Holy Trinity schools attract international attention through Discovery Education Canada partnership

Elisabeth Dowson
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“Technology itself is not the answer; it is part of the answer, and that’s why Discovery Education is moving towards partnering with Divisions like Holy Trinity. It’s been fantastic.” - Tom Metuzals, Regional Director, Discovery Education Canada

When Discovery Education Canada was completing its annual usage review recently, they noticed a couple of spikes on the graph from Swift Current and Moose Jaw, where usage rates by Holy Trinity Catholic School Division #22 - across their entire resource base - were well above those seen in any other area of Canada.

Tom Metuzals, Regional Director for Discovery Education Canada, explained, “Every year we do a review and take a look at all the usage of all our Canadian subscribers. Discovery is available right across the country, 2300 schools, and we delivered somewhere in the area of three million learning resources to Canadian students.

“What we noticed was here at the Holy Trinity Catholic School Division an incredible usage of all those other components, so the usage was happening in a balanced approach ... yes, they were using video but what’s going on here? They’re using quizzes, they’re using assignment builders, tools, games ... remarkable growth over this past year of the usage.

“We called up Geri Hall, the Superintendent of Learning [with Holy Trinity Catholic School Division]. We were just so impressed, we’re shooting a video and a testimonial and speaking with the teachers and students to see and to learn more about what’s going on here.” Videographers from the US travelled to Swift Current and Moose Jaw to create the video.

Discovery Channel was founded in 1985 and has since grown into Discovery Communications, which owns and manages “a diversified portfolio of digital media services” including Animal Planet and The Learning Channel, and operates the website HowStuffWorks.com. Ten years ago, they launched a video streaming service into classrooms.

“This is our 10th year as Discovery Education,” said Metuzals. “The first program that was broadcast on the Discovery Channel was something called The Iceberg Alley, which is a program ironically about the waterways between Newfoundland and Labrador. What happens when it’s broadcast is they get phone calls from teachers saying wow, how do I get this to show this in my classroom?

“That has now evolved into a multitude of resources that are available, so about two years ago we launched a very specific Canadian version of the self-standing Discovery Education Canada, and it has all the resources that are aligned to the provincial standards of expectations.”

Holy Trinity began their partnership with Discovery Education Canada in September 2010, after a lengthy evaluation of technology that could replace or augment the VHS videos and classroom televisions the Division was using at the time.

“We have a process in Holy Trinity,” explained Hall, “that before we embark on finding a resource, or paying for a resource - because this is a three-year agreement that we have gone into with DEC - we have a process that we use to determine whether this would be of value in our classroom.

“Our primary focus for our Board is that it needs to be learner focused, to make a difference in the lives of children, and it needs to support the Saskatchewan curriculum.

“If we were going to go with changing from the VHS platform to the DVD,” said Hall, “all we were doing was moving to another resource that was only purely video, could be dated in a short period of time, and the only way we could keep it current was to buy more.”

St. Patrick School Principal Troy Froehlich agreed that VHS technology was seriously outdated. “To go and get the video machine, to go and get the VHS, everything’s stored in Moose Jaw, they have to send it all here, it was a process. It takes so long.”

Hall said, “We came across Discovery Education, which has just an amazing amount of resources that are attached to the provincial curriculum. We liked it because it’s accessible to students and teachers at any hour of the day.”

Students can go online during class, in the evening or on weekends, teachers can access it anytime, it’s accurate, and educators and parents don’t have to worry about site safety or inappropriate content because Discovery Education is a closed-system destination on the web, not a portal.

“The content is purely educational, and they have more than videos,” said Hall. “It has interactive educational lesson plans and activities and those kinds of things that our teachers can use, so we’ve got many more opportunities with Discovery Education than we could have had if we’d gone the old way of providing videos.”

Once they decided to partner with Discovery Education, Holy Trinity developed an implementation plan.

“We had two curriculum consultants, or learning consultants we call them, who have developed resources and have given inservices to our teachers on a regular basis on the use of Discovery Education, so that teachers don’t have to be overwhelmed.”

To evaluate the utilization of Discovery Education resources, the Division surveyed teachers to find out whether the needs of the students were being met, and whether their learning with “upper level thinking” (evaluation, synthesis and analysis) was being promoted.

“We’ve been really pleased with the results,” said Hall. “We’ve really seen an increase of student engagement. We monitor the number of log-ins, not just of teachers but of students, because that’s where the learning happens is at the student level, and what types of resource they’re going into, so this is what really attracted Discovery Education to us is that our numbers of log-ins in the non-video, more of the interactive and other pieces, like lesson-planning pieces, is very high.”

Discovery Education can be accessed by computer or iPad, but it reaches its full collaborative and interactive potential through SMART Board and SMART Table technology. The Division has had SMART Boards for the past three years, so Hall said the Discovery Education resource dovetailed beautifully with that platform.

