© Guardian photo by Heather Taweel
Ben Boyle, left, Ghenyk McDonald and Frances Ann Squire meet at Casa Mia and discuss their frustrations with the computer systems at school.
Outdated technology and limited Internet access in majority of P.E.I. classrooms is leaving students and teachers frustrated
Ben Boyle and Ghenyk McDonald have learned how to tune out the hum and distractions of a coffee shop when they’re working on school projects.
They’ve had to.
They need the wireless Internet available at places like Starbucks and Casa Mia in Charlottetown in order to complete much of their schoolwork.
Wireless Internet (or Wi-Fi) is not available in most Prince Edward Island schools, so they’ve often had to improvise.
Once, when McDonald was in junior high, he brought his own laptop to school in order to complete a video project. But even though his computer was equipped to perform the tasks required, he still needed the Internet.
He had to leave the school and go across the street to the home of a friend.
“We went and sat outside with my laptop so I could use his wireless to download what we needed so we could actually do the project,” McDonald said.
“It’s beyond frustrating.”
But it’s not just the lack of Wi-Fi that Boyle and McDonald find frustrating. The operating system on computers given to students is old and often does not support the programs and websites they would like to access for their school projects. Also, heavy filters placed on student computers limit their abilities so much; the two boys said virtually all students view time in the school computer lab as a joke.
“It’s pretty hard to concentrate and get any progress when you’re trying to work on a presentation, it will be like, ‘Oh, my flash player is outdated,’” Boyle said.
“It’s taking away from student learning. It’s wasting the time and energy of the teachers and students,” McDonald added.
The two young men took their frustrations with the technology available in P.E.I. schools to the Education Department’s technology committee. They came up with a pitch to add $5 to every student’s yearly school fees and it would pay for WiFi for all Island schools, with money to spare. Then allow students to bring their own tablets or laptops to use in class.
A growing number of schools and school boards in Canada and the United States are now adopting BYOD (bring your own device) policies as a way to bring classrooms and student learning into the 21st Century.
But Boyle and McDonald’s proposal to adopt this in P.E.I. fell on deaf ears.
“We got no feedback after the presentation whatsoever,” Boyle said.
“In fact, there were two gentlemen from the school district who were using their phones the entire time.”
Junior high school teacher Frances Ann Squire understands and shares their frustrations.
She recently wanted to show her class an educational online video about climate change, but when she tried to bring up the website her access was blocked.
The message: Pornography.
The website, in fact, contained no inappropriate content, but the filters on the province’s school computers inexplicably flagged it as porn.
The same thing happens if a student tries to access YouTube on a school computer.
Teachers have slightly more access, but still run into many blocks.
That’s because, despite the fact the province recently purchased 800 brand new computers for teachers across the Island, each one of those computers was downgraded from Windows 7 to Windows XP -- an operating system so old many websites are not compatible with it. Microsoft has also recently announced it will soon no longer offer upgrades to support it.
Downgrading these new computers has crippled their potential, Squire said.
“All teachers are frustrated,” she said.
“We have teachers who can’t access the tools they need to teach. And that’s sad.”
Squire has been pushing for more access to better technology for her students and for teachers for some time.
She even purchased $5,000 in equipment of her own to use in her classroom. But she needs Wi-Fi to make any of it work. If she plugs her own laptops into the hardwired Internet in the school, she is faced with the same heavy filters and error messages.
She even offered to pay for wireless Internet for her classroom out of her own pocket to offer her students better learning tools. This request was denied.
Gilles Arsenault, president of the P.E.I. Teacher's Federation, says teachers across the province are voicing the same concerns. He says there is also an issue of disparity -- newer schools are Wi-Fi enabled and have brand new computers and laptops while older schools have government cast-offs.
"I think the province needs to come out with a clear plan on technology for the educational system," Arsenault said.
"We need to be able to move with 21st Century skills for our students, because they have all that technology at home and when they're coming to school and use an older form of technology, they're not progressing."
Terry Keefe, is the senior director of administration and corporate services for the Department of Education.
He knows teachers want access to more up-to-date technology, and government is working toward this.
But changing or updating anything in government takes time.
The first step was getting all 65 of P.E.I.’s schools wired with the same quality of high-speed Internet. The province entered into an $8-million partnership with EaslLink in June, and soon all schools will be connected to a high-speed fibre optic network.
The next step was giving every classroom an LCD screen and a new computer. This was why 800 new machines were distributed to teachers at the beginning of the school year.
Keefe said those computers had to be downgraded because Windows XP is the operating system used across government.
All technology for the province is managed by one agency, Information Technology Shared Services (ITSS), so all government computers are standardized.
“ITSS has probably 15,000 computers across government and to have multiple operating systems is problematic. It could cause a bit of chaos,” Keefe said.
A province-wide upgrade is in the works, due to the fact Windows XP will soon become defunct.
In the meantime the education department has budgeted $3.2-million over the next five years for its own technology upgrades.
Keefe says this money could be used to install Wi-Fi in all schools. But before any decisions are made, the department wants to come up with a long-term plan.
A consultant is being hired to meet with teachers and principals and develop a long-term technology strategy for P.E.I.’s education system.
“We will be bringing a consultant in to say, ‘We have the infrastructure now in better shape, what do we need to do in the future and how do we need to move forward?’ Do we go with Wi-Fi? Do we go with ‘bring your own devices?’” Keefe said.
“Over the next several months we will be going through that process, which we’re very excited about, and help us to have a technology plan for the next three to five years.”
But Squire says that’s too long.
She was aghast to learn a consultant will be hired to study the issue while teachers and students are left to work with outdated technology in a tech-driven world.
“What kind of an impression are we giving to our students if we’re telling them they can’t access these things? We can’t teach them the skills, the apps, the new programs. But then we expect them, when they graduate from school, to be competitive,” Squire said.
“Prince Edward Island’s school system is so far behind. Somebody who makes those ultimate decisions has to realize this is not working.”