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Teaching tablets

Once seen as a distraction, tech gadgets are now being welcomed in the classroom

Students in teacher Karen Trujillo's sixth grade writing class at Sevilla West School in Phoenix in Alhambra School District use an iPad during a lesson. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photoghraphy)

Given the popularity and practical uses for technology, you’d be hard-pressed to find a school district in Arizona that isn’t giving students a taste of 21st century education.

The spread of laptops, hand-held devices and smart phones in classrooms is driven by rapid expansion of technology itself and by the fact that it’s the world that kids live in today.

Some cash-strapped school districts that until recently banned students from bringing Internet-connected devices to school have reversed themselves. Why buy pricy gadgets when students can bring their own hand-held devices to class?

But it’s a policy shift that presents its own problems, like making sure students without their own devices are supplied with one, establishing rules on when and where they can be used, and protecting kids from places on the Internet that are not appropriate for them.

And there are no age barriers. Even kids in first grade are introduced to the wonders of technology.

Cathy Poplin, deputy associate superintendent for educational technology at the Arizona Department of Education, says districts understand how important it is to find a happy medium between the protection of students and the technology tools that facilitate learning.

“We know about being online and all the (negative) things that can happen, and yet we know that’s where great learning takes place,” Poplin says. “Districts are doing a variety of things to protect kids.”

Safety first

Poplin cites the Child Internet Protection Act that addresses concerns about access to offensive content over the Internet on school and library computers. Schools and libraries that receive funding or discounts for Internet access under a federal program known as

E-rate are required to implement technology protection measures to block or filter Internet access to pictures that are obscene or harmful to minors.

“Districts must have in place measures to keep students safe,” Poplin says, noting that federal guidelines are rather broad. “Often, districts narrow them more than needs to be or should be, but they err on the side of more protection — and I don’t blame them. There’s got to be a happy medium and school districts are finding it.”

One of the biggest movements today involves the use of tablet computers, from iPads to the Kindle Fire. Competition drives down prices, and when schools are considering technology investments, lower prices make these devices more attractive.

“Apps are popping up every day, becoming a very complementary tool for the classroom as kids connect to the school network,” Poplin says. App, an abbreviation for web-based applications, is a piece of software that can run on the Internet, on a computer, phone or other electronic device. Using apps, students can create documents, edit photos and listen to music, without having to install complicated software.

WiFi, 3G or 4G wireless connections enable students to move around — they’re not stuck at their desk. And now they don’t have to go to a technology lab. In fact, schools are closing their tech labs.

“Computer labs are being dismantled in favor of in-the-classroom technology,” Poplin says. “This is fostering teamwork, collaborative work, projects that are shared. It’s helping the learning process. They’re no longer tied to a lab room. If there are network connections outside, in the field, learning spaces increase.”

Having such mobility avoids the disruption of reserving a lab room, moving the class there and then moving back to the classroom. “It makes more sense to have it seamlessly occur in your own classroom,” Poplin says.

Schools continue to cope with cutbacks in federal and state funding, but they are still managing to add to their technology arsenal. One of the simple answers is: allow kids to bring their own hand-held devices to school and focus limited funds on kids who don’t have one.

“It almost sounds too simplistic,” says Poplin, “but it makes perfect sense.”

School technology in action

Dysart Unified School District, which serves 2,400 students in Surprise and El Mirage, has attracted national attention with its aggressive use of technology to meet curriculum goals. In fact, the National School Boards Association is scheduled to visit Dysart Unified schools April 1-3 as part of a four-state tour focusing on technology practices that transform learning. NSBA officials will be observing classrooms where curriculum goals drive technology decisions.

Dysart Governing Board President Jennifer Tanner says the decision to allow, and even encourage, students to bring their hand-held devices to school raised a few eyebrows. “People questioned how that was going to work,” Tanner says. “Well, it turned out to be a very positive and helpful thing. They are bringing any device that has access to the Internet. It’s our way of doing more with less. We’ve lost capital funding and don’t have the luxury of buying technology equipment, so why not utilize what the kids are using?”

Assistant Superintendent Quinn Kellis says one of the challenges at Dysart is bringing some teachers up to speed with evolving technology. “It’s not a traditional teaching methodology,” Kellis says. “We are providing professional development for teachers in the growing use of technology.”

