The big yellow schoolhouse at the intersection of St. George Street and East 43rd Avenue is a study in contrasts. Known as “The Barn” by students and staff at the adjacent John Oliver Secondary School, the 1920s building is a symbol of how many of us live with our feet in the doorways of both new technologies and traditional systems.
The Barn is the oldest building on the property, but aside from the library, it’s the only Wi-Fi–enabled spot at the school. In classrooms where students use laptops or tablet devices to do their schoolwork, the walls are decorated with decidedly analogue paper collages about digital citizenship.
At the heart of John Oliver’s extensive digital programming is Zhi Su, the school’s director of technology and head of its digital-immersion and digital-literacy programs. Su told the Georgia Straight he joined the school as its technology-department head in 2005, when “nobody else wanted to do it”.
“I was the geekiest guy on staff,” he joked in a John Oliver classroom.
Su’s digital programs serve two distinct cohorts. Students whose reading skills fall below grade level participate in the digital-literacy program, where they build literacy and personal-planning skills using iPads. Gifted students in John Oliver’s mini school are armed with MacBook Pros in the accelerated digital-immersion program.
These programs offer a glimpse of the digital evolution at work in Vancouver public schools, independent of recent gains Apple has made in the textbook market since it unveiled iBooks 2 in January. That launch announced partnerships with heavyweight textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson, securing Apple’s key role in the e-textbook market as digital education scales up.
“It’s still early, but I think the days of having old textbooks with out-of-date information are gone,” Su said. “It’s realistic to think that in five years’ time, every student will be a digital-immersion student.”
As soon as the Vancouver School Board sets up a Wi-Fi network across John Oliver, which will be soon—John Oliver and King George Secondary in the West End will be Vancouver’s first wireless schools before such networks are installed across the district—it will be ready for full digital educational programming.
“That’s where the discussion becomes more interesting: who’s going to provide devices?” Su said. “How are we going to leverage them?”
So far, students’ families purchase the iPads and MacBooks used in Su’s programs. The iPads were offered at a discount rate through Apple, and John Oliver is able to support pay-by-month programs for some families. Still, providing discount or subsidized devices for students is “not sustainable” in the long term, Su noted.
Funding is a concern shared by Audrey Van Alstyne, the district principal of learning technologies at the VSB.
“It’s really tough for me in this district, because U-Hill [University Hill school near UBC] has no trouble paying for their own technology…on the East Side, the kids do have cellphones and stuff, but I just don’t want to widen the gap,” she said by phone.
To broaden access to digital devices, Van Alstyne has introduced iPad and laptop carts to schools so teachers can share between their classes. Van Alstyne continues to work with parent advisory councils and private donors to secure more funding for technology, which, alongside other resources for education, is lacking in B.C.
Both Van Alstyne and Su are recipients of the Apple Distinguished Educator award for their leadership in Apple-focused educational technologies. They aren’t required to maintain an exclusive affiliation with Apple products, but Apple, they say, is the most practical brand for educational purposes.
“People say ‘Are you Apple-only?’ I say ‘Absolutely not.’ But at this time, for 30 students, the Apple is the best device,” Van Alstyne said. “My son has an Android at home. He loves it, but he’s a great problem solver.” For an educator to troubleshoot and provide tech support for many different devices in a classroom isn’t realistic, especially when the technology is intended to be secondary to the learning that it facilitates, she added.
For Su, it’s a matter of practicality. “Apple actually caters to education, whereas the other platforms don’t,” he said.
Not all educators agree that Apple is the best way forward in digital education. Aaron Mueller manages the e-library and teaches senior English classes at the Vancouver Learning Network, the city’s online distance-education school.
Without using Apple textbooks or making it mandatory for his students to equip themselves with uniformly branded digital devices, Mueller has developed his own online learning materials for students using tools like Project Gutenberg, YouTube, EPUB, WordPress, online library databases, and materials licensed under Creative Commons.
His efforts are guided by a desire to make the most of limited resources and create an inclusive digital-learning environment for students who use a variety of devices, not just Apple products. Mueller embraces the Open Educational Resources movement, which takes its cues from open-source philosophies around creating online materials to liberally share, remix, and reuse.
He’s wary of Apple’s creeping monopoly on the digital-textbook market, just as he has reservations about letting corporations take the lead in any education system.
“There is so much potential here,” Mueller said, in the John Oliver library, of recent local progress in digital learning. “But we have to get the independent voice out there, so that the corporate interests don’t usurp the momentum.”