Education in Alberta and the promise of technology

October 1, 2010 Dave Hancock, QC, Alberta's Minister of Education

Alberta is Considered An Innovative Leader In The Use Of Technology For Learning

What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
—Steve Jobs, cofounder and CEO of Apple

The promise of technology has always been to do things bigger, faster and stronger. This promise seems to hold just about everywhere in life—buildings are taller, cars are more efficient, computers are more powerful. It is natural, then, that we expect technology will have the same effect on learning. Yet as we experiment with learning and technology and we learn from these efforts, we have come to appreciate that technology will never make learning effortless. There is no jet engine of learning to speed us on our way through school. But like a bicycle, technology in learning enables us to travel further afield more quickly, with less effort than walking, and perhaps to have more fun in our travels.

In the not-so-distant past, something as simple and commonplace as a bicycle was looked upon as a newfangled gadget suitable only for children and a few cranks. Yet as soon as bicycles proved their worth, they were widely accepted and embraced. The same holds true for technology in learning. The questions of the last century were about if technology had a role in learning and, if so, how it should be integrated into teaching and learning. That debate is over.

However, there is a natural reluctance about technology in learning that comes with any new activity. The questions that technology today poses for learning are not unlike the questions we ask when shopping for a child’s bicycle. Is she old enough to ride a bike? Does she need training wheels? How far from home should I let her ride? Will her friends go riding with her? Will a basic bicycle do, or does she need a road bike or a mountain bike? Does she need 21 gears, shock absorbers and a GPS unit? What safety equipment does she need? Can I afford to buy her a bike?

Of course, we want children to indulge their inner curiosity and explore the world, and children will do that whether they have a bicycle or not. And the same is true for technology. The imperative for parents and educators is to ensure that students have the attitudes, skills and knowledge to meaningfully, comprehensively and safely explore and learn.

It is in this context that Alberta Education is examining future needs for technology in support of learning. The informed transformation described by Inspiring Education and Inspiring Action is clearly only possible with the acceptance and integration of technology as a fundamental part of students’ learning experiences.

Approaches of the past with curricula presented in silos, using stand-and-deliver teaching and students parroting back information on demand are not appropriate for today’s students or for today’s society.

By contrast, many of the competencies of an educated Albertan being considered as part of Alberta Education’s curriculum redesign—such as literacy/numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving; cultural and global awareness; self-direction and personal management; creativity and innovation; and collaboration—lend themselves naturally to learning with technology. The point is not to use technology in the same way we always have, but to use it as a powerful tool to facilitate real change and power up the student learning experience in engaging, authentic and challenging ways.

It is with this focus that Alberta Education is looking to more digitally based curriculum (programs of study, supports for balanced assessment and learning and teaching resources) that further enable relevant and engaging learning opportunities. This approach more fully embraces the potential of both students and technology. More information on Alberta Education’s curriculum standards and process redesign will be forthcoming after the project’s official launch later this year.

Given the pervasiveness of technology in modern life, it is not surprising that students are ahead of the education system in embracing it for learning. Alberta’s K–12 community is engaged in multifaceted research projects and stakeholder consultations that are giving voice to students’ views about learning with technology. Specifically, students report that they expect to use technology to improve their productivity; enable more complex, collaborative and authentic learning experiences; and personalize their learning to create flexible environments that offer choice in terms of time, location and pace.

This poses a number of challenges for policy makers and educators, not least of which is addressing the common belief that learning with technology is not real learning. It can be difficult to convince a person who went to school even as recently as 20 years ago that this technology-mediated approach is an improvement over their own education, and in fact that it can be a highly effective way to develop higher-order competencies.

In some ways, this is a fair criticism. Research suggests that it is important to limit screen time for children. For example, the Canadian Pediatrics Society recommends no television or computers for children under age two, and a limit of two hours per day for older children. It is essential that a technology policy and technology-supported curriculum include age-appropriate activities. And it’s also essential to understand when technology is not an effective learning tool, and when it is valuable to develop attitudes, skills and knowledge without technology.

However, it is clear that technology will play a greater role in learning, which poses another fundamental challenge for policy makers and educators. Students need access to the digital tools and resources that are part of living and working in the 21st century. One teacher expressed it most succinctly by saying, “It’s not about the technology until you don’t have any. You don’t learn to cook by reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows on TV. You need to get into a kitchen and start using the stove.” The principle of equity that underpins Alberta’s education system must also apply to technology.

We must move beyond accepting the notion that technology is a priority that competes with others, and that garners attention in some schools but not others. Technology is no longer a priority—it is a fundamental component of today’s learning environments to which every child deserves equitable access.

To that end, we are challenged to provide access to a comprehensive infrastructure and platform of tools that support learning where and when students need it. We are working with stakeholders to design a technology platform for learning that will support personalized, student-centred learning in a range of learning environments. This platform for learning is a strategic initiative that will focus on network infrastructure and connectivity, learning devices, applications and/or software and digital content. This is challenging work, as it is difficult to prepare for the future when technologies are evolving.

With technology becoming more portable, another facet of the equity challenge is addressing the spectrum of students’ access to technology, from those who bring the latest personal gadgets to school to those who have no access outside of school at all.

With increasing requests from students and parents that students be able to bring their own technology into schools, Alberta Education is beginning work this fall with a group of authorities in a community of practice to explore the challenges and opportunities involved in that innovation. The community of practice will test a variety of models on a small scale and share their findings with others regarding technical, pedagogical and organizational challenges.

While technology makes things possible, it is people who make things happen. Recognizing this, Alberta Education is working with stakeholders in many areas to increase the capacity of our workforce to apply technology to learning and teaching, recognizing the importance of the social component of learning and that the development and sharing of knowledge by students is central to their educational experience.

We are working with school authorities on a School Technology Services Framework to build models of best practices for managing technologies across the system, information security and IT governance. These models will help teachers, administrators and IT staff to understand each other’s needs and abilities, and to deal with complex issues of demand for technology exceeding capacity to support it, how to manage risks of information security, and how decisions are made with respect to technology investments, uses, policies and accountability.

We are looking at ways to use technology to facilitate next-generation professional development (PD). We believe that technology can support PD that is sustained, meaningful and integrated into daily classroom practice by enabling teachers to access up-to-date information and resources, and connect with other teachers and subject matter experts to share ideas and work together.

Technology increasingly will pose challenging questions for the teaching profession. While it will automate routine processes so that teachers can focus more of their efforts on higher level activities with students, educators will need to consider when they must be involved. For example, it’s likely that natural language processing software will soon be able to assess many aspects of students’ essays. The extent to which educators should embrace these technologies is an open question that bears examination.

We know there are significant challenges to overcome, but we are working together with educators to increase our ability—both human and technical—to take advantage of the possibilities that technology offers. Indeed, you can participate in creating the future of education in Alberta by visiting

Alberta is considered an innovative leader in the use of technology for learning, and we are excited—not daunted—about continuing in that role. We are dissatisfied with technology on the margins of learning, and together we’re creating a future of learning that is fully supported by technology.

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