In order to seek teacher input, Dysart has adopted a Technology Innovative Program. “It’s a grass-roots effort where it’s not a committee coming up with new uses of technology,” Kellis says. “Rather, it’s where teachers have an idea for the use of technology — iPads, iTouches and GPS units. We will look at their plan and provide them with the technology. If they can show that it’s working, we will continue to support it for that teacher and hopefully replicate for teachers in other classrooms. It’s coming from the teachers.”

Regarding GPS devices, Kellis says they can be used to plot significant events in history. “Teachers are being innovative with what they’re teaching, and we hope they have that open mind regarding the tools they could use to enhance their teaching,” Kellis says.

Also at Dysart, online learning is becoming more popular. Now in its second year, iSchool is another way Dysart is using technology to improve the learning process. The program started last spring, with Dysart expecting 100 students to participate.

“We had more than 500,” says Kellis. “It overwhelmed us. And 1,500 signed up for summer school. Eventually, we intend to offer enough courses so that a student could easily complete an entire high school career.”

But how does Dysart make sure students aren’t cheating — having someone else, like an older sibling, do the work online? “We require all students to take the final exam face-to-face, and they have to pass with 70 percent,” Kellis says. “That’s a pretty high standard. Even if they have an ‘A’ in class work, if they don’t pass the final exam with 70 percent or better, they don’t pass the class. If they’re cheating at home, they’re not doing themselves any favors — that’s for sure.”

SMART Boards in Alhambra

At Alhambra Elementary School District, with offices at 4510 N. 37th Ave., technology is just about everywhere. For example, the district, which has 15 schools and serves nearly 14,000 students, has installed interactive SMART Boards — 725 of them — in every academic classroom, and has 70 mobile carts with 32 laptops each for a total of 2,240 computers.

The interactive white boards come equipped with a projector. Linda Jeffries, Alhambra’s community relations coordinator, says teachers develop interactive lessons in any academic area. In math classes, students come up to the board and with their finger are able to drag numbers around to solve a problem.

Under a pilot program slated for four schools, iPods will be used for reading exercises. “First graders will use iPods to work on their reading fluency,” Jeffries says. “They will read passages and record themselves on an iPod and listen to what they said. It will show them how many words they read correctly and how fast they were. It will be used throughout the semester to hopefully improve their reading fluency. It’s a great tool, especially for kids who speak a language other than English.”

After students read passages and hear their recorded voice, they create a video and narrate it to show that they understood what they read.

In another use of technology, every student has a responder that teachers can use to see how well they comprehend the lesson. For example, the teacher can give students a 10-point quiz, which the students answer using their responders.

“It tracks every student’s answer, shows the teacher who got correct answers and who missed them, giving the teacher immediate feedback,” Jeffries says. “Teachers then can decide to move on or if the class is not grasping the lesson they can decide to spend more time on it.”

Another tool provides a home-school connection and enables parents to closely track their child’s progress.

“Parents can go to the school’s website where nightly homework is posted,” Jeffries says. “It’s an interactive tool so parents know what’s going on. They can get their kid’s grades. If the kid says ‘I don’t have any homework,’ the parent knows better.”

Even if the family doesn’t have a computer at home, many have smart phones that can access the school’s website, she says.

“We have a solid overall technology program that is very interactive,” Jeffries says. “It brings learning to life. These kids come out technology literate.”

Some schools have received federal grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Poplin of ADOE mentions central Phoenix Creighton Elementary School District, 2701 E. Flower St., which received an ARRA Enhancing Education Through Technology grant and was designated an Apple Distinguished School by the computer manufacturer. Poplin says Apple targets English language learner programs and low income groups.

Creighton is implementing iPod touches in 22 third and fourth grade classrooms and two kindergarten classrooms. These iPod touches are web enabled, allowing for audio voice recording to increase reading fluency and comprehension and offering a wide variety of applications to help improve reading achievement. In addition, this year the district is planning to place a stronger emphasis on math fluency.

Paradise Valley Unified School District is doing creative things with technology. Under the direction of Jeff Billings, PVUSD technology director, the district has developed what is called tele-presence, which is a new word for high-quality video-conferencing.

“It connects kids in the classroom with top minds in science and math around the country,” Poplin says. “It provides students with higher, more qualified content. The technology is so sophisticated that it’s almost like being there.”

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