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It is hard to talk about Evanston Township High School academics without talking about the presence of informational technology and digital learning. Having a Chromebook laptop computer is a part of the student experience. Teachers routinely assign homework to be turned in on Google Classroom, an online curriculum where teachers can accept work, post notes and give grades; or Google Docs, a website where students can create documents and share them with peers and faculty alike.
David Chan, the Director of Instructional Technology at ETHS, has been at the forefront of the digital learning initiative since the class of 2018 first entered the halls for freshman orientation. Mr. Chan pointed out that Technology has become a way for the learning that began in the classroom to continue outside the confines of 1600 Dodge Ave.
“So we truly have this possibility for our students to learn anytime, anywhere. It’s not just in the classroom, but in the hallway, the cafeteria, McDonalds, Starbucks, anywhere a kid has access to Wi-Fi, the learning can continue.” Says Mr. Chan, “For a lot of students, this is their first computer or, at least the first one that they can call their own. They get to have it for four years, and many students even continue using it after they graduate, so the significance of learning the responsibilities that come with the device is huge.”
Mr. Chan described his department’s initiative was designed to increase student efficiency in four skills, also known as the four Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. In an interview with the RoundTable, Mr. Chan focused on Electronic Communication Education, which entails giving students access to their own email, and learning about the responsibilities and advantages of checking and sending electronic mail for the first time. It also opens up the use of applications such as Google hangouts and Skype, which allows them to video chat with peers and even teachers for questions outside the classroom.
As well as opportunities to strengthen communicative skills, technology opens up the opportunity for students to stay on schedule with their work, even when inclement weather forces the institution to close for the day. Now, Mr. Chan says that teachers and students alike no longer have to miss a beat.
“With the new access to online material, whether it is at home or in public places with access to Wi-Fi, more and more teachers are having unprecedented access to their curriculum,” says Mr. Chan. “Through this, we have a newfound opportunity, a way to continue the learning even though students cannot be at school that day.”
This opens up the opportunity for an “E-Learning Day.” During future emergency weather days, teachers will be able to post their assignments to Google Classroom or whatever G-Suite application they choose to use. Students will then check in to fulfill an attendance component and complete the given work as if they were in the classroom that day.
When surveyed, Mr. Chan says that 85% of Evanston teachers were in favor of the implementation of this “E-Learning” day. As a former chemistry teacher, Mr. Chan can understand why. Even though an additional make-up day is traditionally added to the year when a snow day occurs, this day more often than not comes at the end of the school year, which is, as Mr. Chan put it “Just another day to be there.”
“For AP teachers especially, these snow/cold weather days just mean squeezing more material into their already tight and difficult schedule” says Mr. Chan. Now, “E-Learning” days may make this constraint a thing of the past.
ETHS teachers recognize the benefits of Digital Learning in situations such as this, and more than a few are doing their part to educate themselves on the capabilities of the technology that they and their students are provided with. As of now, 26 ETHS teachers have become Google Certified Educators, a step that, Mr. Chan says, is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s climate. A Google Certified Educator is a title that is awarded to teachers who have demonstrated mastery in the use of Google applications designed for digital learning. It then becomes a resume booster that, says Mr. Chan, is becoming more and more important. Last summer, Mr. Chan’s department even held a “certification boot camp,” where 10 faculty members came in, studied, brainstormed and then all undertook the three-hour certification exam. To the joy of Mr. Chan, every single one of them passed. “That was a huge win for me and my department” says Mr. Chan.
Mr. Chan says that when teachers educate themselves on the power of this new technology, the reach of opportunities for digital communication stretch far beyond Evanston.
“One of my favorite projects this past year involved a teacher who had a friend in Texas, and they both taught English.” Says Mr. Chan “They wanted to connect their students, and through our resources we were able to make that happen. It wasn’t like a video call either. It was asynchronous. One group would record their responses to certain issues, and the other group would share an analysis of the thoughts the group had in another recording. These were hot-topic issues, such as gun reform, immigration, things like that. The teachers thought their students would have differing opinions, and while that happened in some cases, in most cases the students’ views were remarkably similar.” Instead of getting caught up in the phenomenon Mr. Chan entitled the “Evanston Bubble,” it became apparent that these students chose to challenge themselves and get a fresh perspective on important issues, and, says Mr. Chan, “definitely ended up gaining new insight into the world outside Evanston.”
The present capabilities of instructional technology could be viewed as awe-striking, but for Mr. Chan, it is hard not to look towards the future. “We are partnering with the [Evanston Public] Library to create a network of mobile hotspots that will give everyone access to Wi-Fi around town, creating opportunities to get online for students who may not have access to a network at home.”
Mr. Chan also says that as time passes, it becomes more and more necessary to include a course about the relevancy of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning.
“In the future, I could definitely see the inclusion of an elective class that focuses on AI and the gravity of its impact on the world.” Says Mr. Chan, “Not simply the Google Homes or the Alexas, but more so the online advertisements that know what shirt you want to buy long before you even have a clue. The world is changing rapidly, but with more change comes more responsibility, and it is important for students to know what they are getting themselves into in this changing world.”
Technology is advancing quickly, and it may become easy for an observer to get caught up in the flash and intrigue that it presents. However, Mr. Chan urges readers to consider applications over specifications when it comes to future advancements in instructional technology. “People are always asking me, what’s the new stuff, the cool new tech, and it’s kind of a flawed question. It’s never been about what the tech is; it’s about what we can do with it.”