Chalkboards are vintage these days — tech is the new tool for Madison County students.
The county’s five school districts have taken different approaches to upgrade technology, but the end goal is the same: to integrate the new tools effectively, not simply use them to replace cheaper, low-tech counterparts, like pencil and paper.
“There is now tech in every field in some way,” London City Schools technology director Dillan Shumaker said. “You have to incorporate it with other subjects, not teach it alone.”
The products created with technology should be multidimensional, agrees Jonathan Alder tech integration specialist Nicole Schrock.
“You want to use technology to hone skills, not just because it’s more fun or engaging,” she said.
Ultimately, technology should be a catalyst for student-driven classrooms — allowing students to move at their own pace and have multiple ways to produce content that mesh with their own learning styles, Schrock said.
“It’s less sage onstage and more guide on the side,” Schrock summarized.
The variety and sheer quantity of information, applications and platforms available at the fingertips’ of current K12 students also pushes teachers to focus on critical thinking skills, West Jefferson technology integration specialist Kristen Kearns explained to school board members in the spring.
“It’s about asking better questions, more challenging questions, so they can’t look up the answer,” Kearns said.
At Tolles Career & Technical Center, that tech upgrade has taken the form of a 1:1 iPad initiative, meaning one iPad per student. The initiative was implemented last fall.
Leading the charge at Tolles on integrating the iPads is pre-nursing instructor Glenna Texler and her students and peers.
The students use the iPad to film themselves working in the lab. When they submit the videos, the instructor can review and critique them individually.
“It’s easier than watching them in person,” Texler said. “I can critique one-on-one with an iPad, compared to a classroom with 23 to 25 students in it.”
She can also record herself demonstrating lessons and make the videos available to every student for review, whether the student was standing right in front of the mannequin during the demo or peeking over someone’s shoulder.
The iPads are also the go-to tool for research as the students comb through various resources in search of the most up-to-date healthcare information.
And Apple TVs in the classroom allow Texler to turn the iPad into a projector to zoom in on small medical instruments so students can see exactly what is being discussed, she added.
West Jefferson will roll out its 1:1 device initiative this fall in grades sixth and up, though the sixth grade students will not actually take their devices home.
West Jefferson students will receive Chromebooks. These devices were selected because they were cost-effective at roughly $300 per device — they are web-based, meaning students and teachers can access myriad applications without requiring software. No software means the computers will turn on more quickly and don’t need virus protection.
But it is also possible to use the Chromebooks offline, so students could work on an assignment even if they lacked Internet access — changes made to a document or project will update automatically when the device is reconnected to the school’s WiFi the next morning.
London’s current ratio is about 1:2 with Chromebook devices. In the fall, the district will purchase new devices to bring grades sixth through eighth to a 1:1 ratio. As those students move into high school, that ratio will swell up through the upper levels, Shumaker said.
“We’re focusing on professional development with the teachers,” he said. “We don’t want to change the technology before they’re ready to use it effectively.”
One teacher who is a leader in using tech in her classroom, as well as training peers to integrate tech, is high school English teacher and certified Google educator Lindsay Williams. Last year, she had her seniors make digital portfolios.
The portfolios featured a variety of media, from original writing to videos and photos.
“I really wanted them to buy into it,” she said. “I taught them the basics, but then they taught themselves. It was a whole new way to connect with them.”
The online aspect of the work opens the students to a wider audience — it’s no longer only the teacher who sees the work a student produces, she explained.
The project also presented an opportunity to discuss online safety and security. A digital portfolio is an “online version of themselves” — and anything posted to social media never goes completely away, she emphasized.
Williams is also collaborating with fifth grade teachers to start the portfolios in younger grades so students can trace their digital footprints through the course of their education, she said.
Next year, she hopes to go paperless in her classroom. The challenge is getting the devices each day until the district reaches its 1:1 goal.
But Shumaker is optimistic.
“For our socioeconomics, we’re ahead,” he said. “We’re on the forefront of getting more devices in hands, and our superintendent is tech-savvy.”
Jonathan Alder school leaders aren’t focused on hitting a particular ratio. Instead, their goal is to grow the use of technology organically, Schrock said.
So far, projects that have grown from that approach have included a geometry final that involved building kites rather than taking a test; a psychology final in which students built infographics analyzing public service announcements; a geography project in which first graders took photos with their iPads to create treasure maps; and a geometry project in which students pitched a redesign of the school library.
Some projects have also used multidimensional mind-mapping tools, Schrock added.
The district primarily uses a series of mobile computer labs to allow teachers to access devices as needed, she said.
iPad use is more prevalent in younger grades as a tool to increase those students’ fine motor skills.
The use of tech is more instinctual to the students than the teachers, Schrock noted.
“Most of the sophomores and juniors don’t remember life before Facebook,” she said.
Madison-Plains had a 1:1 initiative at the junior high level about three years ago, but they’ve backed off. Instead, the district utilizes a checkout system through the library that allows students to take devices home as needed.
“That way we could open it up to more than the seventh and eighth grade kids,” district technology director Joe Penney explained. “It came down to scarcity of funds.”
The 1:1 trial also revealed that a single device wasn’t the most efficient for every project. A checkout system allows the school to offer both iPads and Chromebooks, he said.
“There’s flexibility,” Penney said. “The technology is there to support the education, the education isn’t there to fit the tech.”
The district also hasn’t hired a specific individual to act as tech coach — rather the goal is for integration to occur in the classroom via peer-to-peer conversations and collaboration among the teachers, he said.
The top challenge across the districts in upgrading technology offerings is the cost. The districts must not only purchase devices, but also invest in expanded networks in order to support all the devices.
In many cases, federal grant funding is available to cover part of those costs. For example, Madison-Plains received $52,000 in federal funds which it combined with $30,000 of its own funds to expand its network backbone, bumping the WiFi connection speeds from 150 megabytes to 780 megabytes.
The anticipated lifespan of that investment is up to a decade, Penney said.
“Technology is outpacing funding. It’s happening everywhere,” he said. “But you don’t want to start an arms race and upgrade for the sake of upgrading. You have to also focus on the taxpayers.”
Another challenge with take-home devices is the percentage of students who don’t have Internet access at home. Across the county, 10 to 20 percent of students or parents responding to surveys in various districts reported not having Internet access at home.
School leaders are looking for ways to negotiate with Internet providers to enable those homes to get access at a reduced rate. They are also working with local libraries and restaurants to provide WiFi hotspots where their students can connect. Some leaders have also mentioned the possibility of installing WiFi routers on buses.
The issues, and the tech itself, will continue to evolve.
Audrey Ingram can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1615 or via Twitter @Audrey.MP.
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