John Oliver School is on the cusp of a digital revolution engineered by Principal Gino Bondi and a band of tech-savvy teachers. The school's digital immersion program is one of the first of its kind in British Columbia and administrators and teachers are hopeful it could become the cornerstone for a new innovative style of instruction and learning that will one day become the norm in all Vancouver's schools.
"Digital immersion is a catchall phrase for a wide range of initiatives we have implemented here at John Oliver," says Bondi. "In this area, the sky really is the limit."
It all started with the JO Mini School, which was created in 1997 but was transformed two years ago by Bondi and teachers Pat Lee, Teresa Laumen, Wendy Beamish, Lester Leung and Zhi Su. The program has gradually grown in both scope and ambition. One of the most exciting elements is leveraging technology and visual web 2.0 devices like iMacs to improve literacy. This year there are 58 students enrolled in the school's digital literacy program with the target of increasing enrolment to 150 in three years.
The digital literacy classroom is holed up in a heritage school house on the Southside of the school's lot. While the building is ancient, the tools being used aren't. Inside, the students flip their iPads around as they puzzle through a paragraph looking for the key elements of a short story. Answers are uploaded to the teacher's shared Wiki instantaneously. Outside the classroom, students can lounge in old "learning commons" furniture repurposed from UBC. Or they can head over to JO's new learning commons (formerly the library).
The new learning commons (which combines the technology laden richness of a lab with the collaborative dynamics of a library) is what the whole staff hopes will become a networked hub of activity and learning. To start, the whole place is wireless. A dozen desktop computers line the middle of the room in an area that might have once been populated by book shelves. A smaller archive room has been converted into an iMac and digital media "green room" for video editing. Near the entrance, donated Starbucks tables and seats create a coffee-shop atmosphere that's more familiar to a university than secondary school. Projectors beam onto several Epson Interactive Boards allowing teachers to easily direct and engage multiple classes with video and web content.
The learning commons isn't the only place digital learning is taking place. As part of a three year plan, this year also saw the introduction of the iPad Literacy Cohort. 30 students reading two years below grade level are placed in a cohort for all four of their academic classes and a designated literacy support block. Each student has an iPad and all content is delivered via this device. The goal is to invigorate and motivate these students through a captivating platform that will demonstrate a new way of learning, extend the concept of where and when learning takes place and provide a value added use of technology (pod casts, on line learning, Moodle) as a vehicle and not the driver for improved rates of literacy.
In addition to these classes, every Grade 8 student this year (part of the school's three year technology plan) is being taught how to leverage their own digital devices (smart phones, iPads, laptop computer, Apps, cameras) to create, engage and most importantly, learn. Bondi says by the end of the year he expects every one of these students to be creating content on their own blog and be on Moodle. Moreover, every student and staff member in the school has a JO gmail account and membership to Atomic Learning that provides self-paced software training and technology integration to support educational technology.
Bondi credits the technology and an incredibly creative teaching staff for helping excise learning from silos. Math, science, history - it all blends together with Digital Immersion and the school's vision of technology use within their community.
"Every student is coming to school with these devices anyway," says Bondi. "They're already interacting with these tools. Digital Immersion and all of these initiatives are designed to show them that if they're just using these tools for texting or surfing the net, they're really just seeing the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more amazing, self-actualizing things that can be done."
The effects of this program aren't just felt in the classroom. A stroll through the school's community garden will reveal information on the plants' labels embedded in QR codes. Career prep might mean a visit from a local electronic or software manufacturer like Cisco, Electronic Arts or other companies. The sky is truly the limit.