In Heather Tumbach's social studies class, the students are huddled over their iPods, their dextrous thumbs a-blur over their respective touch screens.
Last year, Tumbach's job would have been to prevent this type of wireless activity in her class. This year, she's the one directing it. She observes with satisfaction the level of engagement in this research task.
"If you listen, they're all working on it," she said.
With a program called PowerUp 2 Learn, St. Albert's Richard S. Fowler Junior High School has embraced the in-class use of wireless handheld electronics. The idea is to find educational uses for the gadgets that young people use so regularly when they're not in school, so they're more engaged when they are in school.
"There are some students who, I can tell you, if they didn't have this, they'd be off-task," Tumbach said.
Tumbach's students are looking up current events as part of a unit in their social studies 9 curriculum. In the not-so-distant past, this task would have been achieved by the teacher bringing in newspapers.
"The thing that I really enjoy about [the technology] is it makes it more meaningful to them," Tumbach said.
For student Alliyah Samuel, 14, the switch to embracing technology didn't make sense at first, but now, two weeks into the school year, she likes it.
"It's interesting. I have more fun doing it," she said. "I feel like I'm learning much better."
The iPod Touch is the school's preferred device but it also allows smart phones on "airplane mode," whereby the texting and phone functions are turned off. Teachers have identified about four-dozen educational apps for students to download to their machines. These range from a digital dictionary to Freddy Fraction, Science Glossary, the Holy Bible, Brain Pop Education and Body Fitness. The devices can also be used in class to access the Internet, but the school's servers have blocked social networking sites like Facebook.
The school sent letters in the spring asking parents to consider purchasing devices for their children. For those who can't afford them, the school has 40 iPod Touches that students can sign out, said principal Shawn Haggarty.
Raphael Bonot, a Grade 9 student, came to school this fall armed with a new $200 iPod Touch that his parents bought for him specifically for school.
While he plays games on the unit outside of class, he feels it's useful for in-class activities.
"Instead of using a dictionary or a calculator you just use it on your iPod," he said. "We're more into technology and this kind of helps entertain us more, rather than using just books."
He isn't seeing much inappropriate use in class.
"Some use it as a distraction but usually the teachers are able to keep order in the class so that the students use them for what they're supposed to be using them for," Bonot said.
When the technology program was announced in the spring, it sparked a debate in the Bonot household.
"At first, his dad didn't think it was necessary. He was not in favour of it," said Raphael's mother Carmina.
She was more open to the program, thinking the devices could be useful.
"If the school taught them how to use it properly for learning, then I thought that would be great," she said.
She's confident in the control measures that Fowler has in place.
"When they started it, there were some parents who were against it," she said. "So far, I think many of the parents who were against it before are … waiting to see what can be done with it."
There aren't many schools in North America that are taking this approach, said principal Haggarty. This means there's little or no research into this area. However, officials with the St. Albert Catholic division feel there is academic support from University of Calgary research that studied the effect of laptop computers in class.
Researchers spent three years following students in a Calgary school, in grades 4 to 9, who were given laptops to use in their studies. The study's authors found that having access to technology provided the students with much richer ways of expressing themselves, propelling them beyond written text and numbers into the realm of media like video and audio, said co-author Michele Jacobsen, an education professor.
But the study's key finding was that the all-important piece of the puzzle wasn't the technology at all, but the teacher designing the lessons.
"Quality teaching matters more than ever when the computer comes to school," Jacobsen said. "The laptops make the most difference for student learning when they're accompanied by a teacher who knows how to design strong work for the kids to do."
Jacobsen felt that the results of her study were applicable to the Fowler program, even though the technology being used is different. She expects that the appropriate use of handheld technology will increase student engagement in learning.
"We know that there's a very strong correlation between achievement and engagement," she said.
Introducing the technology has been a learning experience for both students and teachers, said Clint Ludtke, Fowler's phys-ed teacher.
He spent the summer testing applications for his iPod Touch and now regularly has his students wearing their iPods on armbands.
One application he likes is a pedometer that tracks the number of steps taken and calories burned, which his students have been using during their cross-country runs. The app allows the students to see tangible results of their workout, making the class less subjective, he said.
"It's a huge learning curve for us," he said. "I think it's just going to get better and better as we figure out how to fully use this resource."
Fowler's new program hasn't translated into an enrolment boost. Student numbers at the school have dropped by 15 per cent in each of the previous two years and the school is currently running with 22 fewer students than it had in March, a nine per cent decrease. Meanwhile, the division's other junior high school, Vincent J. Maloney, is up 29 students, said its principal Lydia Yeomans.
Division superintendent David Keohane couldn't say whether the enrolment shift was a sign that some parents are avoiding Fowler in favour of VJM.
"That would be speculation on my part to actually say that," he said. "I really don't know."
Haggarty, Fowler's principal, said he hasn't had any parents tell him they were leaving or avoiding his school because of the new program, but he has heard concerns.
Some are based on the misconception that students are allowed to text or make cellphone calls in class, which isn't the case, he said, as the devices are used for specific tasks under a teacher's direction.
"One of the questions that might be asked is, what about the kid that's sitting back there and they're playing with it? Well, good teaching is good teaching," Haggarty said. "That's the same worry that took place when they first introduced the pencil, 'oh my goodness, the kid is going to be sitting in the back corner doodling.'"
His position is that youth are more technology literate and have far greater access than they did 10 years ago, so it makes more sense to work with the technology than to try and keep it at bay. He stressed that technology is just another tool that teachers can use when it's appropriate.
"We can't sit blindly by and say, oh we're not going to do it,'" he said. "If we were a doctor and there was a new advance when it comes to heart surgery … it's our professional responsibility to go out there and train in best practices and find out what works."