCO, for example, is very interested in the uses of technology, including communication technology such as video-conferencing, in promoting adult education and distance education. It is encouraging governments to "[enable] large groups to take part in education irrespective of time and location."

Contact North is an interesting example of what is possible. It is a tele-conferencing (auditory) network in Northern Ontario used by secondary schools, community colleges, and universities to offer courses and other instruction to a student population that is sparsely distributed across a vast region.

Moreover, interactive conferencing facilities can make a major contribution to the professional development of teachers. Imagine a consultant or professor of education offering a course in acquiring a second language (or even in the use of computers in history classes) from one central location, and teachers "plugging into" it in the local high school's conferencing facility.

Like the collaborative networks being created on the Culture of Change computer network, a network of conferencing facilities has the potential for sharing and joint learning. It might even allow the board director or the Minister to address the profession directly when announcing major changes to the system. (It remains to be seen whether this would alleviate the sense many teachers have that innovations do not always reflect their concerns or needs.)

The New York Times reports that North Carolina is pushing ahead to make the best use of interactive video technology in schools. From a base of 16 schools in a pilot project, recent legislature-approved funding will extend the network to more than one hundred high schools and community colleges across the state, where it will be used for teaching and for planning among teachers. The pilot project included the teaching of Japanese, Latin, and marine oceanography.(51)

Among Canadian provinces, New Brunswick appears to be taking the lead, with TeleEducation courses offered in 50 sites by interactive video.(52) We are also aware that the University of Ottawa is using an interactive video network, and that other universities are probably doing so now or are on the verge of using this technology.

We believe that it is important to move ahead to support a network of interactive video-conferencing facilities. At the same time, the opportunity also exists to build on the equipment base already present in many high schools offering communication technology, funded through the Ministry's Technological Education Program and the Equipment Renewal Fund.

Let us now turn to the means by which the great potential of information technology for learning, teaching, communicating, and evaluation can be made real.

Realizing the potential

Frequently in this report, we call for the Ministry of Education and Training to take a leading role in reforming Ontario's education system. This is particularly true in the area of information technology. We want to avoid the folly of establishing networks that do not allow students and teachers to talk across school or school board lines. (We discovered that individual ministries of the provincial government developed their own networks and some still cannot send electronic mail to others.)

We want to avoid duplication while, at the same time, ensuring that all students have access to more and better computers and software that speaks of Canadian life and Canadian perspectives. And we want to cut costs. For example, by bulk buying of software and purchasing the rights for all schools to use programs, we can effect economies of scale.

Our recommendations for the use of information technology in schools are directed, for the most part, to the Ministry because of the central role it must play in co-ordination and implementation, if we are to achieve significant progress before the turn of the century.

The Ministry must ensure that school boards move swiftly to get computers, loaded with high-quality software, into classrooms supervised by well-prepared teachers. It must help to guarantee that there are networks through which students and teachers can communicate, to seek information and work together.

The first priority, then, is clearly for overall co-ordination of all these many aspects. This, it seems to us, is the natural responsibility of the Ministry. It should set up a co-ordinating body to bring boards and community partners together to equip schools with necessary software and hardware, and to create much-needed networks. It would also ensure a co-ordinated approach to software development, assessment, and distribution, and could significantly help with the continuing education of teachers in these matters. (We believe TVO/La Chaine has an important role to play in distributing software and contributing to the on-going professional development of teachers.)

The co-ordinating function would also include bringing together all the public- and private-sector partners to plan, implement, and monitor introduction and on-going use of information technology in schools.

Co-ordination, from our point of view, needs to go beyond the plans school boards are now required to develop and submit annually to the Ministry; it must actually lead to real change in the use of computers by teachers and students. Therefore, accountability must include setting measurable outcomes that allow progress to be evaluated effectively. In other words, success is not to be measured by the number of available computers, or even the amount of work students produce on them. It is the quality of the work that seems to us the key measure of whether the new technology is being used according to its potential.

Recommendation 93

*We recommend that the Ministry be responsible for overseeing the increased and effective use of information technology in the province's schools, and that its role include
a) determining the extent and nature of the computer-related resources now in use in schools across Ontario;
b) functioning as an information clearing house for these resources, ensuring that all boards are privy to such information, and preventing unnecessary duplication of effort;
c) facilitating alliances among the Ministry, school boards, hardware and software firms, and the private sector;
d) developing common standards jointly with system partners, for producing and acquiring technology;
e) developing license protocols that support multiple remote users accessing centrally held software in a local area network (LAN) or wide area network (WAN) structure; and
f) co-ordinating efforts, including research and special projects, to refine effective educational assessment programs.

