How the RE1J school district plans on providing a 21st century education
A window crashes and a burglar alarm rings. The Stanley Cup is gone and the clock is ticking. It is up to you—a gumshoe at the ACME detective agency—to follow the clues around the world on the trail of the stolen treasure and find out… Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Those kinds of scenes and scenarios played out in computer labs around the country to remind countless grade-schoolers what was fun about learning, as educators tried to turn geography lessons into a computer game using the latest technology. The year was 1985.
More than 20 years later, teachers are still trying to find ways to reach kids using technology, which has become even more a part of life for students than it was when The Oregon Trail, Number Munchers and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? topped the educational gaming charts.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 1994 only 3 percent of classrooms in the United States had Internet access; 10 years later that number had grown to 93 percent. In Crested Butte, that figure is 100 percent, although the students are sometimes limited by the available bandwidth.
In the span of an average teaching career, technology has dramatically changed the way students view the world. But while some teachers still fear the surge of text messaging and MySpace into the classroom, the RE1J school district is looking for ways to put technology to work for everyone.
Dr. Chris Purkiss, the school district’s director of curriculum and assessment, has been thinking of ways to put the right computers and software into the hands of teachers and students. The recently approved $55 million renovation projects planned for the district’s schools is just the opportunity she was waiting for.
Purkiss says she was “never a proponent of computer-aided instruction, because there’s just no substitute for a good instructor.” But with the latest high-tech tools in their hands, Purkiss thinks good teachers can bring the lessons to students in a way they can relate to and improve the quality of the education in the process.
“Most of the research I’ve read isn’t about how technology improves the achievement level, it’s about how the technology engages the students and that can give teachers a chance to raise the achievement level,” says Purkiss.
In late January, Purkiss and the six other members of the district’s educational technology committee traveled to the Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando where they learned how other school districts were putting different types of technology into the hands of teachers and students.
There were some who participated in educational gaming competitions with schools around the country via the Internet. Others had teachers who were recording their lectures so students could download a podcast after class if they wanted to revisit a part of the lesson.
Purkiss says using technology in those ways isn’t yet widespread, but as the district prepares for the renovations, now is the time to put the infrastructure in place to give teachers the tools they need to provide that kind of modern education.
“We have an opportunity to make an investment in technology for our schools right now. We’re trying to figure out what the infrastructure piece is going to look like and what equipment the classrooms will get,” says Purkiss. “It’s really hard to go back in and get good connectivity, so we’re making sure that type of technology is there from the beginning.”
Purkiss says students who graduate from high school are expected to have a certain level of technological proficiency, and lacking it could seriously hurt their chances of success.
“Kids are using technology anyway. What we as a district can do is teach students how to make better use of that technology as a way of problem solving. If you go to work and don’t know how to use a computer, you’re lost in today’s workforce. It’s part of life. I think that’s how we have to view it,” she says.
To make sure the right kind of technology and supporting infrastructure makes it into the renovated classrooms, the district administration is holding weekly meetings with the technology committee.
“Part of the reason we’re meeting so regularly is to make sure that we don’t miss our window for putting in all of the pieces that need to be in place to support the technology,” says superintendent Jon Nelson. “We also don’t want to put smart boards [interactive whiteboards that allow teachers to write on the same screen as an Internet page, for example] in classrooms where they won’t be used. So the question of what goes where is also being discussed.”
Ethan Gibson, an owner representative with the Blythe Group & Co., which is managing the renovation projects, says much of the hardware that will be installed in classrooms is standard fare. But with the advancements being produced by a burgeoning educational technology industry, a careful coordination of the components is important.
Some upgrades will be standard, like more broadband Internet access and connections for smartboards and LED projectors in every classroom, the wiring to support technology for the 21st century
Gibson says the rooms that will house the major computer components will have lots of space and modular racks “so we can pull out the old units when they are outdated and put in new ones. We put all the wiring in cable trays so that when it needs to be upgraded it can be swapped out without any major effort.”
The upgrades could allow students to take part in long-distance learning classes that would give them a chance to take advanced placement courses in preparation for college or subjects that the school couldn’t support on its own.
A “thin client,” is another component being considered. With this, the district could keep digitized textbooks on file and lend laptop computers to students who need to access them.
Cannon Leatherwood, the district’s systems manager, says the goal of the technology committee is to provide technology that is seamless with the classroom experience, instead of a destination like a computer lab. “We want it to be fully integrated in the classroom so it allows teachers to turn from a lesson to the Internet, or whatever, and back without interrupting the flow of information,” he says.
The district is also looking into technology for more than just easing access to information. The connectivity of a modern classroom also offers more up-to-date information for the teachers to access and it could even save the district a little money.
This year, the district is planning on spending around $200,000 on core-level math books. Last year they spent $150,000 on core-level reading books, and although a digital textbook for the district could be just as expensive, Purkiss sees advantages to the digital version that a printed text could never offer.
“In social studies or science, the information changes constantly. Not too long ago, we had German textbooks that talked about the Berlin Wall, and if the textbook was digital, a publisher could just go in and update the information without the district having to buy a whole new set of books,” says Purkiss, adding that she will always see value in printed books.
However, having the technology to use and being able to use it in a way that improves education is vastly different, says Purkiss, and one of the major challenges facing the district in renovating the school’s technology is teaching the teachers about what they have and why they have it.
“Teaching a teacher how to use a smartboard is simple. Teaching them how to integrate the smartboard into the way they teach their lessons is difficult,” she says. “We’re not going to have technology for technology’s sake, we want to make sure it will be used. But it’s going to take a lot of professional development to make it work.”
For professional development to take place, teachers have to use their time away from the classroom to learn new skills that might not be easy with only three days of professional development possible in the standard teacher’s contract.
There are also large collections of tutorial videos and articles for educators that can be viewed on TeacherTube.com, 4Teachers.org and other similar sites to help with the transition.
“Students today are digital natives and [adults are] the immigrants,” says Purkiss. “We’re digital immigrants and we’re trying to teach digital natives how to act in their own world. So we need our teachers to speak that language.”
Even before teachers can become proficient using technology, the school district has to convince many of them that technology isn’t a bad thing.
Nelson isn’t convinced that changing district policy to require the incorporation of technology into classroom lessons is the right step, but instead he thinks it should happen one step at a time so teachers and students feel comfortable with the transition.
“You’re talking about a change in philosophy and culture in learning and that will take time. We have a mix across the district of less experienced teachers who are comfortable with technology and more experienced teachers who aren’t,” he says. “So it is going to take some working together and, of course, it will take time.”