Froehlich explained how they access the resource. “We download Discovery Education through the digital resource, it streams onto the computer, and with the SMART Board technology the kids have this large TV screen in front of them that is interactive, and that’s exciting.”

“So a whole bunch of things are happening in the classroom,” said Metuzals. “It’s a collaborative classroom. It’s a creative classroom. And they’re working with and they’re learning 21st century skills, skills that they will need when they go out into society.

“There’s been a real shift where the teacher delivered the material, the kids took it down and then they learned it.

“ Now ... we want children to generate questions, and by generating questions, these kids are pursuing their background knowledge and they are going listen to what others have to say, to scaffold - to build upon what the other kids are saying - and we have learning going on that’s relevant and it’s for the future, so exciting stuff.”

Discovery Education says about 32 per cent of schools in Saskatchewan subscribe to their service and Holy Trinity has been “a shining light” within that group.

“The whole technology field has just exploded,” admitted Hall, “but we want to make sure that when we look at technology we see it as a tool. It doesn’t take the place of the pedagogy and of the teacher, who knows how to teach and will always provide that.

“We see it as a tool that could be used that really reflects our community of today, and technology in the community is very, very strong. So why would we have children come out of an environment that is technology-rich and come into a school where there’s nothing? We may as well use that technology if it’s going to help the child learn.”

The children are also learning how to engage technology in a self-directed, intuitive, productive and progressive way as opposed to aimless internet surfing, passive screen time in front of a TV or playing video games.

“It’s a knowledge-rich environment and we have a major role in helping students decipher what is accurate and what isn’t,” said Hall. “That is huge. They’ve got to filter through all of this information, and with Discovery Education they don’t have to use the filter because we have faith in the products that they provide.”

The impact on learning has been profound. Because knowledge has been experienced, it becomes entrenched in young minds and acts as the springboard to a broader spectrum of related learning.

“You see the response from the kids,” said Metuzals. “You see their eyes open up and you see them begin to interact and to show others, and to share, and then you become... you collaborate, you create, you develop your media literacy skills, not just your computer skills and using your knowledge, but you get that literacy skill.”

“A teacher or student can actually go in and see this video where it fits into the provincial curriculum expectations, or conversely they can go the other way around. They can say, I need something that’s going to support this outcome, and I can go through the science module and up comes the link and I know that I can use that in the classroom, and I will achieve that expectation.”

Froehlich sees Discovery Education as potentially driving curriculum in the near future.

“I think that we have a very solid and founded curriculum here in Saskatchewan, but there are things that you know teachers see as opportunities for students to get to the next level. And this is an opportunity.”

At the back end of Discovery Education is a comprehensive team of hundreds of programmers and curriculum consultants who are continually renewing and expanding the resources available.

“We work very hard to acquire a lot of content from around the world, not just the Discovery Channel, not just through Planet Earth, or Animal Planet, but also we acquire high quality relevant material that’s useful and specifically relevant to the Canadian classrooms,” said Metuzals.

“I came up with a slogan which I kind of like, and I’m going to share it,” said Froehlich. “Discovery Education is igniting children’s spirit of imagination. That’s what it is. Their spirit of imagination. Whatever they think they can do, they can go for it.”

These resources are so impressive that they are influencing the design and function of Holy Trinity’s new K-8 school being built as part of an integrated facility in the north-east corner of Swift Current.

“That’s a very exciting piece,” admitted Hall, “because that school will open in three or four years and we’re not going to create a school that is meant for the education that happened in the past. Our Board is very forward thinking and future thinking on this, and yet we have to make sure that we understand that the technology that we put in there is put in for authentic purposes, for student learning.

“We know that we have to build an environment for 21st century skills, so we know that our children have to go into work places where they’re going to need collaboration, where they’re going to need to be creative, where they’re going to need to be flexible, where they need to ask those critical questions. They have to be discerning: what is accurate; what isn’t.

“We know they’re going to need a sense of social justice too, so keeping all of these things in mind for them, we think that technology in the classroom has to be there for children to be able to use when they want to show how they have reached their outcome, so it’s a tool for them to use to display their learning.”

As a result, the new school will incorporate more than the current one interactive board or table in each classroom.

“We see that it’s going to mean - so the students have better access - we see that we have to set up collaborative opportunities for them ... where they talk to each other and they build those social skills. It won’t be one child to one device, so they’re not working individually. We’re keeping that in mind too,” added Hall.

“We’re looking at all the research about what best learning looks like for children, and it’s not new. It comes from the last 40 years of research, and those are the things that we’re really going to focus on.”

Organizations: Holy Trinity Catholic School Division, Discovery Channel, Discovery Communications The Iceberg Alley

Geographic location: Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Canada Saskatchewan

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