We stress that we see the Ministry as having a role in co-ordinating various aspects of information technology related to education. But we are not suggesting that it focus on a single model - even River Oaks, for example - and impose it on all boards in Ontario. First, the province's very diversity makes this unthinkable: what works in Oakville may not be appropriate on Manitoulin Island. Second, one of technology's great strengths is that it encourages creativity because it can encompass variety, rather than requiring a lock-step approach to education.

We need to learn what works best.(53) We believe that the way to make significant changes is to proceed as quickly as is prudently possible to establish centres of innovation in what we hope would be a trans-Canada partnership. Only then can Ontario, and indeed all Canadian schools, benefit from the broadest possible range of experiences in funding, structuring, and implementing information technology. (We know there already exists a number of projects on which such a network can build.) To be effective, of course, the work on best practices must be made known to rank-and-file teachers.

Recommendations 94, 95

*We recommend that school boards in co-operation with the Ministry, the private sector, universities, and colleges, initiate a number of high-profile and diverse projects on school computers and learning, to include a major infusion of computer hardware and software. These projects should reflect the province's diversity, include a distinct and comprehensive evaluation component, and be used for professional development, software design, and policy analysis.

*In addition, we recommend that the Minister approach colleagues in other provinces, through the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada, to establish a national network of projects on computers and learning, which can inform teaching and learning from sea to sea.

Our next recommendation focuses on teachers because, as we have stressed, computers aren't teachers, they are teachers' aids. But it would be unreasonable to assume that most teachers can use them effectively today. On the other hand, already a heartening number of Ontario teachers have become leaders and resources for information technology in their schools and on their boards, and we are confident that, given proper preparation, many others will emerge to play innovative leadership roles.

Recommendations 96, 97

*We recommend that the proposed College of Teachers require faculties of education to make knowledge and skills in the educational use of information technology an integral part of the curriculum for all new teachers.

*We further recommend that teachers be provided with, and participate in, professional development that will equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to make appropriate use of information technology in the classroom, and that acquisition of such knowledge become a condition of re-certification.

We then focus on the use of computers in schools. There is an urgent need for many more modern computers, stand-alone or linked in a LAN, loaded with excellent and balanced software that has strong Canadian content and perspective, tied together in local, regional, and international networks. We have been told that a wealth of computers of good quality, regularly being replaced by the private sector, could be available for use in Ontario schools. Business representatives told us repeatedly of the need for schools to develop in their students the most up-to-date skills; here is a practical way business could help schools achieve that goal, and receive a tax benefit at the same time.

We have also emphasized the social danger: information technology can easily become yet another tool by which more affluent students can further enhance their learning advantages over poorer students. For that reason, since we understand that not every school can be fully computerized immediately, we believe the Ministry must assure that schools with students who are less likely to have computers in their homes receive priority in the allocation of new technology.

Recommendation 98

*We recommend that the Ministry of Education and Training and the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, working through learning consortiums and existing federal government programs, co-ordinate efforts with the Ontario business community to distribute surplus computers through Ontario school boards, and that, as more computers are introduced into the school system, priority be given to equipping schools serving low-income and Franco-Ontarian communities.

For the potential of information technology to be realized, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient high-quality educational software, that it be Canadian in content and perspective where that is appropriate, and that it be fair and unbiased in its approach to subject matter.

Recommendations 99, 100, 101, 102

*We recommend that the Ministry increase the budget allocated for purchasing software on behalf of school boards in Ontario, and that it increase boards' flexibility in using funds to permit leasing or other cost-sharing arrangements, in addition to purchasing, in acquiring information technology equipment.

*Computer software and all other electronic resources used in education should be treated as teaching materials for the purpose of Circular 14 assessment (for quality, balance, bias, etc.).

*The Ministry, with the advice of educators in the field, should identify priority areas in which Canadian content and perspective is now lacking.

*In addition, we recommend that the Ministry exercise leadership with the Council of Ministers of Education of Canada to initiate a program promoting production of high-quality Canadian educational software by Canadian companies and other appropriate bodies, such as school boards, universities, and colleges.

Finally, computers must reach beyond the walls of particular school buildings - into other schools, libraries, and databanks. They must connect students with each other, with teachers and with experts in various fields. We believe it is crucial that every classroom in every school be part of the information highway.

Recommendation 103

*We recommend that the Government of Ontario, working with school boards and other appropriate agencies, commit itself to ensuring that every classroom in every publicly funded school in Ontario is connected to at least one local computer network and that, in turn, this network be connected to a provincial network, a national network, and to the Internet.

