Tech Tools: Staff, students explore new options for enhancing classroom technology

In the past month the students and staff at the high school and other district building have tested an array of educational technology tools, including Apple iPads, Windows Surfaces, Amazon Kindle Fires and Google Chromebooks.

During a testing session in beginning news, senior Amanda Harwood and junior Martha Hall tried out some of the distict’s offerings for a 1:1 classroom environment, including the Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire, Google Chromebooks and Windows Surfaces. (Sandra Omari-Boateng photo)

“The purpose of the demos is to collect feedback from all end users of the technology from staff and students. As we look at moving forward with a 1:1, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), or hybrid approach. It’s important that as much information as possible is collected on the functionality of these devices so we can find the best fit for the given application,” District Supervisor of Technology Shane Page said.

In the near future for the school district, there will be changes to the technology that students receive. One possible plan is that each student will in some way receive or be able to use some type of computerized technology frequently during the day. There is also a chance that students will be able to get their own to use for the school year. It won’t be too long before these plans will be put into action.

“Right now we are in the planning phases of the district’s five-year technology plan. Currently the consensus is that it could be as early as second semester of next year, but most likely the start of the 2014 school year. We still need adequate time to give proper professional development to staff and make adjustments to curriculum plans where necessary. Funding of new initiatives is always one of the hardest parts. Finding the funds just for sustained technology is the first hurdle. Beyond that you have additional support systems, software, staffing and training that need to occur that can dramatically add to the cost. In order for any program to be successful and sustainable long term, it is necessary for it to come from the general fund of the school and become a regular annual expense,” Page said.

This new advancement doesn’t just stop at the high school; this initiative is trying to make all ages technologically literate.

“We are looking at a total K-12 solution — what types of technology and how much per grade level. So far the devices have been through Peet, Southdale, Lincoln, Orchard Hill and the high school. At the elementary level there is more likelihood that classroom labs or sets would be assigned, and at the secondary level, the current thought is that students would begin to take the devices home provided a 1:1 style of program was selected over BYOD,” Page said.

The district is also exploring the option of implementing a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. As the explorations are just beginning, no decisions have been made regarding what will be adopted. (Sandra Omari-Boateng photo)

All this new technology isn’t just for the students, but for the teachers too. To be able to introduce this technology to the students, teachers also have to be able to use it and integrate it into their teachings.

“I definitely think the new technology would help with class learning, and I use it now where I have to take my students up to the computer lab to do certain things which I would love to be able to just do in the classroom,” Spanish teacher Monica Jarchow said.

“There would be an expectation that teachers be comfortable and familiar with the technology, but not necessarily an expert.  Proper professional development and planning for staff is imperative to the success of any program.  It has also been recommended that Instructional Coaches be hired to assist teachers in planning and training for better integration of technology in the classroom,” Page said.

“After a while, I do think most curriculum will be on technology, but sometimes it is nice to have a book in front of you or to have to write something down in the process of learning. I do have a feeling we’re going to lean towards the technology side of things, but I’m hoping we will still be able to do some things by hand,” Jarchow said.

Keeping up with the new technology of this age is one thing that sparked this initiative, but it isn’t  the only reason.

“Access to a device for each student in the classroom is no longer just a trend, nor is it the future of education. It is now. The possibilities for better collaboration and projects among students and teachers, access for more timely research, flipped classrooms and expanded 21st Century Skills are endless. It can level the playing field for some students who might not have access to technology at home. The key here, surprisingly, is to not focus on the technology. Technology is merely a tool. When technology is successfully integrated in the classroom, it becomes second nature and relatively unnoticed. The focus needs to be on what you can do with the newly acquired access to technology. What advancements and updates can be made to lesson plans and curriculum? What new ways can a subject be explored that weren’t possible before?  We have seen and heard great success stories from schools who have gone through proper planning and training before doing an implementation. When done right, a 1:1 or BYOD style initiative truly has the ability to transform the classroom,” Page said.

Even though Cedar Falls students and staff are able to test many types of technology, at the end of the day, classes will only be able to receive one type of tool, and different people have different preferences.

“Out of all devices presented, the Chromebook is by far the easiest to manage and maintain.  It is also the most affordable,” Page said.

“I liked the Windows Surface keyboard, which makes it much easier to type. I was confused about its touchscreen function, and I couldn’t figure out how to switch in between the keyboard and touchscreen. Surface is nice because it reminds me of a laptop. I’m not sure if my lack of success with it is because of the interface or just my inexperience,” junior Martha Hall said.

“I found it difficult to type on the Windows Surface keyboard. Personally, I would like the iPad and a stylus to be able to take notes in class, upload music for band and choir and read or highlight book pages. I think this would be very handy for me and reduce the amount of materials I need to bring to class. It would be much more organized and even environmentally friendly because I would use much less paper,” senior Amanda Harwood said.

“Well, I’m an iPad user, and I have my own iPad, but I really liked the Microsoft Surface, because the keyboard was very easy to use, wasn’t too touch sensitive and you can also type on the screen. I also think it would be easier to use in class because of the keyboard or an iPad because it’s a good size and you can also get a keyboard to go with it,” Jarchow said.

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