Tech Talk: Fully-wired school district evolving with the times

Teaching methods have come a long ways as Central Okanagan Schools now wired for the web with smartphones encouraged

Jon Rever, the Central Okanagan School District director of instruction in charge of technology.

Jon Rever, the Central Okanagan School District director of instruction in charge of technology.

When Jon Rever began his career as a teacher, utilizing technology came down to packing up the classroom and heading down to the computer lab to use computers as typewriters.

Internet was not available in classrooms at that time and if students used computers it was as a word processor with the main source of learning and educating coming from textbooks.

It’s a stark contrast to the teachers of today who utilize technology and the Internet as what could be the most important tool in an ever-changing landscape that now features schools that are completely wired for the web and students encouraged to use their own smart phones as a learning tool.

“I think it is definitely an exciting time for teachers, they have a lot of incredible options to engage students’ learning,” said Rever, now the director of instruction in charge of technology for the Central Okanagan School District. “But it’s a more complex and complicated time. If you were to walk though the average high school today you would see smart phones out in the classrooms sitting on students’ desks.”

Like technology itself, the use of digital teaching and learning tools by students and teachers continues to evolve. The old computer labs are gone as is a time when the Central Okanagan invested in some 5,000 laptops for middle school students. In are the days when students are encouraged to use their own smart phones in class as an education tool.

“Traditionally, 15 to 20 years ago, there was a lot of focus on teaching kids how to use technology and special applications like word or power point, but what we found was that approach didn’t really result in learning, it was all about how do you use these things,” said Rever, who began in his role as the school district’s man in charge of technology in 2001. “Where we are right now is focusing on how do we help teachers build technology into their lessons. They are using technology to empower student learning. What it comes down to is how do we in the school system use technology in ways that society is using technology. We want to try to emulate that in our school system so that when kids come through the system we’ve introduced them to the tools in a way that they will use them in the real world and in their careers.”

Before smart phones were encouraged, the district opted to outfit students with laptops embarking on a project called iLearn in 2005. It was a time when schools around North America were investing in laptops for its students and Central Okanagan jumped in. The program saw about 5,000 laptops purchased and given to students in Grade 7, 8 and 9.

“We basically got to a place from a financial perspective is was unsustainable,” said Rever for the laptop program. “So that was stopped and we took those resources and 5,000 laptops and distributed them into schools so more schools could take advantage of them.”

Once the laptops were re-directed the district started to focus on wiring its schools and providing teachers and administrators with the tools to get online and access information to help them teach. Every teacher and administrator now has a laptop while all 43 schools in the district have their own wireless networks, operating under the main network run the Central Okanagan District.

“We started to focus on the network, knowing the vast majority of students starting in intermediate grades were bringing their devices to school,” said Rever. “At any one time during a school day you can have 8 to 9,000 student connections across our 43 schools. The challenge now that students have their smart phones is they don’t have to be connected to our network anymore. It’s a challenge and schools are very conscientious about the amount of time kids are using their devices.”

School networks are protected by firewalls and the use of the Internet is logged in case of issues. And Rever admits there has been issues that have raised and they are dealt with just like any student issue over the years. But the district has also moved to empower students to teach their peers about the proper use of technology.

Three years ago the district held a digital summit that was led by students as senior students discussed issues with their younger peers.

“That was a huge success,” said Rever. “Students relate to their peers far better than adults and we had lots of conversation around this. It was powerful and that summit led to schools adopting learning experiences around digital. Some schools use their library as a place where those digital ideas are taught or developed and in other cases it is directly in the classroom. Middle schools have elective options where students are exposed to technology.”

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, Rever said every school has the ability to make its own digital plan.

“I would say in some cases there are schools that are very restrictive in their device policy and it’s trying to find this balance,” he said. “You will find schools that are quite restrictive with smart phones so they aren’t allowed in classrooms and only can be used in the morning or after school. But as a district we feel it’s important to give local schools the ability to manage that.”

And so as times continue to change, the Central Okanagan District is changing with them, embracing technology instead of locking up the doors and keeping it out. Some might question the use of smart phones and the Internet by kids in school, but Rever said there are more positives to be found than negatives. Are kids sitting in the back of the room texting each other about non-school stuff? Yes, it happens, says Rever. Just like those kids used to pass notes back and forth.

“(We can’t) control all of our kids, all of the time and in all of our classrooms and I would extend that to some of the adults in the schools as well,” said Rever. “But what that says to me is this is a societal issue, not only about schools. I worry about it. We are kind of way out on this edge where people are very focussed on digital devices and there needs to be some kind of rebalancing. I think it will come. We see a lot of kids unable to regulate themselves but just walk down the street and it’s the same thing for adults. But for some reason we think it’s Ok for adults but not OK for kids.”

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