Exploring the electronic classroom

by Virginia Galt

An industrious buzz fills the hall outside the Grade 8 classroom of Tim Hatch, OCT, at Forest Hill PS in Midhurst. Students, working on podcasts for a language-arts assignment, are making the most of their allotted computer time: There are only 30 laptops for the entire school population of 507 pupils.

In room 140 another group logs on; the students click open their electronic history textbooks and find the image of a bold green thumbtack imposed on the screen. They have mail.

"If Google Maps existed in 1850, what might the directions be for a trip from Barrie to Sault Ste. Marie? Be creative but historically accurate," says the study note that Hatch has tacked to their e-text assignment.

Hatch - teacher, guide, IT guy - moves from group to group, tracking progress, explaining concepts and solving technical problems. Even when he leaves the room to check on the kids in the hall, the students stay on task, helping each other with the history assignment and sharing discoveries about their e-textbooks - how to highlight key passages in yellow, where to find the glossary.

Forest Hill PS, a kindergarten to Grade 8 school just north of Barrie, is in the second year of a pilot project at the Simcoe County DSB - one of a smattering of Ontario school boards now experimenting with electronic textbooks and conducting research intended to measure results. A similar pilot project, involving 20 Apple iPads, was recently launched by the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario for students at Kanata's new K to 6 French-language elementary school, which moved to a new building in February and is now known as école élémentaire publique Maurice-Lapointe.

Parents push, students respond

Parental and public demand for the tech advantage is a definite factor in this transition. Leading the e-parade in one respect is Toronto's Blyth Academy, a private high school that supplied students with Sony e-book readers in place of printed textbooks in November 2009. It was the first in the world to do so.

"Our student survey shows that students are twice as likely to read a book available in an e-book format as one in hard-copy form," Sam Blyth, Chair of Blyth Academy, said at the time. The e-book readers were pre-loaded with e-texts, course outlines and assignments - and, for the senior students, even university application forms.

In Kanata, a high-tech hub often described as Silicon Valley North, the push to go digital came from parents and trustees, says Francois Benoit, OCT, Director of Education at the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario. The iPads will initially be made available for Grade 4, 5 and 6 students in the 150-student school before being introduced in the earlier grades. The plan includes a lending program, so students can take the devices home.

There was a very observable increase in the level of student engagement.

"We will look at the cost structure and the benefit structure and see if it has an impact on the curriculum, the results and the performance of students," says Benoit, who is particularly curious about how boys will react to the interactive touch-pad technology embedded in the magazine-size tablets. "Boys need to handle things," he says. He suspects it will make a difference if "they can download a book they really want to look at and read something they really want to read."

The board plans to expand the selection of e-books available to give students more content choice for both assignments and reading for pleasure. Forest Hill PS principal Deb Russell, OCT, says she already sees the gender gap closing - confirming that boys in Grade 8 are tuning in more now. With boys and girls alike, "there was a very observable increase in the level of student engagement," says Anita Townsend, who was central principal for curriculum development at the Simcoe board at the time of its program's launch.

"Students were not only using the portal during the allotted class time, they were also using it during their personal time, during lunches, at recess and after school," says Townsend, who continues to consult on the project.

Because students could also log on to the e-text portal from home, she says, teachers found the students were doing more homework and actually completing assignments ahead of time. No more issues with forgotten textbooks or lost assignments - though "I forgot to save" is the new lament. The Simcoe County DSB - like the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario - hopes to establish whether higher engagement levels are actually leading to improved academic performance.

"There is really not a whole lot of research that is good enough for people to say, 'Yes, it makes a huge difference,'" says Townsend. "We can see it, we can feel it, but we don't have the hard data."

Townsend would like to see more money earmarked for electronic learning resources in Ontario, knowing that in the current financial environment, every dollar must be justified.


Tim Hatch moves from group to group - tracking progress, explaining concepts, solving technical problems - in his Grade 8 classroom at Forest Hill PS in Midhurst.

Access + understanding

Forest Hill PS students have access to the full suite of Grade 8 textbooks through Pearson Education Canada's intranet portal, which can be reached through any Internet access point. Outside of school hours, many students use their smart phones to catch up on reading or homework.

In class, Forest Hill students can jot notes into their e-texts as Hatch explains a concept using a SMART Board at the front of the room. Russell finds that students who are resistant to pen-and-paper exercises seem to prefer this mode of instruction. She remarks that the students are "right there" as she watches Hatch work at the SMART Board.

