High-school program immerses kids in tech

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Since the 2012–13 school year, students in the technology immersion program at King George Secondary have walked into their classrooms carrying just one tool: an iPad.

As technology changes, so should the way schools teach their students, explained Vicky Hughes, coordinator of the program in Vancouver’s West End.

“We have moved into a paperless world,” Hughes told the Georgia Straight by phone.

Hughes has taught science in the two-year program since 2001, shortly after it got off the ground. The program sees Grade 8 and 9 students use technology as a learning tool in the core subjects of English, math, science, and social studies.

Students must apply to get into tech immersion, which is tied to the school’s International Baccalaureate program. Each cohort typically has a maximum of 30 students.

While the ninth-graders currently rent iPads from the school, this year’s Grade 8s are asked to bring their own. Students use the Apple tablets for taking notes, accessing online textbooks, getting instant feedback from instructors, receiving reminders when homework is due, and submitting their work via e-learning platforms such as Moodle and Showbie.

The mobile devices put a world of information at students’ fingertips. For instance, in social-studies class, “students will dive right into the Internet and grab their current-events content,” according to Hughes. “The technology has infused vitality into our subject areas,” she said. “Our classes are never stale.”

One of the biggest differences between the immersion program and regular classes isn’t the technology itself, but the frequency with which students use it. The program’s students use technology 80 to 90 percent of the time during their school lives, Hughes noted. That means by the time they’ve completed the program, they’re highly proficient and completely at ease in the digital realm.

“They’re really forced to use critical thinking,” Hughes said. “Apps are always changing, interfaces are always changing, so they’re forced to be quite flexible learners. Certainly, it gives us an opportunity to model and teach perseverance. Because when things don’t happen the way they want them to happen, we coach them through different ways of problem-solving.”

James Yan entered the tech immersion program in 2007. He’s now studying microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia and running the after-school tutoring centre at King George.

“The most important thing I took away was that it gave me the intuition of using a computer,” Yan told the Straight via Skype.

After Yan graduated from the program, he created several digital art projects and was selected by InTransitBC and media artist Paul Wong to make a video for Vancouver’s 125th anniversary in 2011. The piece represents the evolution of technology in Vancouver, and it was played on Canada Line station TV screens.

“The tech immersion program was definitely the right choice, looking back,” Yan said.

Stephen Petrina, a professor of media and technology studies at UBC, calls King George’s tech immersion program “experimental” and “innovative”. But he believes programs like it present particular challenges for teachers and students.

“I see this [technology immersion] as sort of an ongoing trend of how we try to coordinate students, teachers, the new media, and new technologies,” he told the Straight by phone.

According to Petrina, the ongoing search for balance brings up questions: How does the program ensure that students of all genders, races, and cultural backgrounds are included? How does it make sure it’s not excluding students who can’t afford an iPad?

At King George, Hughes had answers to those questions. “Our program is just a microcosm of the larger school,” she said, noting: “The school makes allowances for students and families who may not be able to afford iPads.”

Another perennial challenge for students and teachers is striking the right balance between teaching the actual curriculum and teaching about the technology itself, according to Petrina.

“The conversation should also include a discussion about ethics and behaviour [regarding technology and the Internet], not just academic performance,” Petrina said.

Considering that King George students have access to the Internet all day long, they learn to self-regulate surprisingly well, Hughes observed. “We’ve had some very proactive conversations around when [the iPads] are appropriate to use, not appropriate to use,” she said. “Because, of course, the gaming is at their fingertips.”

Despite such challenges, the program has numerous benefits, Petrina said, pointing out that the sharing of knowledge is one of the most overlooked advantages. Teachers and students in the immersion program share their insights with those outside it, cultivating a greater understanding of technology at the school in general.

“It’s a real win-win situation across the board for King George,” Petrina said.

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