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JSD: Technology must be used to grow student achievement

Posted: March 19, 2012 - 12:05am
Kindergarteners Conlan Booth, left, Edward Austin, center, and Tria Bowers play educational games on iPads in Jane Canaday's class on Friday. Canaday received a grant for four of the devices.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Kindergarteners Conlan Booth, left, Edward Austin, center, and Tria Bowers play educational games on iPads in Jane Canaday's class on Friday. Canaday received a grant for four of the devices.

NOTE: This is the last in a two-part report on technology issues and future planning in the Juneau School District.

As technology is failing in many aspects throughout the Juneau School District, it also is working on a plan for how to not only replace obsolete equipment — but also what to replace it with.

Some ideas the district is looking at are buying handheld devices — either iPads, iTouch or laptops — instead of standard desktop computers; discontinuing buying paper textbooks, and instead going digital; or having students bring their own equipment and supplying technology for those who don’t already have it — or a combination of those ideas.

One of the things both Board Member Mark Choate and Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling have been thinking about is maybe not buying any more new text books — at least on paper. One idea in updating technology is to get those resources digitally. They’re updated more often, and traditional history and science/medicine textbooks are often said to be outdated the day they come off the press. Scandling said literature and mathematics books tend to transcend that.

Choate also is a big supporter of using “cloud” networks. In this scenario, the district could utilize iPads where students would read their coursework on them, upload and download their homework to the cloud and other utilities.

Choate said he believes iPads are a better choice for education than standard computers because most of the work being done is with email, word processing and the like and the smaller devices are cheaper. They also have the ability to work with videos and photos, which are used in multiple ways in courses and immediate access to the internet.

“My thought is, if we moved to open-sourced text books — which are free — and go to electronics, using the cheapest devices, iPods or iPads and have a relatively modern technology base that would not be very expensive,” Choate said. “... It gives you access to all the resources on the internet like research. There is almost nothing you can get in the text book that you can’t find the equivalent or better on the web. You can interactively share information. You can put stuff up for other people to share or comment on. Kids are used to the web. They’re used to posting text, even photos and video.”

Choate said he doesn’t necessarily think the district needs an iPad for each student. If the district spent what it set aside for the upcoming year in the new technology refresh cycle —$300,000 — it could buy those devices for 1/3 of the district in just one year, he said.

Choate said more and more lessons are being put online, and referenced a computer science course his son took. That course is now offered online for free, Choate said. Examples of universities doing so (for free or charge) through iTunes University, MIT and Sanford.

He said that kind of material can be implemented in classes rooms at the district, with teachers acting as the coach guiding the lesson, answering and asking questions.

“I think we’re just going to see an inversion of the normal model,” he said.

Choate’s interest in the technology doesn’t stem from the fact that it is new.

“I’m not a believer that every technological change is good for people,” he said. “I frankly think people spend too much time watching television or playing computer games. Those are huge time wasters and those are all new technologies.”

Choate doesn’t believe the iPad is a panacea for technology at the district, but it’s a good step. He said if teachers aren’t properly trained in how to best infuse them into their classrooms or if teachers don’t buy into the initiative, the technology won’t be effective in raising student achievement.

Scandling agrees that technology is flying by.

“The speed of innovation is exponentially increasing,” she said. “The iPad 3 is coming out (Friday) and (iPads have) been out, what, 18 months?”

Scandling said the way classrooms use technology also will change. When she was a social studies teacher at Yaakoosge, she recalls a lesson where she booked the computer lab — weeks in advance — so students could go online and research information about Africa. Each student had a different country to look up information on for that continent, and after that was complete they compiled a database.

Now, if they had the technology that project could have been done in the classroom and probably even been detailed down to specific regions in each country in just a day or two.

“Kids are living 24/7 inside a technological universe that allows them connections everywhere,” Scandling said. “It seems increasingly unnatural and inequitable having them spend 5-6 hours a day in a vaccuum. This is what has become an incredible smorgasbord of learning opportunities.”

She said another thing they’re looking into is a new application from Apple that is soon to be released called iAuthor. Scandling said it could be the Wikipedia of the learning world and will be used to publish books.

The cartoonist drawings at the beginning of the school year often depict students with backpacks so full they seem to be larger than the student. Those books — the five-pound history book, five-pound biology book and so forth — could now be compacted into one simple electronic device.

“If you take that biology book — can you touch that DNA model and turn it around? Scandling said. “Can you look at the elements, touch one and watch it come up spinning on a 360 degree access?”

Scandling said the district also hasn’t had a regular refresh cycle on textbooks either, and they’re getting replaced when there is money left over at the end of the year.

Scandling said that when they are looking now at spending money on text books, they are looking at whether they should spend it instead on iAuthor and whether the curriculum the district is looking at is already available online. Scandling said the textbook industry is currently working on that.

