November 07, 2022

Article
8 min

How Schools are Using Technology to Reshape the Student Experience

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital adoption in the classroom, many Canadian students have had access to technology including laptops, tablets, Chromebooks and even robotics and virtual reality devices for the past decade.

CDW Expert

What's Inside
Wide shot of children at school in a computer lab learning.

If your mental image of school features a teacher writing on a blackboard for a classroom full of students taking notes on paper, it’s out of date – digital transformation has reshaped much of our world, and education is no different.

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital adoption in the classroom, many Canadian students have had access to technology including laptops, tablets, Chromebooks and even robotics and virtual reality devices for the past decade, says Alistair MacLeod, Education Strategist with CDW Canada.

“During the pandemic there was a pivot to remote learning for many school districts in Ontario, and it took a fair amount of time for that transition to happen,” he says. “But now that they’ve done it, I think that any future pivots will be much faster because they’ve already made the investments in infrastructure and developed a procedure to follow.”

Why learning management systems have really taken off

The current leader in the growing market for learning management systems (LMS), which enable staff and students to post, attend and discuss classes online, is Brightspace, which has developed a digital learning program that every school district in the province of Ontario is registered with.

“Even with in-person learning resuming, there are still some students who are learning remotely,” MacLeod says. “Some school districts gave parents the option to continue remote learning for their students and some have taken them up on it. Sometimes courses don’t fit into student schedules, students are in other countries or they’re learning at home because of illness, and e-learning platforms were made to support that.”

While the tools can be powerful, they aren’t without controversies, MacLeod acknowledges: Unions, for example, are concerned about boards replacing teachers with technology, since online classes can accommodate many more students than in-person ones. For teachers, engaging remote and in-person students at the same time can be a challenge. And many parents – of younger children especially – raise concerns about screen time.

“In the very young grades, especially kindergarten, students generally don’t use technology at all,” MacLeod says. “Sometimes they do, but the general idea is that kindergarten especially should be about play-based learning and cooperation, and there’s an assumption that students get enough access to digital technology at home.”

“Even for older students, parents are very concerned about total screen hours and making sure that students aren’t using devices at school for playing games or social media all the time, but hands-on learning,” he continues.

Blended learning: How education has been digitally transformed

Most schools take a blended learning approach to incorporating digital tools into the classroom, with students attending most of their lessons in person while using the online platform as a supplementary resource.

“Recordings of lessons and support materials are uploaded to the platform, students can access it from home in the evenings and parents can too,” MacLeod says. “It’s an extension. It’s not meant to replace the teacher or classroom at all – it’s meant to enrich the learning experience for students so that they can learn anytime, any day.”

For teachers, interactive panels have proven useful, MacLeod says – they not only enhance the ability of students to see information, but can record lessons and share them with students who weren’t able to attend or want to review them later.

“There are many students – one of my own sons included – who cannot write notes and listen at the same time to what the teacher is saying,” MacLeod says. “So it’s a very useful thing to be able to listen and try to understand in the classroom and then access and review the materials afterwards at home.”

Digital transformation also gives boards the flexibility to create learning opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available: For example, MacLeod says, CDW is currently working with a school district that originally couldn’t offer students at two schools a particular course because too few had signed up for it, but was able to do so after combining the students together via remote learning.

“So we have a situation where a teacher has some students attending their class in person every day, and some students from another school nearby attending that same class remotely at the same time,” MacLeod says. “So instead of the class being cancelled and students losing access, the teacher gets a full class of students.”

Another benefit of education’s digital transformation, MacLeod says, is the early exposure to technology-based learning. Coding, for example, is now part of Ontario’s math curriculum for students from kindergarten to grade 12, and frequently incorporates cutting-edge tools, including robotics.

“Today’s 21st century learners are expected to have all sorts of digital skills and be able to function in an equally digital workplace,” MacLeod says. “And digitally transforming schools helps support that.”

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Today’s 21st century learners are expected to have all sorts of digital skills and be able to function in an equally digital workplace. And digitally transforming schools helps support that.

– Alistair MacLeod

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How education technology helps special needs students

Another benefit of digitally transforming education is the accessibility features on devices, which MacLeod says are extraordinarily helpful to students with special education needs.

“It used to be the case that students with special education needs, especially severe ones, wouldn’t go to regular classes,” he says. “They’d be segregated into their own classrooms, their own programs or in some cases their own schools.”

“They’re integrated much more fully into regular classrooms now,” he continues. “Some of them have full-time educational assistants to help them learn, but many don’t. And technology plays a key role there. If you’ve got a student with low vision or a deaf student, they can still learn.”

Another useful tool is virtual and augmented reality, which has been used to help students on the autism spectrum attend classes both remotely and in person.

“By having students on the autism spectrum virtually attend classes before attending school in person, we can help them get used to the routines in a way that’s not as threatening as doing it live,” MacLeod explains. “It can help students who have a very hard time being in an environment that’s loud or is not as ordered as what they’re used to before going to school as well.”

The benefits of technology in education – both professional and personal

A former instructor himself, MacLeod has more than three decades of teaching and institutional IT experience and is the father of two sons, both with very different learning styles, so he can discuss firsthand the benefits of technology in education.

“My older son is able to learn pretty much independently because of digital tools,” MacLeod says. “He does all of his note taking, for example, on a tablet using OneNote.”

“He’s in university now, but to augment his studies he’ll access lectures from other institutions online, so that he can find – I’m not going to say teachers who are better than his own, but teachers who offer a different viewpoint or way of teaching certain concepts,” MacLeod says. “And he’ll see those and compare them to what he’s learning in class. And of course if he has to miss a lecture for some reason or another he can always access it online. And that’s typical.”

MacLeod’s younger son, meanwhile, can have difficulty keeping himself organized, making digital organizing tools such as Microsoft OneNote (which MacLeod acknowledges he’s a fan of) a great benefit for him as well.

How CDW is helping digitally transform education

At CDW, we collaborate with school boards across the country to ensure their digital lessons and the infrastructure supporting them is up to date.

We’re an especially valuable partner, MacLeod says, because rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, CDW provides detailed vendor evaluations and recommendations unique to each board’s context and needs.

Perhaps most importantly, we employ an internal team of subject matter experts – like MacLeod – with hands-on experience in the sectors they support.

“Having been on the other end of the business, we really understand the challenges as well as the opportunities associated with incorporating these technologies, whereas other partners may not have the level of expertise needed to make recommendations that both suit the customer and stay on top of what’s coming in the future,” MacLeod says. “I think that helps tremendously.”