"If there's a question on the board they are all engaged, they are all trying to answer it," she says. "When you pull out a textbook and say, 'Okay everybody, page 45, question two,' you lose half the group."

What excites Dale McLellan, OCT, principal of école élémentaire publique Maurice-Lapointe, is that students will be able to use their iPads to instantly post answers on a screen at the front of the class. He believes this will generate more in-class discussion and collaboration among the chat-room generation.

Collaboration is part of our pedagogy. That's not new, but the iPad facilitates it.

"Collaboration is part of our pedagogy - kids helping other kids, kids interacting and learning together," says McLellan. "That's not new, but the iPad facilitates it."

The interactive technology also allows teachers to track who is doing what at any given time, providing the opportunity for more timely intervention when a student is struggling, McLellan says.

The challenge may be for the teachers to keep up with their tech-savvy students, who have grown up with computers, video games and iTunes, says McLellan, who organized training sessions for staff in advance of the February opening of the new school.

Content availability

Publisher Pearson provided Forest Hill PS with free e-texts for its pilot project in the hope that feedback from students and teachers could improve the company's digital products. But access to content can be an issue.

According to Benoit, his school board in eastern Ontario had no difficulty finding French-language e-texts. They cost a little less, he says: typically $40 per copyrighted e-text book, compared with $50 for a traditional printed textbook. "So there is a bit of a rebate."

In Benoit's board, McLellan, who now has more than 300 French-language books loaded onto his iPad, hopes to use some of his book budget to enrich the school library as well. E-books cost less, and there is a compelling selection of French-language books online.

Availability of e-texts is more of a problem in the higher grades, where subjects may be more specialized, says Brandon Kerstens, Director of Development at Blyth Academy.

"It's a bit hit-and-miss at the moment. One publisher might have the law textbook available in the electronic format, while another doesn't. So it is a bit of a challenge to go about juggling all of the publishers and seeing what they have and what will work with our course outlines and plans." Until the use of e-texts becomes more mainstream, there will not be enough pressure on publishers to make many titles available in formats for a range of electronic devices. Pearson, which has invested heavily in the creation of digital teaching resources, was quoted in a recent white paper as saying that printed books continue to be the prevailing method of content delivery and likely will be for some time.

Anne-Marie Scullion, Vice-President of Marketing Field Services for Pearson Canada, characterizes the movement toward e-texts as being in the pilot stage. "It's early days," she says. "But there's a lot of interest."


Sophie Klander, OCT, teaches at école élémentaire publique Maurice-Lapointe - Kanata's new e-friendly K to 6 elementary school, which opened in February.

The pilot project with the Simcoe County DSB provided Pearson with valuable insights. Scullion notes that one big advantage of e-texts is that they are easy to update.

"We try to look first at teaching and learning effectiveness, because if we just look at the pursuit of technology as a cost-saving measure then we're missing an important piece of the puzzle. So we are looking to improve teaching and learning and find ways to make it not just more affordable but more portable, more engaging for kids, all of these things." Scullion adds that Pearson frequently offers to bundle in some e-text versions when school boards order printed books.

In subjects where e-texts are readily available - math, science and English - students are interacting with the e-texts more than they were with the hard-copy textbooks, she says. However, not enough time has elapsed to say whether academic performance has improved.

Planning for flexibility

As Blyth Academy's Kerstens notes, one of the biggest advantages of electronic devices is convenience: "Everything is in one place; you don't have binders, textbooks, notebooks and everything like that." Still, the school is far from paperless.

Many teachers want to blend the old and the new in presenting their lessons. Some students prefer to use hard-copy textbooks, "and that's okay," says Benoit. "Whatever works best.

"The Ministry right now is trying to look at an overall plan, but it's very hard because every board has different technologies and different software packages. It's going to take a while," he admits, noting that when his board started researching the potential benefits of iPads, very few other schools had adopted interactive e-text technology.

Catherine Fife, President of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, says there has been a great deal of discussion between officials at school boards and the provincial government about the role of technology and its potential impact on education.

"Clearly, the more involved and engaged students are, the more successful you are going to be in transferring knowledge." But more research is needed, she says. "And the discussion has to be broader than just textbooks.

"We have to understand where the school boards are, what is working and what best practices exist before we take a huge jump, like California did, and just go right to e-textbooks."

Fife notes that there is also a great deal of concern about equity: "We have to make sure that all students - regardless of their income or socioeconomic status - will have equal opportunities and equity of access."


