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Digital frontiers:

Testing new tech in the Christian classroom

Digital frontiers:

Guelph Community Christian School’s Grade 6 classroom has a 1:1 ratio of iPads and students.

Digital learning is the new normal for schools across Canada. Eighty percent of kids in kindergarten now use computers in the classroom. Roughly half of the student body comes to school with his or her own device; 96 percent of classrooms have computers. Teachers communicate with parents less on paper and more online. Technology is changing the way we live and it’s changing the face of education, too – often in exciting and innovative ways.

  GCCS students take part in a Digital Citizenship program at the start of every school year.

Alongside the opportunities, however, are notable obstacles. Textbook use is shrinking and free online resources can be unreliable. Rural schools are concerned about bandwidth; and half of families with a household income below $30,000 have no internet access at home ( Christian Courier interviewed teachers and principals across the country to find out how technology is being used in Christian classrooms today. Is technology helping or hindering student learning? What blessings does digital literacy bring? What barriers remain?

Clint Schenk says the promotion of technology in the classroom comes down to a responsibility to equip students with digital literacy so they can participate in society.

“As a Christian school, we are constantly talking about our mission  to have students who are active culture shapers and culture makers,” says Schenk, assistant principal at Edmonton Christian Northeast School. “I think we need to be part of all spheres of the world to be able to do that even though it does feel daunting sometimes to keep up with technological evolution.”

The Edmonton K-9 school has about 600 students and 300 Chromebooks (laptops). The school is  part of a public district – receiving the same per-student funding allotment from the province as public schools – and also part of a Christian school society (see page 10 for a history of Christian education in Alberta).

While there are some unknowns about whether the quality of student work is impacted by technology, other areas of education – such as the tools available to teachers – are seeing a difference. “The teaching and learning has changed; the way we communicate has changed compared to how it was done 10 or 20 years ago,” Schenk says, adding there is a need to be progressive.

The impact of access
Chris van Donkelaar, Director of Communications and Information Architecture at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS), is passionate about technology. While the OACS does not offer technological services to its members, van Donkelaar engages in conversation with principals and teachers about technology. What he loves about technology – and what schools often struggle with the most – is the way it makes information accessible.

When classroom structures were first developed, the teacher was the holder of information. Now access to information is everywhere – unless teachers require their students to leave  devices  at the door. This is a challenge education needs to take on, van Donkelaar notes.

“The teacher can no longer be the expert in today’s world, nor should they feel bad about that,” he says. Teachers may pull in subject experts, but it is still the teacher who understands how to engage and teach the students.

Quick access to information enables educators to do new things, says Schenk. It also brings forth the need to teach discernment of which sources and information are valid.

“That’s a big part of Language Arts now – how do we communicate effectively in this world where there are so many ways to communicate,” Schenk says. “I think it maybe changes the way we teach and learn. I’m not sure if it’s positive or negative – it is evolving and I think we need to be part of that to some degree.”

The proliferation of technology provides new opportunities for teachers – any given subject can be taught via videos, social media, podcasts, texting or computer games (see sidebar). But Tanya Pennings, interim principal at Guelph Community Christian School, notes that it’s important not to pressure teachers who are not as naturally inclined to use technology.

“When considering the implementation of technology, I recommend not putting [it] on some sort of special pedestal. Society will sometimes want to make you feel like you need to do that. I’ve been grateful for the journey we’ve been on as staff to appreciate where we are progressing with technology,  and to be OK with that,” Pennings says.

“It’s important to honour the variety of strengths you have in your staff,” she adds. “If you make technology such an idol in your school you are going to end up not being authentic and lose momentum.”

  Photography at TDChristian.

Classroom applications
Teachers and upper grade students at Edmonton Christian Northeast School are using Google Classroom, which provides a way for teachers to organize online classrooms and to share documents, links and videos with students. Students receive their own login and can use Google Classroom to turn in assignments and review course material. Using Google Docs allows teachers to provide feedback on student work in live time.

Another example from the Edmonton school is a Grade 9 project where students used a website called  Kiva to make micro-loans: $20 to an entrepreneur in a developing country. Once the loan is paid back, students can invest that money to someone else. Some students have continued to follow the project after graduation.

In addition to cultivating compassion and a global perspective, it’s “a small example of how technology makes the world smaller – a simple way to learn about economics and business,” Schenk says.

At TDChristian (Toronto District Christian) High School in Woodbridge, Ontario, students are closer to entering the workplace and post-secondary school. Technology is viewed as an integral part of education, with a variety of resources available to students such as industry-standard software, DSLR cameras and video cameras, a 3D printer in Engineering Block and a drone.

