Sitting in clusters of tables and chairs, Alexandra Coutlée’s Secondary 1 students are hard at work as they collaborate with each other in an effort to complete a coding project.
The silence and concentration in her classroom is almost uncanny for a group of high-schoolers. But it’s the last class they have to work on a yearlong endeavour — building a pedagogical game using the block-based coding tool, Scratch.
Coutlée confidently strolls among the groups as they diligently debug and polish their games. She says the students started from a blank slate, and worked their way up to learning about how to manipulate a character, how to work with visuals, how to add a scoring system or how to remove unnecessary functions. Coutlée recalls how proud the students were when they showed their games to fourth graders during a beta testing session. They saw how impressed the little ones were as they looked at the backend of their games and how engaged they were once they tried them out.
Her students are all part of an elective computer class that was launched by the École Secondaire des Hauts-Sommets in Saint-Jérôme a couple of years ago. And although Coutlée primarily teaches Secondary 3 English as a Second Language (ESL) there, her passion for technology made her the perfect candidate to head that specific course.
Coutlée was initially interested in pursuing journalism. Back when she was a student in CEGEP, she studied Communications and a number of languages such as German, Italian and Spanish. But working with kids in summer camps around that time inspired her to take a different path and go into education when it came time for university.
Despite the switch, one thing remained constant — Coutlée’s pull towards all things tech.
“I’ve always been interested in all the new stuff that was coming out. I’ve always been very curious,” she says, adding how she was one of the few CEGEP students carrying around a big and bulky cell phone during that time.
Coding specifically came into the picture 17 years ago, following the birth of her daughter. “I had a year off for maternity leave and I didn’t know what to do with myself because I like to be active,” she says. “So I learned HTML from scratch.” During that year, Coutlée built an entire website to chronicle the growth of her daughter and share it with family members who lived far away.
“I made links with language,” she adds. “It was like learning how to speak. And when you learn a second language, you have to learn their alphabet, and then you learn which one’s a verb, which one’s a noun or which one describes something. It was interesting to decode that.”
But Coutlée didn’t stop at that. As part of her ongoing master’s in Educational Technology, she recently took part in a course that focused on gaming in the classroom for K-12 students. There, Coutlée discovered Scratch and realized that she should try it out in her own classroom.
An eager student herself, she then attended three KCJ workshops because she thought they would be a great stepping stone from what she’s already learned. One of them focused on the intersection of Scratch and micro:bits, while the other two honed in on how to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) into the classroom.
On top of always feeling welcome, Coutlée says the workshops offered a balance between showing the materials and letting the attendees actually test them out before applying it elsewhere — an approach that helped her integrate nearly everything she learned in the workshops into her classes at Hauts-Sommets.
One of the things she’s tried out with her students is working with AI tools. “I think that’s the next big thing in education and I think that’s something that the students need to know about,” says Coutlée.
She believes that AI will soon become commonplace in the professional world at large, and that students need to be equipped with the relevant skills in order to successfully navigate the job market.
“You need to understand how machines work, you need to understand algorithms, and you need to understand how artificial intelligence works, so you can fix it if there is a bug and so you can adapt it,” she says. “But you still need that ethical, critical thinking to be able to understand why the machine is thinking a certain way and what needs to be put into the machine so it thinks a little more like a human. But we still need the human behind it.”
Coutlée thinks the importance of learning about AI extends to technology at large, and that technological literacy should start from an early age.
“We see kids three or four years old with a tablet in their hands. And we can debate whether that’s good or not, but isn’t it better if they’re creating rather than consuming?” she says. “I think I’d rather see somebody with a tablet in their hands creating their own music using and app, than to just sit there and zombie-style watch a bunch of videos.”
A clear advocate for technology, Coutlée has also been infusing modern teaching tools into her ESL classes for a decade. At Hauts-Sommets, where she’s been for the past six years, Coutlée has introduced students to things such as Google Classroom, HyperDocs, Newsela and Quizlet Live.
Coutlée is one of the few teachers at Hauts-Sommets who is utilizing technology to facilitate and improve both the teaching process for herself, and the learning process for her students. But it’s not for a lack of interest on the part of other educators, she says.
The root of the problem is the lack of access to technology. Just their own school has a single cart of Chromebooks and only two computer lab to share among 800-something students.
“That’s the reality of many, many schools in Québec,” says Coutlée. “It’s not that teachers don’t want to, it’s that teachers don’t have access to it.”
“And teachers need training, they need time to sit and actually do it and explore it,” she adds.
But Coutlée is hopeful. She’s already seeing progress on the part of the provincial Ministry of Education and Higher Education, as they provide more teachers with support and more schools with necessary tools.
To play her own part in aiding the situation, Coutlée consistently remains active on social media and connects with other teachers to share tips, tricks and resources. She’s worked with Le RÉCIT, which grouped technological consultants who focused on how to integrate technology into teaching, and she helped publish several English language resources that include a technological twist.
Coutlée is also hoping to eventually get a coaching position that she could use to help teachers in need.
“To still be in the class, to be with students, but to be the support to that teacher who wants to try it out but just needs that solid person next to them saying ‘It’s going to be okay, we’ll figure it out,’” she says.