Online games become school lessons

Students in Pilot Math don't have to worry about getting a homework detention for watching YouTube when they're supposed to be studying equations.

That's thanks to a group of teachers at the Victoria tech company Etraffic Solutions who are taking some of teens' favourite online activities and turning them into lessons.

Etraffic is part of a growing trend toward using technology both in the classroom and through online learning, a trend that has seen participation at BCEd Online's annual spring conference now underway in Vancouver more than double since the event began four years ago.

"It's a reflection of the interest in online learning. It has probably been fuelled in the last couple of years by more interest on the part of government in terms of making this kind of option available across the province," said Barry Carbol, executive director of BCEd Online, a consortium of B.C. school districts and affiliated educational organizations.

This year's conference drew as many as 550 participants, up from 200 four years ago.

"We're finding there is more and more interest among regular classroom teachers in the kind of online learning content they can blend with their classroom content," said Carbol.

Pilot Math, a program that was developed last summer for teaching Grade 10-level math in two courses -- the Principles of Math 10 and Essentials of Math 10 -- represents the blending of old-school classrooms and textbooks with the learning styles of today's tech-savvy teens.

The program is being launched at the tech education conference, with Principle of Math 10, Essentials of Math 10 and Principles of Math 11 available with textbooks and workbooks for the 2007-2008 school year, and two more courses, Principles of Math 12 and Principles of Math 9 to be added for the 2008-2009 school year.

"We're a company formed by teachers," said Wayne Poncia, a former teacher and school administrator and chief executive officer of Etraffic.

Etraffic has a staff of 60, with 48 based in Victoria.

"There is a big chasm between schools and the world the kids live in. We wanted to meet kids where they live and meet teachers where they live."

The company combines print publishing with online learning and assessment. One of its more popular programs StudyBUZZ is an exam-preparation tool that lets students test their knowledge for exams and comes up with recommendations for where to find the information they have missed in studying.

Poncia said his company learns from listening to students.

Drawing on kids' penchant for animation, YouTube, online gaming and other technological innovations that go far beyond textbooks, Etraffic offers a smorgasbord of opportunities ranging from videos that turn linear equations into entertainment to assignments that earn students the chance to play a videogame if they successfully complete them. In others, the game becomes the teaching tool. The company's latest innovation, Pilot Math, offers help for both teachers and students.

"We don't believe we should replace teachers," said Poncia. "We value teachers and their work with students."

Dr. Rebecca Grant, associate professor of information technology at the University of Victoria, said the use of interactive material is essential in today's learning environment. Picture, for a moment, modern secondary school students, she says. "At school they attend classes where they listen to the teacher, read from a textbook, work on assignments and collaborate with each other on projects. Once they return home everything changes. You will see a CD/DVD player, an iPod, computer access to the Internet, possibly a television ... there is a vast difference between a student's experience in the classroom and outside of school."

She said modern students are masters of multi-tasking and that is where a media-rich approach to learning is going to help them. "Etraffic Solutions knew that students and teachers alike needed a new system -- one that bridged the learning experience at school with the reality of a teen's life outside of school," said Grant.

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