Having developed the necessary components of a computer-use strategy in schools, we turn our attention to computer access after school hours, on weekends, and during vacations and holidays. Since children who have computers at home have a distinct advantage over those who do not, access to computers at school for the latter becomes a matter of utmost priority. But we remain concerned about the increased likelihood that access to networks and to the Internet will be commercialized; in fact, companies are already charging for access, and we are troubled by the prospect of access being limited by economics.

Recommendations 104, 105, 106

*We recommend that school boards, in co-operation with government ministries and appropriate agencies, establish in neighbourhoods where personal computer access is less likely to be prevalent, community computing centres, possibly in school buildings or in public libraries, and provide on-going funding for hardware, software, and staffing.

*We also recommend that the Ministry support boards in pilot projects that extend the opportunity for learners to access funded programs and equipment outside the defined school day.

*Furthermore, we recommend that the Government of Ontario advocate that public facilities, such as public libraries and schools, and such non-profit groups as "freenets," be given guaranteed access to the facilities of the electronic highway at an affordable cost (preferably free for users of these facilities).

We should also say that while most parents are enthusiastic about the use of computers in schools, by no means all of them are personally comfortable with computer technology. These parents - and it is no mystery from which socio-economic background most of them come - feel helpless to provide their children with support as they move into information technology in schools. Accordingly, we encourage school boards and other bodies to provide opportunities for parents to develop that comfort with computers. TVOntario, the proposed community computing centres, "freenets," community colleges, public libraries, and others have a role to play in this area.

We discussed earlier the education potential of interactive conferencing facilities, and referred specifically to the example of Contact North. Our view is that Contact North needs to be upgraded to an interactive video-conference network, as well as being available to all potential users, particularly small aboriginal communities, and meeting their demands for secondary school, college, and university courses, and for professional development of teachers. This upgrade would strengthen the link between students and instructors, substantially enhancing student learning.

Recommendation 107

*We recommend that the Ministry proceed to upgrade Contact North from an audio to an interactive video network.

TVOntario/La Chaine

We could not complete our discussion of technology without mentioning TVOntario/La Chaine, which has been providing television services for teachers and students since 1970, and continues to play an important role in this area. In fact, those outside the school system might not know of the abundance of materials produced by TVO for schools that are never shown on-air.

Its most recent annual report identifies a number of programs for children at school in its children's and youth programming department. In addition to series on television, these include material on videodisks, audio cassettes, and posters. It also provides distance education for adults, often in partnership with colleges and universities. It has joined with the Federation of Women Teachers' Associations of Ontario and the North York Board of Education, among others, to distribute teacher development programs.

Our only TVO-related recommendation is that it continue to do what it does well. We hope that a common provincial curriculum will make it easier for TVO to develop programs, computer software, and such initiatives as TVOnline and videodisks, which support the learning objectives of the curriculum. It remains important for Ontario's education system that TVO continue its contributions to the learning goals of our schools, and in assisting students in reaching those goals.


On the basis of considerable and rapidly accumulating evidence that information technology is profoundly changing the nature of learning for children and must become incorporated into our teaching strategies, the Commission is convinced that information technology is one of the engines needed to drive the necessary transformation of the education system.

The point is that new technologies have already changed our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few short years ago. Here is where an old cliche is unusually appropriate: the only certainty is change. We can count on today's leading-edge concept being outmoded tomorrow.

We acknowledge - and, in some cases, share - techno-logy-related concerns, but some simply do not lend themselves to ready solutions. Will computers lead to increased isolation among young people, or fail to recognize their emotional and spiritual needs? The evidence so far is reassuring, but we must pay attention. Will computers that respond to voice commands - and these already exist - undermine any motivation students have for learning to write and spell properly? Strategies - including computerized techniques - must be developed to prevent this unacceptable outcome.

Will schools as we have known them for the past century and a half finally become obsolete? If the virtual office is already becoming a reality - businesses whose employees work at home and communicate through information technology - why not virtual schools? But then where will the children of tomorrow learn all the many non-academic skills that schools teach along the way, such as dealing with other people in a constructive way? Will there someday be a school cheer rooting on good old Virtual High?(54) Here is one vision of the education system of the early 21st century:

Gone will be the days when students were lumped into grades according to age, when learning took place solely in a classroom, and when school was out for the summer. Older students will be packing pocket computers instead of notepads, and the only apple on the teacher's desk will be a high-tech piece of equipment designed to communicate with youngsters at home, in the workplace, and abroad. Learning, widely accepted as a lifelong process, will take place much more outside the school as our youth experience the real reality - life in the community.(55)

It is a vision both exhilarating in its possibilities and daunting in its uncertainty - terrifying in the sense that much of it is being driven, not by human needs but by the imperatives of technology or commerce. But if society at least acknowledges the phenomenon, it can attempt to shape it.

