Thirteen-year-old Marc Goldbach

Thirteen-year-old Marc Goldbach

FEATURE: Interactive tablets among classroom tech used to help teachers reach students

Apps offer opportunity

Until recently, whenever Marc Goldbach craved pretzels he was unable to clearly communicate what he wanted.

The Grade 7 student – who has Down syndrome – spoke in two-word sentences and his teachers were having difficulty developing his linguistic skills.

“He needs good repetition and consistency, which you don’t always get with a person, to help with his speech,” says Alex Lemon, a resource room teacher at Arbutus middle school.

Tech-savvy Lemon scoured Apple’s online app store to find a downloadable program that could provide Marc with the tools suited to his needs. He found Tap to Talk, an augmentative and alternative communication device that has helped the 13-year-old improve his communication skills.

Marc pulls out an iPad and navigates through the menu to find his app. At the push of a few touch-screen buttons, the young teen is quickly repeating the words exactly as they sound through the device’s speakers.

“Pretzels,” the iPad voice speaks when Marc presses the image of the snack food.

“Can I have pretzels please?” Marc asks.

Arbutus embraced the new technology when it was released last May, and teachers have since been experimenting with a number of programs to explore the potential the tablet computer has as an educational tool.

“These are the sorts of things kids use every day at home,” says principal Janine Roy. “Technology’s becoming the vehicle for 21st-century learning. It’s not the endpoint, but it’s a tool in how we’re going to get there.”

One of the biggest downsides right now is that classes are limited by what’s available in the app store. Lemon hopes to see developers greatly expand the educational market within five years so there are programs for all sorts of specialized learning.

In the meantime the school has Tim Pelton, an associate professor of mathematics at UVic and a parent at the school, to thank for filling the void. He’s developed educational apps specifically suited for elementary and middle school students.

“We’re always looking to incorporate the most effective tools we can into helping kids learn,” he says about the apps he creates with his wife. “It was a natural medium for kids to work with, and we thought the educational applications we’re seeing out there were really quite weak. We could do better.”

What resulted is a series of games called MathTappers, geared to students in kindergarten to Grade 7, that puts their addition, multiplication, fraction and analog time-telling skills to the test.

“These are the kinds of activities you can do in the classroom to help them learn,” Pelton says. “It’s not to replace the teacher, but to support the teacher in the learning process.”

Roy says that’s key to incorporating technology in a classroom.

“It has to be both engaging for the students and beneficial to their education,” she says. “They’re making it happen because they’re excited about making it happen.”

Brett Johnson, principal at Colquitz middle school, says the biggest challenge is striking the right balance between novelty and practicality when allowing for technological changes to come in to the classroom.

“There’s lots and lots of talk about how to incorporate technology into the schools, with delicate conversations around Wi-Fi and schools looking at everything from iPads to iPods,” he says. “A lot of different institutions are looking at having to adapt to the times, but we have to be on the conservative side. We can’t make ourselves into dinosaurs (but we also have to be) responsible because we can be held accountable for what happens with these devices.”

Lemon uses two of the school’s five iPads in the special education department in a variety of ways.

By downloading audiobooks and e-books onto the device, students such as Taylor Bigrigg, 13, can keep up with novels at a slightly higher reading level because the audio component keeps him more engaged.

“I can follow the story better,” the Grade 6 student says of having just read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “Listening to it helps get me through the reading.”

He says having the audio helps with pronunciation of difficult words and names, and it helps him follow along in the text.

“Students have such different learning styles – some learn best visually, some learn through audio,” Lemon says. “Having this interactivity lets kids take it in little chunks that suit their needs.”

It’s giving students more opportunities to explore new technology that provides the best learning tools for them, Roy says.

“Technology is really shifting things,” she says. “As educators, we’re becoming facilitators. The students are the ones coming to us showing us where they want to take their education. Getting them to that point is very exciting.”

What once was banned…

Younger readers might have a difficult time believing calculators were once a taboo item in schools.

That early technology sparked some of the first debates about banning personal electronics in the classroom.

In subsequent decades, portable music players, video games and digital pets became fads that weren’t welcomed in most schools.

However, as items like iPods and cell phones become part of daily life for students, schools are changing their approach.

“At this school, kids are allowed to use their electronic devices with the permission of their teacher – for an educational purpose,” says Colquitz middle school principal Brett Johnson.

At Spectrum community school, students are welcome to bring laptops to class to take notes. And at Stelly’s secondary in Central Saanich, some teachers have no problems with students taking notes on their iPhone or downloading textbooks to a Kindle e-book reader.

Bans on electronics are no longer the consensus at most schools, which now stress proper use of the devices.

“There is a fairly typical pattern (when items are banned): There’s a new thing that’s a fad, you just need to watch it. Does it come to a point where it’s causing issues?” Doncaster elementary principal James Hansen says, citing Pokémon cards and Beyblades toys as recent concerns.