Educator's Enthusiasm for technology leaves legacy for BC schools

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Computer Player, September 1997

When they go back to school this month, thousands of Vancouver public school computer-using students and teachers will be missing a friend and advocate.

Barry Macdonald, teacher, administrator, and pioneer in the use of computers in the classroom, died last Spring, of cancer, at the age of 53.

As a young teacher, at East Vancouver's South Hill Elementary, in the early 1970s, Barry gained access for his students to the main frame computer at John Oliver Secondary, down the street, via a teletype link. A few years later, seeing the potential for the classroom of the then brand new personal computers, Barry started working with a Commodore Pet, one of the first generation of PCs.

With such primitive equipment, and with support from the school district, he soon fired up EdNet, Western Canada's first school-focused BBS, which remained in operation until 1996, serving generations of students and teachers with educational software, on-line games and trivia contests, Internet links, and a safe environment for students to chat.

Moving into district administration, Barry helped to build up the Vancouver School Board's Media Services department, which, among other services, provided a library of software which teachers could borrow for classroom use. He helped create a District Technology Centre, to provide training for teachers in the educational use of computers.

While providing leadership and direction to schools looking for ways to increase the use of computers in the classroom, Barry never lost sight of the idea that computers were not an end in themselves-they were a tool to encourage student learning. The key question, for Barry, was always 'what will students learn from this activity'?

During the 1990s, while his job responsibilities increased as he was appointed District Principal, managing a department that was expanded to include library resources and curriculum development, Barry continued to look for ways to connect technology with education; for a year, he led a group of local teachers, contracted by the provincial Ministry of Education to work on ideas for integrating information technology into the school curriculum at all grade levels, helping to create the framework that this school year has become Information Technology, a newly-required course for grades K to 10.

As well, he pushed and prodded the Vancouver school district to connect schools electronically to one another and to the Internet. . Stargate, a Web server, was set up to host school Web sites (, and  because of his efforts, Vancouver continues to build a Wide Area Network, promising high-speed Net access to all students, even in these times of funding cutbacks

The cutbacks took their toll, however.

As part of Vancouver's budget tightening this spring, Barry, along with all the other District Principals, was laid off. At the same time, his Media Services and Technology department was pared back, losing much of its staff, and dispersing much of its collection of software, films, and other media to individual schools.

And in May, Barry, who had been battling cancer for several years, died.

He will be remembered for a sense of humour, and for a strong believe that given technology tools and training, teachers and students can become more creative problem solvers... that it's not enough to throw hardware into a classroom-that while that needs to be done, it needs to be done with thought, with support, and with a plan for its use. And always with a sense of 'what will students be learning from this'?

In the coming school year, as parents, teachers, and students work together to get computers and the Internet into Vancouver classrooms, as they experiment with ways to meet the requirements of the new Information Technology curriculum, as they learn to use this new technology to prepare students to be active learners and citizens of the next millenium, they will be building upon the ideas and leadership of Barry Macdonald. His encouragement of the use of technology in the classroom has made Vancouver schools a richer learning environment, but the loss of the man has made us all the poorer.

 New: PDF of the program from the Vancouver School Board 1997 memorial for Barry Macdonald (1.8 MB download)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan