September 1997

Getting the Mobile Edge
Getting the Mobile Edge


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Etobicoke Students Get the Mobile Edge

Exciting portable computers make primary students adept users – and better learners.


By Dwight Klassen

The idea behind a distributed learning environment is nothing new. For centuries, teachers have been urging students to go out and explore the world around them.

What is new is the technology making it possible for modern students to take the information they encounter around them and integrate it directly and instantly with the core classroom curriculum.

At John D. Parker Junior Public School in Etobicoke, the worlds of the classroom, the library, the laboratory, the home and the community are now being seen as one continuous field of exploration, discovery and learning.

During May and June, four classes began integrating Apple Canada’s eMate 300 mobile computers into normal school work. The Apple eMates, designed specifically to help schools improve the computer/student ratio in the classroom, complement John D. Parker’s existing desktop computers.

Kevin Fisher and students at John D. Parker in Etobicoke
work with eMates.

The eMate was designed as a companion to Mac OS and Windows-based PCs. It has an easy-to-use Newton operating system and comes with Newton Works, a set of built-in applications including a word processor, drawing programs, spreadsheet and graphing calculator.

The units are very rugged and completely portable – designed so that students can cradle them on one arm while they type or use a stylus with their other hand. A very popular feature with young students allows them to beam information from one computer to another via a built-in infra-red device. They run for 28 hours on a battery that takes one hour to recharge.

Anywhere, any time

"The distributed learning environment is all about making technology a true anywhere-any time tool for students," says Gordon McKye, Principal of Information Technology at the Etobicoke board. "By extending the reach of learning, students are encouraged to create, communicate and collaborate like never before. And because the cost is substantially less than traditional computers, we are able to put more technology in each classroom."

Last fall, McKye and a colleague discovered the eMate 300 at an education conference and proposed a pilot project involving the Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, the Etobicoke Board of Education, York University and Apple Canada. The one-year pilot project involves more than 400 eMates in 18 classrooms at seven Etobicoke junior schools, with plans to expand to other grades in the near future.

Although the mobile computers were handed out only eight weeks shy of year-end, the project instantly met its goal of increasing both the quality and quantity of writing. Teachers who were initially hesitant about the mobile computer concept were amazed at how quickly the students embraced the units and how excited they became about learning.

Writing is easier

"The writing process has become so much easier with the eMate," says teacher Kevin Fisher, whose Grade 4/5 class is part of the pilot program. "Students who used to write two sentences in an hour can now write half a page. They are creating work of a much higher quality than they ever did before. And students are collaborating on assignments and teaching each other new things, changing my role from teacher to facilitator."

Before the eMates arrived, Fisher’s students took turns using the in-class desktop computer. But in a class of 29 students, access was limited to half a day every few weeks, leaving little time for in-depth projects. Today, each student has his or her own eMate that’s used for writing projects, conducting science experiments and taking notes in the field for nature studies.

Fisher adds that only 10 per cent of his students have access to a home computer. The eMates, therefore, help the school board narrow the technology gap between the computer haves and have-nots. Etobicoke is currently exploring ways to allow students to take the eMates home, making computer technology more widely available to all students.

"With the computer, my teaching methods may have changed," says Fisher, "but it hasn’t stolen that Eureka light kids get that teachers live for. And it hasn’t replaced pen and paper. It’s just another tool that students can use to learn and discover."

Dwight Klassen has taught in Etobicoke board schools for 30 years. After spending 23 years at Hollycrest Middle School, where he taught a variety of subjects and grades, he now works as a computer resource teacher in the board’s Technology Across the Curriculum Department. He can be reached at