Our Views: Harrison’s model could be tech wave of future in schools

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December 20, 2013

An intriguing experiment is playing out in fifth-grade classes at Janesville’s Harrison Elementary School. At a time when schools are equipping classes with wireless computers or exploring ways to do so districtwide, Harrison lets fifth-graders bring and use their own devices.

During the 2012-13 school year, each Milton Middle School student in grades seven and eight got an iPad. Likewise, every student in grades 5-8 at Janesville’s St. Mary Catholic School was issued an iPad during the last school year. The Orfordville Parkview School District has supplied all students in grades 7-12 with iPads.

By offering technological gadgetry, schools are doing more than competing with each other for students. They’re accepting the reality that computers are a way of life and learning for today’s youngsters.

Still, supplying every kid with the latest in technology can burden taxpayers in the absence of steep manufacturer discounts or generous benefactors. That’s where the Harrison model might pave the way. As Frank Schultz reported in Sunday’s Gazette, this pilot project could spread throughout the Janesville School District.

Harrison’s Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program encourages students to bring their computer tablets or smartphones from home. Those who don’t have touch-screen Internet devices get them from the school. That reduces pressure on parents who can’t afford to equip their kids. Still, Harrison is getting inquiries from parents of fourth-graders about which technology might be best to place under the Christmas tree.

Two months in, school officials and students think Harrison’s experiment is working well. Teachers believe it has improved instruction, Schultz reported. Teacher Chris Kohn says the devices ease instruction on multiple levels of understanding. For example, he can help students struggling with a math concept while those who understand it can move on with online math games.

What about the need for tech support to handle the inevitable bugs? Harrison is tackling that in a creative way, as well. It asked computer-savvy students to join a Tech Squad to help classmates reload apps and solve glitches. It got plenty of volunteers. Squad members meet weekly with a district specialist. Teachers can concentrate on education while squad members develop leadership skills.

“It’s definitely a model we’re going to look to replicate,” said Robert Smiley, the district’s chief information officer and mastermind behind the Tech Squad.

Kaja Perisic, Tech Squad member, put it in perspective seemingly beyond her years: “They’re going to be using technology for the rest of their lives,” she said of fellow students, “so they might as well get used to it.”

In Orfordville, Superintendent Steve Lutzke says having the district supply iPads created a consistent platform that eases education and makes their use easier to manage. The district buys and provides apps as needed. While iPad costs were substantial, the devices are reducing the need for new textbooks, and a $25-per-year user fee will help the district recoup its investment.

Janesville’s district has supplied laptops in pilot projects in Lincoln Elementary School’s third grade and in two charter high school programs. Smiley says no decision has been made about whether the BYOD or a hybrid BYOD-laptop program is the way to spread technology to more classrooms and schools.

Whichever the case, taxpayers might appreciate any expansion of the BYOD model.

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