Schools trying to keep pace with digital evolution

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

The penguin caused a stir when it arrived last month.

Teacher Sarah Halon told her first-graders at Washington Elementary School that if they wanted to keep the bird, they would have to learn how to care for it.

The "penguin" actually is a cute, plush penguin doll, but the kids' imaginations took over. Their quest to learn about penguins shows some of the ways that digital technologies are changing the way students learn across the grades in Janesville and to varying degrees across the state and nation.

When you think technology, don't think of a kid with a keyboard and a computer monitor. Think SMART Boards computing tablets such as the iPad.

Local schools in some ways are scratching the surface of the potential for a variety of new digital technologies, said Kathy Boguszewski, Janesville School District technology consultant.

Schools also are struggling with how to pay for the technology and for the training teachers need to use it, and how to give teachers the time to prepare digitally based lessons.

"This is all so new, so do we want to be a trailblazer to make this happen in Janesville? There's a part of me that thinks we want to, to attract the kind of businesses we need in Janesville," Boguszewski said, adding that much depends on finding the money to do it.

Innovative learning

In a corner of the Washington Elementary library, Halon's students were divided into groups.

Some of the pre-readers donned headphones and sat in front of laptop-style Netbook computers, watching storybook pages while listening to a narrator.

Halon read a story to another group.

Some watched a video about penguins that came from district computer servers.

The servers are equipped with a library of videos through a service called Safari Montage.

The Safari collection encompasses many topics for students of all ages, and it's growing. One advantage: A teacher can select a short clip for a specific purpose rather than show a full-length movie.

One group of Halon's students sat with "innovative learning specialist" Shelley Block at a SMART Board. Block's title is new to the district this year. Think of her as a teacher who specializes in digital learning. She helps teachers to improve teaching through technology and, officials believe, students' abilities to think and do well on tests.

A SMART Board is a computer with a huge screen. It can do what any computer with Internet access can do. It also can be written on, like a blackboard or whiteboard. A teacher can record portions of a lesson and then play it back on the SMART Board.

Block used the SMART Board to guide the students as they tried to learn what kind of penguin they had received and what it needed to survive.

Kids got a chance to use the board themselves, pointing and dragging images with their fingers to compile a picture of a penguin. They practically begged to go to the board.

Block deftly touched the board, which produced Internet photos of penguins.

"How's it do that?" a child asked.

"It's magic," Block replied.

Block called up text about penguins and read it to the students, prompting them to consider a penguin's needs—food, water, shelter, air.

The Penguin project started last year at Washington and Wilson schools. It spread to Adams Elementary this year, and plans call for all first-graders eventually to go through the experience.

The solution the kids eventually find is that a classroom is no place for a penguin. It's an emotional moment.

"Last year, we had tears," Block said.

But the lesson promotes high-level thinking skills and teaches a research process to kids aged 6 or 7.

In the final lesson, each child creates a shipping label to send the penguin home, complete with instructions on how to care for it on the journey. Students become problem-solvers.

"When we were working out of a textbook or a workbook, that wasn't happening. It was memorization," Block said.

'They are engaged'

Digital technologies can enhance such project-based learning, Boguszewski said.

"They become problem-solvers because they are engaged," she said. "There are less discipline problems. It's shifting the thinking of what you can do (in the classroom.)"

Here's a sampling of other digital learning experiences around the school district:

-- Eighth-graders in Craig Fischer's science class at Edison Middle School are studying heredity with the help of a new SMART Board Fischer and many other middle school teachers were trained to use last summer.

Only one or two students at a time can use the SMART Board, but Fischer uses a computer lab to engage all of his students simultaneously, with the help of some new software.

Fischer sent a class to the lab with a question: If one of your parents had a hereditary disease, would you want to be tested to see if you have the same problem?

Students accessed Edmodo, which provides a Facebook-like environment.

Students posted their reactions to the question, reading others' reactions as they popped up.

A girl wrote that she would be tested "because then I would know what disease I had, and I could do something about it."

A boy agreed, adding: "I wouldn't want my kids to get the disease."

Fischer stood back and watched the learning proceed, helping with computer skills as needed.

"Keep in mind, I can monitor everything that you put on here," he warned them.

Edmodo also stores class materials and offers a game that teaches about dog breeding and a video clip about the human genome, which students used to learn more as they addressed the discussion question.

Eighth-grade science texts are woefully out of date Fischer told a visitor, but Internet access makes up for that.

If the kids had iPads instead of having to troop to the computer lab downstairs, they would have saved 10 to 15 minutes of class time, Boguszewski said.

"We're going to get there," Boguszewski vowed.

iPads are in short supply in the district. The district began using laptop-style Netbooks a few years ago. Soon thereafter, the iPad came out. Netbooks use the Windows operating system and interface, while iPads are Mac-based. Boguszewski said the district might have to decide, at some point, which system to use.

-- Children age 3 and 4 were throwing Koosh Balls at a SMART Board screen in Jackson Elementary School's Early Childhood classroom.

The special-needs kids aimed for big, colored dots on the screen. When they hit a dot, the screen changed and showed the color and word "green."

