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June 1999

From Chalk
to Mouse

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New technologies are more than simple toys for netsurfers, more than a virtual library and more than an opportunity to work or play with some software. A computer can be more than a tool to improve the way you teach, to create nice transparencies or produce report cards. The University of Ottawa is changing attitudes with a teacher education program in which technology becomes a learning environment.


By Louise Bélair

Today’s teacher requires skills they didn’t have 10 years ago. Students come from diverse ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds, and their vision of learning and its importance can be quite different.

With the spread of the Internet, information has become more accessible than ever. Everything is accessible, everywhere, and teachers can help open the door for their students to new knowledge all over the world. But at the same time, classroom teachers are struggling to navigate between students’ needs and expectations and their obligations surrounding programs and curriculums.

The feelings of many teachers are reflected by Nicole, a Grade 7 teacher. "There are so many things to teach that I don’t have the time to cover, so for me, computers are something I don’t really have time for. They can be used to further investigate a subject or as a reward."


New teachers who pass through From Chalk to Mouse, offered by the French-language faculty of education at the University of Ottawa, will have a radically different understanding of technology’s role in education. The program provides a new way to face the challenge of learning, and therefore teaching.

François Desjardins, one of the initiators of the program in co-operation with French-language school boards of eastern Ontario, and financially supported by a Ministry of Education and Training grant, has succeeded in providing several classes with computers and E-mates, a computer for children developed by Apple. The faculty realized, however, that supplying all those computers would prove useless without giving the proper training to current teachers and teacher candidates. Hence the idea to centre the approach on learning.

This is nothing new. But this time, the intention was to allow a real transfer of knowledge between what is learned in university and what is learned as a practising teacher, and especially to ensure the acquisition of complex skills required to become a teacher today.

To do this, we needed to de-construct preconceived ideas conveyed by teacher candidates, including:

  • if I know how to present my subject, students will understand
  • students who do not understand are not making the effort to understand
  • if I like what I teach, I’ll be able to make the students like it too
  • a good teacher is someone who knows how to make sure students listen to him/her and who knows how to discipline a classroom.

The challenge for many professors involved in this program was to allow teacher candidates to understand how they were learning, why they had some difficulties or learning blocks and then decide what means were best suited to construct their own knowledge. This constructivist approach was used to confront candidates with their own limits and resources, which meant starting with themselves, their own experience and preoccupations. This is the first step of the program: the learner is at the core of the learning process.

Then we allowed them to construct new learning by re-adjusting the way we taught. Michelle Bourassa, learning and teaching professor: "I used to cover all the topics I wanted to cover, all within the constructivist approach, and in only 40 hours, by talking as fast as I could to say as much as possible. I relied solely on their own reflection through various assignments to allow each and every one of them to assimilate the course content."

However, to adapt to the From Chalk to Mouse program, she had to change her methods … and simply shut up.

Bourassa realized that when she was not talking, her students had no choice but to seek solutions to problems they were facing – they had to think and solve them. Finally the learning was real. They were doing, searching, discovering, analyzing, comparing. "I only had to guide them throughout their reflection," says Bourassa. This is the second step, where the teacher is essentially a guide for the learner.


In order for students to really understand that teaching is a profession helping to learn, de-constructing some preconceived ideas or constructing new principles was not enough. We needed to learn from experience. Within courses taught by professors involved in the program – Jean-Claude Boyer, math didactics; François Desjardins and Michelle Bourassa, learning and teaching; as well as Marielle Simon and myself, evaluation – we created an integrated learning environment with the technology course offered by Desjardins at its core.

Teacher candidates had to prepare, in a multimedia format, teaching guides on various themes, for example, difficult students – how to plan and manage learning; students-at-risk – integrated learning in math and language.

Various software was used to create the guides, including Hyperstudio in which videos, pictures, graphics, tables and text could be incorporated. The guide allowed students to surf by checking boxes, and construct their own type of learning of a specific topic by making choices on the theme.

This type of work required the teacher candidate to find multilinear links between concepts that facilitated moving back and forth between conceptual maps. This method helped the visual type of learners (with the use of videos, pictures) and the auditory type of learners (a continued text), and to vary strategies in order to make sure the netsurfer remained interested and able to find the essential knowledge.

At the end of the school year, candidates exchanged these guides, which became resources to help them in the future.

In what way is this constructivist? Here is what Benoît, a teacher candidate, had to say: "We basically had to solve technical problems to create our multimedia guides. We needed to start all over three times because the software would not accept our data. But then, if the computer was a student and I was planning a course, I would have to make sure the student understood what I want. I’ll have to make sure the student can solve the problems with the guidelines I’m giving and adjust them consequently. I guess this is what you had in mind with the program."

It is obvious that Benoît will never perceive teaching the way he used to. There was a real transfer of knowledge.


A superintendent of an eastern Ontario school board sent us a letter following a series of interviews with teacher candidates from our program. She saw a considerable difference in their ability to express themselves, in the ownership of teaching skills, and especially in the way they see their role with the students. This confirms our approach and our beliefs in the way we see teacher education.

Next year, no one knows if the program will continue. Professors, teacher candidates, associate teachers and superintendents are convinced that we are on to something in the field of teacher education. We only hope decision-makers see it that way too.

Louise Bélair teaches evaluation and assessment in the French-language teacher education program at the University of Ottawa, and is the author of the recently-published L’évaluation dans l’école.