Virtually new classrooms
BY MICHELLE DEMEYERE
Computers, telephones and television technology are converging to form virtual classrooms in 22 elementary and high schools across Ontario.
Last March, some Ontario students began tuning into the television as part of their daily lessons, thanks to a TV Ontario initiative which is bringing the best of its programming and multimedia technology into the classroom.
"Each student sits at a desk with a phone that is hooked up to the TVO studio that they see on a television screen at the front of their classroom," said Karen Schade, project resource staff for the TVO virtual classroom at Usborne Central Elementary School in Exeter.
In turn, the studio features a variety of experts and guests, from scientists to Canadian olympic athletes. Students are even able to call in their questions to the guests, Schade said.
Jim Binns, principal at Usborne Central, said he was excited about the interactive electronic field trips to places such as the National Gallery of Ottawa or a nickel mine in Sudbury, offered as part of the $400 million pilot project. "It allows students to experience things they wouldn't dream of in their day-to-day lives."
While distance education technology is making inroads at Ontario schools, video-conferencing and Internet courses are becoming increasingly entrenched in post secondary programs. Western students can currently choose from 75 correspondence courses, 28 of which are strictly online.
"Before it used to be mostly mature or part-time students who would take online courses. Now, we're seeing more and more full-time students who want to take the online courses," said Rob Downes, assistant manager of academic records at Western.
He said Western's masters business administration program at the Richard Ivey School of Business owes much of its success to the state-of-the-art electronic classrooms.
Unlike TVO's partnership with elementary and high schools, Western's system allows for two-way audio and visual interaction. A handful of participants in each of the seven connected cities across Canada can discuss case studies between themselves and with a professor at Western. But the novelty of educational technology at schools is still apparent.
Rick Robertson, associate business professor at the business school, referred to his first use of the video-conferencing studio at Western as awful. "The system went down five times," he said.
Robertson said it is dangerous to rely too much on multimedia education and explained he prefers teaching students face to face. "Sometimes it's nice to have people talking at the same time. I think the system needs to be more interactive."