Teacher Rita Milbrandt asked what color it was and praised the students for success. The child touched the word, and the screen jumped back to the screen with the big dots.

Children seemed fascinated and eager to do more, which led to lessons in a skill they'll need for the rest of their school years: taking turns.

The board has other games to learn counting, or kids are invited to practice writing their capital letters on it.

Teachers say the activity and use of large motor skills are key to the tots' brain development.

Milbrandt said she wasn't sure what to do with the SMART Board when she got it last year. But she took a class, and she was sold.

"We use it every day," Milbrandt said. "I say, 'it's SMART Board time,' and they're there. … It's so much more exciting and interactive. They don't even know they're learning."

Training teachers is key with new technologies, Boguszewski said.

Jackson Elementary has SMART Boards for every classroom, Principal Kristin Moisson said. Not all schools can say the same. Providing more access to new technologies will be a budget challenge in the years to come, Boguszewski said.

The federal stimulus funding schools enjoyed over the past two years paid for a lot of new hardware, software and training. Private grants helped, too, but the technology is still new, it's not universally available, and a lot of teachers need training before they can deploy it.

"We'll get there," Boguszewski said.

-- Parker High School's Zach Dray is one of several teachers around the district "flipping" their classes with the help of computers.

In a flip class, students watch the teacher's lecture at home. During class time, students have most of the period to ask him questions about the work.

Students who have trouble can go back, watch the crucial part of the lecture and work at their own pace, Dray said.

Parker senior Michelle Nunn said she has had to see her math teacher after school regularly in past years, but she doesn't need to do that now.

Student need to work independently, Nunn said, but she prefers it this way.

"It's your responsibility, but you can pretty much get the grade you deserve because you get the help that you need," she said.

-- Teachers use SMART Boards to conduct polls of student opinion or tests to instantly see how many students have mastered a lesson. Students use response devices that look like TV remote controls to respond to a question or series of questions, and teachers know the results immediately.

-- Teachers are learning software called Moodle, which allows them to post all class materials—audio, video, written documents—on one website, where students can do their work online, discuss topics with fellow students. Parents can use the site to see their children's assignments and class materials.

It doesn't replace teaching, Boguszewski said, but it enhances it.

The future

There's still much to be done. Boguszewski said next steps should include the issue of equal access to digital technology for all.

Outdated science texts could be replaced with e-books that would provide not only text but also Internet links, video, tutorials and other enhancements that paper books could never provide, she said.

Spotty Wi-Fi coverage is another problem officials are looking at.

"I think our biggest challenge is getting a plan together," Boguszewski said, and the school board just hired a chief information officer to lead the development of that plan.

Some are likely to question why schools are spending on all these devices when the challenges of learning to read, write and do math remain the same.

Brett Berg, the district's spokesman and coordinator of 21st century learning, said the district really has no choice if it wants to prepare students for their futures.

"Whether we like it or not, their needs have changed," Berg said. "You can't go into the fast-food industry today without knowing how to run a computer," much less the skills needed at a university or tech school.

"Online banking, online investments, I mean, it's never-ending. And that's why the district is moving in that direction, because if it doesn't, we're going to be leaving a lot of our students behind," Berg said.

Schools struggle to fill technology gap

One of the challenges in introducing new technology is the inequality between those who have Internet access at home—or on their own smart phones—and those who do not, said Janesville School District technology consultant Kathy Boguszewski.

Several Janesville schools have after-school programs and offer access to computer labs or computers in their libraries, officials said. At other schools, teachers schedule days in which they stay late to supervise students using the computers.

One teacher told The Gazette she has to print materials on paper for students who can't do the online work at home.

Boguszewski knows the problems and reacts to them with a determined: "We'll get there."

Money is an issue, of course.

As part of a 1997 referendum, voters of the Janesville School District approved borrowing $9.7 million to wire every school for the Internet, put a TV monitor in every classroom, give every teacher a computer and a telephone and create computer labs in every school, among other technical improvements.

Some of those improvements are still here, but a technology referendum today would look a lot different. First of all, they wouldn't need all those workers to install all those cables, and the cost of a tablet computing device is lower than for a full-sized computer work station.

Today, every Janesville public school has wireless Internet access in at least a part of the building. The Wi-Fi allows students to use tablet computers or laptops wherever they are.

However, the digital devices are still too few to supply one to every student, so most classes still march down the hall to a computer lab when they need to work on a computer.

That's likely to change.

In the future, every student will have a hand-held device, Boguszewski predicted, but right now that's out of the district's price range.

By the numbers

Here are some of the numbers about digital technology in the Janesville School District:

$9.7 million

Dollars allocated in the 1997 districtwide technology upgrade

$4.18 million

Dollars spent on computer hardware in the past 22 years


Number of SMART Boards in the Janesville School District in 2005


Number of SMART Boards today


Number of Netbook laptops purchased for student use in the past 22 years

About 500

Number of Apple iPads purchased in the past 22 years

About 60

Number of iPod Touches purchased in the past 22 years

Last updated: 7:44 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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