'SimCity' educational? Ontario Grade 3s learn social studies with iPad game

Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - Ontario's elementary school curriculum spells out that all Grade 3 students must learn about the similarities and differences between urban and rural communities, although it leaves it up to teachers to figure out the best way to impart that knowledge.

As unconventional as it might sound, some kids are getting a lesson by playing "SimCity" on an iPad.

On a recent day at the HTS independent school in Richmond Hill, Ont., a small class of Grade 3 students continued their social studies learning by tapping and swiping at iPads, building a city from the ground up. Some of the eight- and nine-year-old kids were quietly engrossed at the task at hand, intently micromanaging their city as it grew and problems emerged, while others excitedly showed off their creations to nearby classmates.

"I just lost 1,000 people, why did they move away?"

"What's a seaport? Oh, there's a hot tub!"

"They want a landfill, they're going to get a landfill."

"I had an earthquake!"

"What's a residential tax?"

Over the course of the year, the school has been experimenting with ways to integrate the iPad into classrooms and use it as a learning tool. By September, teachers will be fully prepped on how to teach the whole curriculum with the help of tablets and computers.

HTS isn't the first school to OK the use of tablets in class and plenty more will be on board in time for the next school year. The Peel District School Board in Ontario, with 234 schools and almost 153,000 students, is encouraging students to BYOD — bring your own device, including smartphones, tablets and laptops — starting in September.

"School boards have really struggled with how to keep up in terms of technology, it's impossible financially to afford the level of computers that we need for students," said the school board's director of communications Brian Woodland.

"The Ontario government has now permanently reduced our funding for technology.... We heard from the system that we have to do things differently."

While education activists have expressed concern that many students can't afford pricey new gadgets, Woodland said that bringing a device would by no means be mandatory.

"There will always be a focus in every school on equity and access," he added. "To make sure all students have a level playing field for learning."

The school board is investing $7 million from its reserve fund to implement wireless Internet access at all its schools and help supply equipment for students who don't have it. Kids are already bringing computers, phones and tablets to class, noted Woodland, so it won't be a radically different experience for teachers or students come September. People are always asking how kids will stay focused with a bevy of distractions in front of them but teachers are already used to dealing with that challenge, he added.

"Right now students supposedly put them away but really they're just under the desk and they're still looking at them. It's better to be on the desk, out where we're all able to see and connect," Woodland said, adding that technology can actually gets kids more focused on their work.

"One of the most important determinants once kids are at school, if students are to be successful, is engagement, it's connection, and if we can connect and engage them, then they'll learn and they'll remember. And the technology is the tool to make that happen."

At HTS, parents of Grade 7 and 8 students have been told they'll need to buy iPads — and a list of apps — for their kids for September, when the tablets will be a permanent fixture in classrooms. Students in other grades will have school-purchased tablets and computers to use on a rotating basis.

"Initially there was some concern that technology in general — computers, iPads, whatever — would supplant writing. Are they still going to be able to write on paper?" said Vince Delisi, the school's technology integration leader, describing parent reaction to next year's plan.

"It's really a way of using the appropriate technology when it's necessary, but not for everything and not for every day. So they'll still be working with manipulatives, they'll still be building things, they'll still be writing things, but when they need the technology, it's there.

"It just supplements the kind of things they do. One of the things (parents) recognized and they're thrilled about is it's motivating, it makes students focus on a task. Initially there's always that fun, cutesy aspect of it — and that goes away pretty quickly."

In the third-grade class, students got a crash course in how not to build a city. The girls were quick to note that the boys eagerly built frivolous luxuries like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, which they later regretted.

"A lot of boys want to do that," said Lindsay.

"It just wastes money. It would be cool to have in your city but it just wastes money."

Ajay admitted he made that mistake.

"I ended up demolishing it," he said, "I shouldn't have built those because people enjoy them but they don't have money to pay to go to them, so I won't get any money."

He said it was fun to play "SimCity" in class but it wasn't easy. While the project was focused on getting the kids to understand the differences between farming communities and big cities, their math skills got a workout too.

With a couple of quick taps, Ajay was able to go over his budget like an expert auditor, noting his monthly expenses of $314 were far under his income of $512, leaving him about $200 a month to spend (and all his math added up).

The lesson that seemed to stick with most students was how expensive city building is and how little resources there are to spend — without hiking taxes.

"I've learned how to use the money properly, not to buy, like, the Statue of Liberty or something that you don't really need," said Sophia.

"I think I've learned basically how to build in ways that we won't be wasting too much or won't be doing all these ugly things we really don't need."

The "SimCity" project is just one component of their urban and rural studies learning, Delisi noted, but really helped the kids grasp some concepts that were harder to convey previously.

"They never really got some of the ideas, which are quite significant, like what's a residential area, what's zoning and taxes and all that stuff," he said.

Other classes so far have used iPads for math assignments, to write and illustrate digital picture books, and create art. Delisi said it takes some planning to integrate the iPad into teaching plans and when done properly, it's a valuable tool.

But it's just one tool of many that teachers will use.

"There's nothing more important than a teacher knowing the curriculum and knowing the expectations they have of the students, that's really the key ... whether you have any technology or don't have any technology," Delisi said.

"They see those expectations and say, 'Well, for certain things the technology will help my students and for other things it won't, so I won't use it."