In fact, no-one has the remotest idea of what tomorrow's schools will look like; we can confidently assert only that they will not look like those of today - thanks, in the main, to evolving technology. Indeed, we can predict with equal certainty that the report of the Royal Commission on the crisis in education of 2020 will find this entire discussion of today's state-of-the-art technology wonderfully quaint and nostalgic.

At the very least, we can now say that computer literacy has become one of the new basics, and that an inability to use a computer well is becoming as great a handicap as the inability to read.

In the broadest sense, the job of our schools is to ensure that children are computer literate, and it is a job that must be done well. Adding new machines to classrooms does not buy instant learning. But learning to use those machines well can help prepare our children for a new world that is already here. Perhaps this is the way to guarantee that our schools remain relevant to our lives, to the lives of our children, and to our communities.


Endnotes (Chapter 13)

  1. David Dwyer, "Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow: What We've Learned," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 9.
  2. As G.R. Cooke entitled his 1994 submission to the Commission, in critiquing the 1993 submission from the Council of Ontario Directors of Education.
  3. Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology (Concord, ON: House of Anansi Press, 1992), p. 76. The Massey Lectures, CBC, 1989.
  4. Vicki Hancock and Frank Betts, "From the Lagging to the Leading Edge," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 29.
  5. Association for Media and Technology in Education in Canada (AMTEC), brief to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1994, p. 8, 9.
  6. AMTEC brief, p. 2.
  7. Frank Betts, "On the Birth of the Communication Age: A Conversation with David Thornburg," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 20.
  8. George Leonard, "The Great School Reform Hoax: What's Really Needed to Improve Public Education," Esquire 101, no. 4, quoted in Kyle L. Peck and Denise Dorricott, "Why Use Technology?" Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 14.
  9. General Union of Educational Personnel (GUEP) and the National Institute for Curriculum Development, "Teaching in the Information Age: Problems and New Perspectives," p. 4. Contribution to the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century, 1994.
  10. AMTEC brief, p. 8.
  11. Hancock and Betts, "From the Lagging to the Leading Edge," p.27.
  12. AMTEC brief, p. 2.
  13. GUEP, "Teaching in the Information Age," p. 19.
  14. Quoted in Michael Todd, "Chips, Not Chalk," Profiles, the York University Magazine for Alumni and Friends (May 1994): 11.
  15. Gerry Smith, "Restructuring Education at River Oaks P.S.: A Vision for the Future." Draft report for the Halton Board of Education, 1993.
  16. Many of these projects are described in 22 articles in Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994). The theme of this issue of the journal of the American Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development was "Realizing the Promise of Technology."
  17. Karen Sheingold, "Restructuring for Learning with Technology: The Potential for Synergy," in Restructuring for Learning with Technology, ed. Karen Sheingold and Marc S. Tucker (New York: Center for Technology in Education, Bank Street College of Education and National Center on Education and the Economy, 1990), p. 14.
  18. Probably because their school lacked computers, only 35 percent of Lillian Elementary School teachers agreed that they had changed their teaching styles. This pilot project in the North York Board of Education acknowledged from the start that the school board did not have the resources to allow Lillian to match River Oaks' level of computer resources. See Sandra Sangster, "Implementation of Computer Technology Across the Curriculum: Lillian Elementary School, 1991-92," a research project for the North York Board of Education.
  19. Jennifer Lewington, "Plugging in Without Plugging Out," Globe and Mail, 19 August 1994.
  20. Ronald Anderson, University of Minnesota sociologist and co-author of "Computers in American Schools," quoted in Newsweek, 16 May 1994, p. 51, and Duncan Mckie, VP of Decima Research, in study by Times Mirror Centre for People and the Press in the United States, quoted in Chris Cobb, "Affluent Males Benefit Most from Computers,"Ottawa Citizen, 4 June 1994; also noted by Terry Woronov, "Six Myths (and Five Promising Truths) about the Uses of Educational Technology," Harvard Education Letter 10, no. 5 (1994): 2.
