Ontario’s Education Minister announced $150 million in funding for technology — think Apple iPads — at a Hamilton elementary school on Thursday.

Liz Sandals said the money, which was included in the latest budget, will be available to school boards to use during this school year, though she could not say how much of it would flow to Hamilton-area schools.

After a tour of a Grade 4 class where the students used iPads to explain their solutions to math questions and put together presentations about a recent class trip, Sandals called technology an “integral part,” of students’ lives.

“We need to tap into that existing knowledge and familiarity with technology to make learning even more compelling,” Sandals told reporters gathered in the library of Dr. J. Edgar Davey Elementary school.

John Malloy, the Director of Education at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), said he was “delighted” with the funding, which will help pay for the board’s plan to give all students in Grade 4-12 an iPad in the next five years.

Malloy said the new funding will allow the board to “do more things for more students.”

In the Grade 4 class, Sandals watched as students presented their answers to a word-based math problem involving addition and subtraction. The answers weren’t a single number on paper, but audio recordings of the students explaining their thought process as they solved the question.

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Hamilton school student uses iPad

A Grade 4 student at Dr. J. Edgar Davey Elementary in downtown Hamilton answers a math question on an iPad as Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals looks on. (John Rieti/CBC)

It remains unclear if technology-assisted learning will help students with math – something new standardized testing numbers show elementary students are struggling with.

Sandals said the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) numbers show students have good basic arithmetic skills, but struggle to explain their understanding of math questions.

“You need to have a balanced math program,” Sandals said, adding what the Grade 4 students were doing on Thursday is a good example of explaining their logic.

The kids did “think differently” about the question, Sandals pointed out.

When asked if recording an answer into an iPad for what students said was a relatively easy question — essentially 250 minus (150 plus 80) — may have been a bit much, Sandals suggested technology can also be used for practicing basic math skills quickly.

With math-based games, for example, “kids will sit and drill … in ways they wouldn’t with the mom and dad,” Sandals said.

The Education Minister cautioned, however, that from the province’s research it’s “time on task” that matters most when it comes to learning math. Canada’s top math students come from Quebec, she said, where students spend around 80 minutes a day on math-related work.

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Sandals also stressed that students will need both technology skills and ability to think critically about what they’re doing with technology to succeed in the global economy.

'School becomes the great equalizer' - Liz Sandals, Ontario Education Minister

“Technology isn’t just about using technology,” she said, adding the gadgets used in schools should be used in a variety of learning areas.

The HWDSB’s Malloy agreed, saying students should be “focused on learning, not on the tool.”

Both said the use of technologies will allow teachers to focus on what educators call “higher order skills” like critical thinking, creativity and the ability to work in collaboration, which modern employers demand.

And, Sandals said, spending more money on technology in school allows students who don’t have iPads at home — about a third of the Grade 4s in the class raised their hand when asked if their family had a tablet — to have a similar level of access.

“School becomes the great equalizer,” she said, adding access to technology becomes a “huge issue when you look into the future.”