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Education: There’s an app for that

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Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2012 8:36 am

In some schools, when a student enters the classroom he or she is told to put away the smartphone. Many schools limit computer usage to certain times of the day or under special circumstances. This is nothing new. Before the days of cellphones and PCs, calculators were frowned upon in all but the higher math and science classes. Technology, historically, has not been overly welcome in school.

Eastern Schools has taken the opposite approach. Not only is technology welcome, it is fully integrated into the classroom. This marks the first year that iPad -- tablet computers -- were issued to every student in grades kindergarten through nine. The impact was felt immediately.

According to Lindsey Brown, Eastern High School assistant principal, learning is taking place in ways that were previously impossible, and in some cases, the students and teachers are learning interchangeably. Technology is reshaping education.

“Our goal is to educate kids for the 21st century,” said Lindsey Brown, assistant principal. “Part of that is using relevant tools. Our philosophy is that the iPad is a tool; it does not replace the teacher. There is always room for pencil and paper in the classroom, too.

“But, if we take away technology when kids walk in the door, that’s not really teaching them in a relevant way and getting them prepared to use the tools they’ll be expected to use in the future.”

In one social studies class, students use their iPads to scan a “QR code” that is posted on the door. It’s a pattern of black-and white boxes that tells the computer where to find all of the lesson materials online for the day’s class.

In another class, students do their traditional homework in the classroom under the guidance of the teacher, but review the lesson or listen to the lecture at home the night before. That is called a “flipped” classroom, according to Brown.

“They put their lessons in a video or recorded format,” said Brown. “The homework is to go home and learn the lesson. Then they come back to the classroom, and the teacher resolves any questions the students may have. The basic knowledge can be gained outside of the classroom.”

The intent of this dramatic integration of technology is to take risks -- something that many administrators are reluctant to do. If the different avenues and methods for learning don’t result in better standardized test scores, or even result in a decline, funding and jobs could be on the line.

If this is the case at Eastern, no one is showing trepidation about it. In fact, it feels like risk is a reward in this environment.

“We might stumble,” said Brown. “We’ll learn along the way, and that’s OK. We want to take those risks.”

Claudia Hanny’s iPad and internet training class is the test lab for this new approach. For nine weeks, she trains the students on iPad usage, and together she and the students explore the possibilities of the device and its many applications.

“I had the students research apps to recommend to the class; then, they had to get up in front of everyone and talk about the app and explain it to the class,” said Hanny. “If they are good, we download and use them. The information is told from the student’s point of view, rather than me telling them they should download the app. If it’s a friend telling them, it makes a difference.

“We’re all learning this together. You find out some of the answers, and I’ll find some. I want to learn from what they try.”

As a result, new tools are brought into the classroom. The educational experience is fluid and adaptive. But the outcome is the question. Will the technology make a difference? In the hands of the earliest learners, the iPad is showing promise.

“I have a kindergartner who has an iPad,” said Brown. “His teacher is so creative. They learned two new words last week, and he had to create a digital book about them. He went around and took pictures of all his family, and he wrote under each picture. It’s pretty amazing the resources out there and how flexible the tool is. This is relevant to preschoolers as well as college-aged kids.”

The technology also appears to be paying early dividends among those students who do not learn as readily as the general population student. According to Kiersten Sanders, a reading recovery specialist, the level of participation among her students who suffer from various obstacles to learning is remarkable.

“The iPads allow them some flexibility,” said Sanders. “It’s good for kids who are terrible spellers. They have dictionaries downloaded and it spell checks automatically. It takes some of the guesswork out. For kids who have trouble staying organized, it has all of their classes in one place. I upload all of their files and work and links to articles. They have access to information in one place.

“Last week we created iMovies. They created their own commercials about bullying. They are reading and researching and doing a project in one place. And they loved it. They are so excited to share.”

Just a few moments in the classroom demonstrated Sanders’ observations. Two students excitedly volunteered to show off the website they had created as a resource for those seeking to avoid being bullied. Another student proudly unveiled his anti-bullying video. In their words and at their level of attainment, the project showed more than just potential. These were accomplishments that perhaps wouldn’t have been thought possible.

And for those who face steeper challenges, there is an app for them as well.

“We have seen this tool is especially important for students with special needs,” said Brown. “There are assistive technologies you can download, like speech recognition. If a student is unable to process and write words out, they can speak. It will type out what they are saying.

“For the severe and profoundly disabled students, it’s just being able to touch and manipulate things in place of speaking. They can create their own bank of words to communicate with their teachers. It’s really neat to see those students communicating.

“We have seen the most improvement in our reading skills classrooms. They create their own level of books. The kids who are struggling now have more resources.”

The technology integration at Eastern isn’t an experiment; it’s a full change in philosophy. The iPads are leased from apple over three years, and they become the property of the student. After this year, textbooks will be all but eliminated from classrooms, existing digitally for those teachers who prefer to use them.

Eastern Superintendent Dr. Tracy Caddell authorized up to 40 hours of paid professional time over the summer for every teacher to learn about the technology and to develop ways to use it in the classroom. The school is always looking for the next big thing. But the most important part of education must never be lost in the rush to technology

“We read a lot in terms of technology in education,” said Brown. “Our teachers are great about that. And we share. Communication is key.

“But this does not replace the teacher. It is a skill to have a professional conversation with someone or to work in groups and collaborate. We recognize that. The teacher is always there and interacting with the kids, That is a priority. Nothing can replace human contact.”