    The following papers, given at the Gender and Science and Technology 7 International Conference (Montreal, 1993), give examples of particular interventions: Jo Sanders, "A Large American Project That Got Thousands of Girls into Mathematics, Science and Technology," p. 110-17; Val Clarke, "The Rationale, Development and Evaluation of a Video to Encourage Girls to Study Computing," p. 47-55; G. Joy Teague, Valerie A. Clarke, and Marion L. Lyne, "A Computer Holiday Program for Year 10 Girls," p. 159-67; Sharon Frantz and Catharine Warren, "A Kid's Computer Camp as a Social Microcosm for the Study of Female Avoidance of Technological Training," p. 236-43; and Sandra Acker and Keith Oatley, "Gender Equity and Computers in Context," p. 309-17.
  21. Judith Zorfass, Patricia Corley, and Arlene Remz, "Helping Students with Disabilities Become Writers," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 62-66; Terry Woronov, "Six Myths (and Five Promising Truths) about the Uses of Educational Technology," Harvard Education Letter 10, no. 5 (1994).
  22. Reg Fleming, "Literacy for a Technological Age," Science Education 73, no. 4 (1989): 398.
  23. Graham Orpwood, "Scientific Literacy for All," p. 16. Background paper written for the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1994.
  24. Dwyer, "Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow," p. 4-10.
  25. Peck and Dorricott, "Why Use Technology?" p. 11-14.
  26. Barbara Means and Kerry Olson, "The Link Between Technology and Authentic Learning," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 15-18.
  27. Hancock and Betts, "From the Lagging to the Leading Edge," p.28, 29.
  28. Mike Muir, "Putting Computer Projects at the Heart of the Curriculum," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 30.
  29. Linda Taggart, "Student Autobiographies with a Twist of Technology," Educational Leadership 51, no. 7 (1994): 34-35.
  30. See, for example: "Learning Through Play," re Henry Street High School, Whitby, Oshawa Times, 20 May 1994; "Today's Classrooms Going High Tech," re Hammarskjold High School, Thunder Bay, Welland-Port Colborne Tribune, 5 May 1994; "Shop Class Has Changed," re Lively District Secondary School, Sudbury Star, 5 May 1994; and Eric Dempster, teacher at R.H. King High School, Scarborough, "Vision for Future," submission to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1994, received via TVOnline.
  31. GUEP, "Teaching in the Information Age," p. 5.
  32. AMTEC brief, p. 5-7.
  33. Julia Stapleton, Educational Technology in New Jersey: A Plan for Action (New Jersey State Department of Education, 1992), p. 1.
  34. Howard Gardner, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
  35. Humber College, brief to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1993, p. 5.
  36. Jennifer Lewington, "A Computer Network for Teachers," Globe and Mail, 19 August 1994.
  37. GUEP, "Teaching in the Information Age," p. 3.
  38. GUEP, "Teaching in the Information Age," p. 18.
  39. Peck and Dorricott, "Why Use Technology?" p. 13-14.
  40. Council of Ontario Directors of Education, brief to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1993, p. 14.
  41. Betts, "On the Birth of the Communication Age," p. 23.
  42. Educational Computing Organization of Ontario, brief to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1994.
  43. Woronov, "Six Myths (and Five Promising Truths) about the Uses of Educational Technology," p. 1, 2.
  44. Educational Computing Organization of Ontario, brief.
  45. Information Technology Association of Canada, "Education Statement," 1994, p. 6.
  46. Letter from Anne Swarbrick, Minister of Culture, Tourism and Recreation, to Dave Cooke, Minister of Education and Training, 2 June 1994.
  47. Memo from Ken Stief, superintendent, Curriculum and Instructional Services, North York Board of Education, to Commissioner Avis Glaze, 22 September 1994.
  48. Todd, "Chips, Not Chalk," p. 11.
  49. Paul Swan and Bill Latham, school librarians, Middlesex County Board of Education, brief to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, 1994.
  50. Ontario Public Library Strategic Planning Group, "One Place to Look: The Ontario Public Library Strategic Plan" (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communications and Ontario Library Association, 1990).
  51. Michael Winerip, "Classrooms on the Information Highway," New York Times, 20 July 1994.
  52. Robert Brehl, "Info-age Gold Rush Lures Business to N.B.," Toronto Star, 14 May 1994.
  53. See Sheingold, "Restructuring for Learning with Technology," for a discussion of high-technology schools in the United States.
  54. The Council of Ontario Directors of Education coined this phrase in referring to British Columbia's high-tech Wondertree school in their 1993 submission to the Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, p. 11.
  55. "Education: The City Becomes a Learning Laboratory," in "Our City/Our Future," supplement to Toronto Star, 1 May 1994.

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