New technologies and devices only continue to permeate school walls that not all that long ago featured chalkboards, overhead projectors and filmstrip lessons as the latest and greatest in teaching tools.
As the learning environment evolves further and further, the Summit School District has tried to stay ahead of the curve in delivering classrooms and spheres that provide cutting-edge academic experiences.
It’s why in its new strategic plan for the next five years, Vision 2020, the district laid out three facets for preparing students for the demands of the 21st century, one of which focuses on student-centered learning and how technological advancements supplement those interactions.
In pursuit of those ends, the district’s Board of Education unanimously endorsed a $1.5 million initiative at the end of January that, in effect, moves toward a one-to-one ratio of student-to-devices in order to augment the amount and depth of learning done through these new technologies.
The program is called One2World and its intention is to expand the resources, staffing and capabilities of Summit’s public schools in boosting use of various devices and access to the Internet to enhance the overall educational experience.
“Our teachers really are a point where they are teaching instructionally in a way that benefits from a greater ratio between the devices,” said Bethany Massey, the district’s director of technology and assessment. “Right now, they’re having to fight over a cart or having to take their kids down to a lab, and that really cuts down on instructional time.”
As a result, she helped lead a process researching the possibilities and benefits to increased technology and applications of these devices in the classroom setting. That investigation began as far back as three years ago to conclude how the district could best use its funds and resources to provide students with what they need to remain one of the top districts across the state, ranked No. 16 overall and accredited with distinction as recently as the 2013-14 school year.
Massey presented the culmination of all that work — from the project’s genesis to feedback from a volunteer technology committee and eventual implementation — in a detailed proposal at the most recent board meeting. The seven-member board, in supporting the objectives of the measure, approved its framework to the fullest extent it could, providing the total of $1.5 million for this school year and 2016-17, with intentions of dispensing a ceiling of about another $650,000 in sustainability funding for the year after that.
“Technology has really become less of an extra and more of a necessity,” explained Margaret Carlson, the Board of Education’s president. “They’re tools that our kids already use. At this point, not everybody has the same to technology, so we do need to put this plan in place and make sure everybody has what they need to do their work.”
NOT NEW, BUT IMPROVED
Schools across the district have for the last few years been incorporating lesson plans that utilize devices and have found notable success. Add to that that newly-fashioned mandatory state tests require an adept knowledge of how these technologies work to perform to the highest level, and further integrating everything from smartphones to tablets to laptops at the various grade levels only seems all the more sensible.
“We have already seen a substantial number of devices being brought to school and used,” said Massey. “Then also with the number that are fundraised for, we’ve increased our bandwidth this year to the max we could with our current infrastructure.”
Through measures including grant writing and fundraising, individual schools such as Summit Cove Elementary and Snowy Peaks High School have been able to make upgrades and new acquisitions above and beyond the annual technology budget with a rotational purchase cycle from the district. Even so, availability has still been touch-and-go depending on the school or class and has also stretched current Internet and WiFi access to its limits.
“We were going to have to make changes if we are going to keep up with the rate of growth without providing one-to-one devices,” Massey added. “Whether one-to-one was approved or not, that was going to have to be considered.”
At Summit High, for instance, Internet upgrades were made to the extent possible without adding a fiber-optic network to expand load capacity and quality. Still, WiFi dead zones remain in the school, and those as well as an increase in speeds would likely need to be addressed in the next few years, if not sooner.
Not only that, this piecemeal buying of the past has often resulted in one school having advantages that another does not, or distinct devices or operation platforms even within the same school. This forces teachers to spend as much time troubleshooting as providing instruction.
With One2World and the new reserves being geared toward the program, kindergartners through second-graders will begin on the same tablets. By third grade and through the close of elementary school, students will be introduced to a keyboard that fits with the tablet. By middle school, each student will have access to a Google Chromebook until he or she reaches ninth grade when higher-quality laptops with more capabilities are introduced through senior year.
ANOTHER TEACHING TOOL
Corresponding with the use of matching devices and consistency of technologies is the ease of teaching. Instead of having to act as technical support and fix a problem or problem-solve a workaround if an instructor is less familiar with one operating system or device compared to others, they can simply focus on the lesson and verbalizing the same steps to get similar results.
Recognizing that devices are only as good as the direction and instruction being extended about them, the district has already been investing in bringing teachers up to speed through professional development at the start of this school year. That entailed breakout sessions with more teach-savvy peers and has now moved toward how to lesson-plan and best mingle traditional teaching methods with the use of devices to help students learn and in many cases surpass previous standards.
There are those who remain skeptical that technology — or at least the use of it in schools to the extent that it necessitates a $1.5 million investment (which could be as much as $2.1 million in the first three years of One2World in Summit schools) — will net the results for which the district is hoping. That an increased number of devices and access to them will increase the level of education obtained by students.
To this, Massey has what might come as a surprising response.
“I would actually say I agree,” she said. “The technology is just a tool; it’s all about the way that it’s used in the classroom to give students other options. It’s not the device, it’s about how you use the device. With one-to-one programs that are rolled out successfully, you really do see some strong return on investment as far as benefits for the student.”
Now with this new financial backing for One2World as part of the larger Vision 2020 strategic plan, the Summit School District is maintaining its emphasis of technology in the classroom. It’s with these additional strides toward a one-to-one ratio of devices-to-students, say proponents, that the ways in which education progresses into the future will only continue to far exceed our greatest expectations.
“I think it’s adding opportunities for our students,” she said. “It’s about what’s best for kids. We’re really trying to get to a place of redefining the learning experience.”