The focus on technology relates to how it has taken over people’s lives, says Tim Buwalda, Communications Coordinator and Communications Technology teacher at the school. “Our students are using technology all the time, so how do you use that for education as well so it’s not a distraction?”  

Buwalda sees a fit between videography and Christianity. “One big thing people always say about Jesus was how great a storyteller he was, so I always try to get my students to this question: if Jesus had come back today, would he be a filmmaker? Because that’s the big storytelling genre of today,” he says.

TDChristian math teacher David Hagen uses a “Flipped Classroom” approach with several of his classes each year. Flipped Classrooms switch the lesson and homework – students watch a lesson video at home and do their math work in class the next day.

Hagen is the only teacher at TDChristian that uses the Flipped Classroom model so far. “Initially, my reason for starting it up was that I really enjoy exploring the use of technology. My videos were raw, but they worked,” Hagen says. This model allows for more in-class collaboration and access to the teacher when students need help or have questions.

Students can pause, rewind and re-watch videos. The model does require high student participation,  notes Hagen. Students need a level of maturity, and it doesn’t work well for classes held near the end of the day when students are tired.


What types of technology?
A recent “People for Education” survey of secondary schools found that the following percentages of teachers use these tools regularly:

  • Videos/YouTube: 43 percent
  • External website: 33 percent
  • Teacher’s own website: 15 percent
  • Social networking: 8 percent
  • Podcasts/Webcasts: 6 percent
  • Texting: 6 percent
  • Computer games: 4 percent


Teaching digital citizenship
Guelph Community Christian School (GCCS) is in its third year of a Digital Citizenship program, a full-day of learning at the beginning of the school year for all students Grades 1-8. Pennings says the impetus for the program was when the school started bringing more technology in, setting students up to have more one-on-one time with it. Students are divided into three age groups and participate in workshops that cover topics such as access, etiquette, law, literacy and security, and Google Read and Write. When the workshops are over students receive a digital driver’s license card and reminders to place in their desks for reference.

“We wanted to set up a place where we were giving them clear ways to be held accountable and giving ourselves knowledgeable ways of talking about it with them,” Pennings says. “Our goal with Digital Citizenship is to be very serious about the things that can be dangerous but also to be really positive about the way God gifts us with technology as a resource.”

The Digital Citizenship program pulls information from a variety of sources, including Common Sense Media and school boards. GCCS has posted their resources on the OACS’ edCommons site, and is open to sharing it with other schools.

Prior to introducing the Digital Citizenship program, parents were invited to an evening presentation about the school’s technology policy.

Etiquette and worldview
Each school has its  own policy around allowing students to BYOD – Bring Your Own Device. Some, like GCCS, ask students to leave them in backpacks or provide a locked option, whereas other schools leave it to the teacher to decide. At TDChristian, some teachers have students bring their devices to use an app such as Socrative. This live quizzes and polling app allows students to voice their thoughts anonymously instead of through raising their hands.

Teaching students  proper and respectful ways to use technology is a priority for many educators CC interviewed.  Buwalda notes that some adults also have a hard time knowing when to put down their phones, so students may be simply following those behaviours as well.

When technology is used as entertainment in personal lives, transforming it into a tool for learning and communicating can be a challenge. Bringing devices into the classroom can be distracting. Teachers have the challenge of managing that, Schenk notes.

Christians have a unique perspective to share when it comes to taking a rest from technology, given our understanding of Sabbath and the need for worship and prayer. Students are sensing the need to constantly be “on” when it comes to responding to someone’s social media status, causing anxiety about missing out. The premise of always needing to be the one responding is concerning, and setting limits is something to consider when wrestling with technology, van Donkelaar says.

“We understand intuitively something of quiet and focus, which – as much as I love so much of what’s happening in the tech sector – those two things aren’t being empowered by,” he says.

“You can’t go wrong with fundamentals,” van Donkelaar says. Teaching keyboarding, word processing, spreadsheets and slide decks – without getting caught up software – provides valuable skills that can be applied in various ways.

Another word of encouragement: though it may seem daunting to teach or learn something that won’t stick around for decades, that process has benefits too. “It is interesting to see things change and learn and try new things,” says van Donkelaar.

One thing is clear: a thoughtful approach to technology in the Christian classroom will help keep new tech from being a distraction or becoming an idol to instead being pressed into service for God’s kingdom.


About the Author
Digital frontiers:

Jennifer Neutel, Development Manager/Social Media Editor

Jennifer Neutel joined the CC team as Development Manager and Social Media Editor in 2016 – roles that align with her passion to see independent, faith-based media thrive. Part of her work is building CC's revenue streams: advertising, donations and subscriptions. Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and is a certified social media strategist. She lives in Cobourg, Ontario, with her husband and two young boys.