Grades 3, 4 and 5 students at école élementaire publique Maurice-Lapointe are iPad users.

Questions of access

While Blyth Academy has the financial wherewithal to provide e-book readers loaded with books to all its students, government and school board officials say that this luxury remains beyond the reach of the publicly funded school system.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says he has no plans to follow the lead of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - dubbed the Textbook Terminator by the US press - in phasing out hard-copy texts and replacing them with e-texts. Cash-strapped California has instructed its schools to start switching to free open-source digital textbooks that meet the state's curriculum requirements. (The governor advises that if the schools do not have enough computers for students to gain access to the e-texts or if students do not have Internet access at home, teachers can download the textbooks and print them out.)

"I think that over time we are probably going to make a transition to more technology-based reading and learning for our students, but my fear is that, at this point in time, it may be a little premature," McGuinty told reporters at Queen's Park last spring, citing concerns that not enough students have access to the necessary technology.

"I'm not comfortable all kids have access to that in their homes right now. Until we can be assured of that, I'd be very reluctant to move ahead," McGuinty told the Canadian Press. However, school boards are free to investigate the idea to see whether savings from reduced printing costs could be used to pay for more electronic devices for students, he said.

It is up to individual school boards to choose the format of the textbooks they supply - print, digital or a combination of both - an Education Ministry spokesman said in a more recent interview.

Access and adapt

Hatch points out that not all his students at Forest Hill PS have Internet access at home, so he strives to ensure that they get adequate computer time at school. But when students do work at home, the technology allows Hatch to see who has taken a book off the virtual bookshelf and what work they have done. It also allows students to share work with one another, which encourages more collaborative learning and, with a group project, makes it easier to see how each member of the group has actually contributed.

When Hatch finds interesting supplementary information on Internet sites that are not blocked by the elementary school filter, he can send it directly into each student's e-mail account. Students can also expand their own lines of inquiry by visiting child-safe sites.

"The other great thing about the e-texts is that they can't copy and paste. It helps with their writing ability because they are forced to write in their own words," he says in a quiet moment just before the vice-principal's announcement over the public address system that the students will be coming in earlier than usual from recess that morning because of heavy rain outside.

Hatch's students tell him that the assignments - such as creating podcasts from information gathered during a recent trip to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair - make learning more fun. Still, there was no time for funnel cakes, and a lot of hard work was involved in identifying agricultural issues in preparation for the 10-minute reports.

Hatch stresses that the academic requirements have not changed, only the format. Later in the term, he had students blogging from the time of Confederation.

One student, Andrea, says that with Hatch's thumbtacked notes "there's no confusion. You can just refer back to them and know exactly what you are doing."

Her classmate Taylor appreciates the independence. "You don't have the teacher standing by your side telling you what questions to do." "And we don't really have a ton of textbooks, so it's convenient," adds Max.

Brady agrees that a lighter backpack is a definite plus and says that the e-texts make homework a little easier but adds that all the students would like to have more computer time at school.

Still, Jake says, the technology makes it easier for students to keep up when they are away from school.

Preliminary results

Townsend, who submitted a draft report to the Simcoe County DSB on the first year of its project, which involved Grade 7 and 8 classes in five schools, says students were overwhelmingly positive in the focus groups she conducted last year. Teachers reported in their focus groups that "the low-achieving students actually became more engaged with the other students in the class, and it appeared that the quality of their work improved, particularly with the boys."

It makes sense to employ some of the communication methods that students use on their own time.

Simply downloading the PDF version of a textbook does not represent much of an advance, she noted. But the textbooks come alive when interactive features and video links are added to the package.

Teachers found that once the students grasped the technology, "they were able to play more of a facilitator role in a collaborative classroom environment," Townsend reports. "They felt that they had more time to spend with kids in a quality way."

The other big plus teachers reported: Not everyone in the class has to be on the same page at the same time.

In spite of some inevitable technical glitches, Hatch has found that his students stay on task longer, collaborate more and stay connected, even when away on family vacations.

"They have smart phones and they are always listening to music on their MP3 players. So to be able to plug into their education - it's got a coolness factor for them, I think. They like the technology."

E-texts are just a tool, but they're an effective tool and a welcome supplement to more traditional teaching materials, says Hatch. "I'm not going to say we have to entertain students all the time," he adds, but it makes sense to employ some of the communication methods that students use on their own time.

As the morning classes end, Hatch instructs his students to return their laptops to the school's computer lab. "And don't forget to save!"