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New World of Teaching

Technology-based teacher education programs deliver a fresh crop of tech-savvy grads into classrooms.

by Gabrielle Barkany

"If your students know that they know better than you, good luck. They will take advantage of the situation," says Parand Ghaemi, who teaches high school science at Bramalea Secondary School. "Students today grow up with video games. They are very comfortable with computers. In many cases they are much better than teachers."

Ghaemi is a recent teacher-education graduate from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), where she focused on Intermediate/Secondary science, mathematics and computing.

"My knowing technology not only makes science more fun for students, it helps me to better manage my class."

UOIT is the province's first and only laptop-based university. Here, teacher candidates pay $1,500 to lease a current model IBM laptop, which allows them to access course materials, conduct research, make presentations and communicate with their peers and faculty.

"We prepare our students to be comfortable with computers," explains Bill Hunter, the dean of UOIT's School of Education. Students use computers to organize their course work and as research, teaching and management tools for their future in the classroom. They gather and analyze science lab data and access Internet resources for themselves and their students and they learn how to prepare, store and update lessons and to maintain student records.

While UOIT may be Ontario's first and only laptop-based university, it is not the only Ontario institution offering tech-oriented teacher education. Four years ago the ITeach program at the Faculty of Education of Nipissing University was the first such program in Ontario and the second nationally.

With ITeach, all students and faculty members lease laptops through the university. The program started as a pilot project in the 2001-02 academic year. The following year it was fully implemented with the Junior/Intermediate division and has been expanded each year to include all divisions.

Access and participation

The integration of technology in teacher-education programs allows prospective teachers to become proficient and confident users of technology and gives them a competitive edge in tomorrow's workplace.

Students attend classes just as they would at any university, but each course section has its own web site. For example, at Nipissing the Contemporary Education Practice course has a strong, case-based teaching approach and many discussions take place in small web forums that allow students living off campus to more easily participate in outside-class discussions. An announcements page provides notices concerning assignment deadlines and program changes.

Jaime Edwards at Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board says,

"I can step into my classroom and know how to integrate any kind of tecnology."

With laptops in hand, students can learn and work electronically wherever they have access to the Internet. At UOIT this means just about anywhere on campus - in residence or at home, in classrooms, the hallway, at the cafeteria, the library. There are hard-wired connections for every seat in most classrooms, and the latest microwave technology permits web access in the main public areas on campus.

At both institutions, students and professors use the same software and have access to scientific databases and information on the provincial curriculum and assessment strategies.

Confident beginnings

"I absolutely loved the program. It was a very stimulating environment," says UOIT grad Jaime Edwards, who now teaches Grade 8 science, geography, history, language and drama for the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board. "I could step into my classroom and know how to integrate any kind of technology."

The programs do not include specific courses on technology. Instead, technology is integral to all courses. Perhaps it is because of this integrated approach that graduate teachers find digital solutions beyond the science and technology classrooms.

"In the drama class I use digital video cameras to teach students about camera angles and how to create videos. My students get so excited about it. They are growing up in an age when this technology is key. Incorporating it into the classroom keeps them interested. It brings something they enjoy into learning and they get more involved," Edwards adds.

"Knowing technology not only makes science more fun for students, it helps me to better manage my class."

Kent MacNeill, who graduated from Nipissing in 2001, now teaches Grade 8 history, geography and religion at Ste-Anne Elementary school in Hanmer, near Sudbury.

He believes that the program gave him a clear advantage when he was job hunting. Interviewers focused on his portfolio, which he had created on his computer.

"The two school boards that I interviewed with offered me a job immediately," says MacNeill. Noting that the school board in Sudbury usually hires new grads as supply teachers, he is particularly pleased to report that he went directly into a full-time job.

Graduates from both tech-based programs believe the approach gives them distinct advantages.

At UOIT the latest microwave technology lets students work from just about anywhere on campus.

Pauline Shou, a U of T computer science grad who is currently at UOIT, was so impressed with the technology component of UOIT's program that she turned down scholarships from two other universities. She thought it was important to learn about computers while she learned how to teach.

But for those who think that technology-based programs are impersonal, Shou's experience will be reassuring: "I love studying here because it is personalized. I used to be in large classrooms of 2,000 students where I could not even see the professor's face. Here, we are about 20 per class, so everyone knows your name. You are not a number."

Classroom tools

"My lessons are different from those of my colleagues," says Ghaemi. "I use education software in my chemistry class, where students play games and can build or visualize molecules. It is a very good tool to attract their interest because they can play and work."

The Curriculum Unit Planner is also a very popular program that teachers learn and then use in their own classrooms.

"It really helps me to plan lessons because it incorporates curriculum expectations for each unit," explains Ghaemi. "For example, being able to name organic components is one expectation for Grade 12 chemistry students. This software gives me access to a list of assessment and teaching strategies such as group work, oral discussion or presentation. It saves me so much time. It used to take me six or seven hours to plan a unit. Now it takes me one hour."

"MacNeill believes that the Nipissing program gave him a clear advantage when he was job hunting."

"When you're a teacher, it is all about confidence. I meet other teachers who do not understand computers and they feel stressed about it. It is a pleasure to help them as much as I can so they familiarize themselves with computers and build confidence," says Ghaemi.

Graduates like Ghaemi and Edwards are quickly becoming leaders in their schools as they share a wealth of knowledge and resources with their colleagues.

Not just for techies

So, do you have to be a tech genius to enrol in these tech-based programs?

"Definitely not," says Shou. "You just have to be committed to teaching."

"A lot of our teacher candidates are comfortable with computers when they begin the program, but some are less technology oriented and a bit nervous of their inexperience. We offer them support, and after one or two weeks they feel more at ease," says Hunter. Students have access to a help desk where a technician can provide support and there is also a 24-hour helpline.

While some school boards use technology within their schools in an effective way, others are not yet as active. "Some of our students are frustrated. They go into a classroom with their laptop, ready to try new things and they cannot even find a data projector," says Ron Weeks, science education professor and co-ordinator of the ITeach project at Nipissing.

At Nipissing, while on campus or at home, students access each other, their professors and the information they need.

"In a number of schools our graduates find that other teachers have not embraced technology and the teaching approach being used in classrooms does not easily allow the use of IT," explains Weeks. But he believes that his graduates have the capacity to overcome these obstacles. "They will make up for it because they understand the capabilities of IT and how it can enhance teacher learning."

"Our research and experiences demonstrate that students love technology," adds Weeks. "It is absolutely crucial that it be utilized in classrooms with knowledgeable teachers who can create a framework for their students."

Graduates from these technology-oriented education programs are bringing new blood into the education system. Being comfortable with online learning means they will be well equipped to face students and lead schools to a teaching environment of the future.