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Students and teachers pilot digital textbooks

Written on November 6th, 2017

“If you’re choosing to use your textbook, turn to page 40. I f you want Edwin to read to you, get your headphones,” says Grade 8 teacher Howie Martin as he opens a science lesson at Milton Christian School (MCS).

This year, Grade 7 and 8 MCS students are beta-testing a new digital textbook product by Nelson—Canada’s leading educational publisher—called Edwin. In total, only six schools in Ontario are involved in this first round of beta-tests, with more provincial roll-outs starting in January.

Edwin is a “learning ecosystem,” a digital application combining educational content with industry-leading technology. Like an online textbook, Edwin incorporates additional learning tools such as curated articles and videos available at students’ fingertips. Students can utilize functions such as Text-to-Speech and highlight words to easily search a definition.

MCS enrolment has been rapidly growing since the school was founded in 2006. From 11 students to 165 students this year and a waiting list, MCS is currently building a new school to accommodate more students. “There has been a shift away from teaching students what to think to how to think,” notes MCS principal Mike Van Slingerland. A common denominator in 21st century education is collaboration.

“There are all kinds of discussion and talk right now in the education world about the need for collaboration,” he says. “The collaboration that is involved in this [Edwin] project is what’s so impressive to me because it is all about the learning.”

Collaboration is a key ingredient to exceptional learning, and the students are in a project-based world, he adds.

“This [beta test] is a learning project on how to incorporate an innovative tech into the learning component of the students,” he says.

A new opportunity to deepen the school’s commitment to innovation and collaboration came about when, in March, Chris van Donkelaar, Director of Communications and Technology at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools, invited Mr. Van Slingerland to attend a Microsoft K-12 Private Education Technology Innovation Event. At the event, Nelson CEO Steve Brown shared a peek into Edwin and his vision to transform education with a digital platform that utilizes Nelson resources.

At the following coffee break Mr. Van Slingerland approached Mr. Brown to applaud his vision. A few weeks later Mr. Brown connected with Mr. Van Slingerland and asked if he would be interested in being involved in the Edwin beta test. As a smaller school, MCS gave an ability for cohesive communications.

“I had a strong view that the strength of the beta test had to be with people who were forward thinking, inquisitive, future-minded—and Mike struck me as exactly that,” Mr. Brown says. “He was a no-nonsense leader who had a vision for education I thought lined up with Edwin.”

Being one of the first classrooms to use Edwin, students are experiencing what it is like to help develop a real-life product. As teachers, students and parents continue to explore and test Edwin, their open-minded approach towards innovation and digging into a creative process provides a unique learning opportunity.

When Mr. Van Slingerland approached the teachers, he says they were enthusiastic and there is a desire to learn and grow as educators. They took part in training on the product and device, as well as focus group meetings. Nelson provided MCS with 36 laptop devices—one for every Grade 7 and 8 student plus staff members. The device is built with durability for school use and includes a keyboard, touch screen, smart pen and multicamera, and the intermediate teachers at MCS got to work planning to integrate this new digital textbook into their classroom.

Mr. Martin and Grade 7 teacher Eric Miedema have been at the front lines of the beta test introducing their students to Edwin and utilizing the technology for certain subjects they teach.

“From a teacher’s point I don’t want to say, ‘you have to use this,’” Mr. Martin says. “Some of them love it—others just want to use the textbook.” He wonders if the uptake would be different with younger students who aren’t as used to textbooks. But the real learning opportunity for the students of MCS is the chance they have to engage in the creative process of developing a new learning platform. While their experiences can be messy (or even verging on frustrating) all of their experiences are helping to shape what Nelson’s new digital textbook will become.

Early on it became apparent that Nelson would take the feedback MCS provided seriously. During an initial meeting between the MCS team and Nelson teachers expressed that Google Classroom was an important tool for them and suggested using it. Nelson listened, and Edwin now has Google Classroom integrated into its system. This isn’t the only platform that Nelson has included, it has also partnered with other existing applications to integrate many educational resources into one place. Among these are MyON, a personalized literacy environment with an extensive digital library; DreamBox, an adaptive math learning platform; and Ask a Tutor, an online website to ask homework questions.

In the classroom, students can be seen carrying their laptops as they move around during a group work period. Some choose to use a workbook and glance up at their open screens occasionally. Grade 7 student Keira prefers reading from a hard-copy textbook but acknowledges computers are more widely used.

“We haven’t been this hands-in with technology in terms of textbooks before,” she says. “If, for example, you prefer to take notes on the laptop during class [Edwin] will take you to a document you can type out.”

“It’s interesting and I think it’s a great way to learn but it is very different from what we’ve had in past years.”

Keira loves reading and is looking forward to having access to so many books at her fingertips. She also thinks that the opportunity for providing another option for homework help is, “really cool.”

Grade 8 student Mark enjoys having access to the computer. But, as he uses Edwin he is also aware of his part in sharing some areas for improvement. For example, when the teacher calls out a page number in the textbook the digital textbook does not show page numbers, so he must look on a classmate’s book.

“It’s a special thing because not many schools get the opportunity to try it out yet,” says Mark. Keira echoes feeling special. “I feel that it’s a great thing because we’re such a small school it will give us more of a boost with education,” she says.

This feeling is something understood and shared by Nelson. “They’ll be able to look back one day when everybody is being educated on Edwin around the world and say, ‘We were the first, we were part of it,’ which is something they should be really proud of,” Mr. Brown says.

Beyond the project, there are also immediate learning benefits for MCS students. “Having a digital curriculum available for students provides another avenue for differentiated instruction,” says Edith van der Boom, MCS director of learning. With the options to type, use a touchscreen, watch videos and create their own videos, students have more ways to gather information and express themselves. This allows students to learn in a way that meets their needs best.

“They are all on the same playing field, they all have the same product and the same opportunities and they each use it differently,” Dr. van der Boom says.

There are also new metrics available to teachers in order to individualize real-time assessment for each student. On the device students can share real-time feedback. In the background a program is collecting data on the student experience, tracking data such as how much time students spend on an application. To make Edwin as intuitive as possible the data looks for any issues students may be having when they are using it with the aim to increase ease and learning outcomes.

“If we see the kids engaging in a certain way and we see the test results getting better, comprehension getting better. If we see things not being used then we will take it out,” Mr. Brown tells OACS News. “This is a utilitarian learning tool and the only outcomes that matter are learning outcomes: increased education for the kids.”

The Edwin project provides an opportunity for students to apply critical thinking in their learning. Mr. Van Slingerland says the school is approaching it from a critical standpoint as students can problem solve and give feedback to Nelson. And, within the culture of MCS, educators are comfortable with messy. People learn best when making mistakes, acknowledging the mistakes and looking to improve, Mr. Van Slingerland says.

“Deep learning—that gruelling wrestling through concepts—is messy,” he says. The chance to work as a school in this burgeoning field, is amazing for everyone involved and represents what being a faithful presence means in today’s world. And, as he sees other schools also making big changes, Mr. Van Slingerland is optimistic about Christian education in the province. “If we are open to [changes] and grounded in our faith and our convictions, then the sky’s the limit,” he adds. “It’s important not to separate faith from innovation and technology.”