Part of the reason Scandling’s interested in breaking away from the standard text book model is from her experience as teacher. She had one set of American History books and one for World History. Scandling made sure to emphasize that they were “a” resource, not “the” resource. She felt the books were far too condensed, and were built that way to serve some of the biggest consumers in the nation (Texas, New York, Illinois and California). So the American History book may have a small paragraph on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and probably won’t have any information on the indigenous people of this region.

“We will always have books because they are in your hand,” she said. “They’re a technology I don’t think will ever disappear. ... But they will be ‘a’ resource, not ‘the’ resource.”

The district also is required to submit a technology plan to the U.S. Department of Education — excluding technology in education is not an option.

The district will be visiting Kodiak in April, Scandling said, to view innovative methods in using new technologies in the classrooms. Scandling said this is really all about student learning, and Kodiak is showing very positive results. She said that if the technology isn’t about improving student learning and more about bells and whistles, then the bells and whistles need to go away.

“We’re hoping we can see a good model in Kodiak that can give us some concrete ideas on how to best use the resources we have,” she said.

Scandling said they’ve already seen a sample of what can be done in the school district in Canby, Ore. They saw examples where in two classrooms each student had a hand-held device — one in third-grade, one in fourth. The fourth-graders were wired into headphones and recording themselves speaking sentences. They’d play it back, listen for errors or hang-ups in their speech. When they felt their pronunciation and flow was accurate, they would play it for the teacher for her feedback.

“When you hear your own reading, you know where you stumbled,” Scandling said.

The third-graders were using handhelds — along with rulers, graph paper and other materials — to take data they collected from school lunch preferences and were charting it on the devices.

The district also is watching what’s going on in its own back yard. Teacher Jane Canaday received a $2,000 innovative technology grant last year; implementing it this year, she bought four iPads to use with her kindergartners.

She intended to use them primarily for reading and writing and downloaded several applications — or “apps” — to use.

Canaday uses them as a “center” during reading and writing time and students take turns.

“They work on apps that are good practice for the concepts that have been taught. They get a chance to work on things that are challenging to them without someone watching them to see if they will succeed,” she said. “They’re more comfortable taking a risk and trying to push themselves harder when they’re using the different apps.”

She said there is one program that has them trying out different consonants and vowels, and the students are more willing to take chances on getting it wrong with the iPads — and when they get it right they often shout out a big “Yes!”

“It’s immediate feedback and they’re just really excited about it,” Canaday said.

She’s also implemented math into it as well, but she’s got a variety of levels of content for each topic.

“They tend to work at their level,” Canaday said. “If an app is too easy they don’t want to do that, they want to do something that has some challenge. They self regulate the level they need to be at. I don’t have to stand over them and tell them they need to do this or that.”

There also is a choice time during the kindergarten day, where they can pick the topic they want to work on. Students who don’t get a chance to use the iPads during the reading/writing center (four is about two too few iPads) get to use it during this time. Students have been rotating each day.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to try them is we always have kids who have such a hard time staying focused,” she said. There are kids who just cant sit still or have difficulty learning in large groups. With the iPads, they can stay sitting and stay at it for a long time. I did take data to see if there was a difference in those kids who have difficulty staying on task with other literacy activites. By far they were able to stay on task more or longer with the iPads. So their on-task behavior increased considerably.”

Recipients of the grant had to take an action research course at the University of Alaska Southeast so they could collect data on the impact.

Canaday said the students don’t otherwise have computers and the one teacher computer in each room is barely usable. She said the iPads make using technology so much easier than fighting with what is available in the district. Canaday said one indication that the district’s network speed is too slow is that she has to take the iPads home to download the applications because the district network is so slow that it always times out before the download finishes.

Canaday said she will apply for another grant, and is likely to try out an AppleTV. She said this would be interesting to use in the classroom because she could download PBS-style educational programs and use the apps in a group process, instead of just individualized. As for the iPads in the classroom, she would like to get two to four more in the classroom so that each student could have time to use one during the activity center — and have more time with them. Given the technology situation at the district, and that legislative funding doesn’t look promising, she is considering a fundraiser to pay for additional devices.

Scandling said another thing they are going to take a look at is allowing students to bring in their own devices.

“If we can address our capacity issues, could we say ‘yeah, bring in your own equipment,’” Scandling said. “Then we could use what money we do have to close that equity gap.”

She referenced a recent survey of eighth-graders that showed 90 percent having Internet or computer access at home, 45 percent having a smart phone with Internet access, and 62 percent having laptops. Scandling said she isn’t sure how that transcends to older students, but she expects the numbers would increase.

Part of opening the district’s network up to external devices, however, also poses a security risk. That element would need to be addressed before an option like this is viable.

“We don’t just want to do the ‘forklift,’ Scandling said of the practice of buying a mass amount of technology at once. “We really want to be strategic with what we’re buying.”

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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