Local schools continue emphasis on technology

08/16/2014 6:00 PM

08/16/2014 1:46 PM

A new school year means new backpacks, new pencils, new notebooks. Schools across the region feature new posters up on walls, new nametags taped on desks and freshly buffed floors.

But in today’s tech-savvy world, there’s another big element to the start of a new school year: new technology. From tablets to laptops, schools in York, Chester and Lancaster counties are embracing technology more and more each year to try to better equip students for the world in which they live.

Going 1:1

Several local school districts have fully embraced what’s known as 1:1, or a system where each student has a device of her own, instead of sharing with others.

In the Rock Hill School District, the 1:1 initiative is known as iRock. Last year, the first for iRock, all students in grades four through eight were given an iPad, along with the ninth graders at South Pointe High School. Students who paid a $60 insurance fee could take the devices home.

At a meeting in June, several teachers and students spoke to school board members about the impact the iPads have had on learning. Words like “transformation” and “game-changer” were bandied around by the teachers. The students said they’d never felt more capable or more engaged than when they got to use their iPad for everything from research to creating presentations to playing academically-themed games.

During the first few weeks of school , in addition to taking a tour of the district and getting training on everything from safety to school policies, Rock Hill’s newest teachers had an afternoon of technology bootcamp, as the district’s instructional technology specialists took the district’s newest educators through everything from iPads to Promethean boards, which are large interactive white boards.

“We have a robust 1:1 initiative known as iRock,” said instructional technology specialist Derek McQuiston. “Congratulations, you’re all 1:1 teachers.”

Several other local districts, including Clover, Chester and Lancaster, have either implemented 1:1 programs or are in the trial stages of doing so. Lancaster’s South Middle School is piloting a program in which every student is given a Google Chromebook, an inexpensive laptop that stores files online, instead of in the device.

The program, which is entering its second year, has gotten “rave reviews,” said district spokesman David Knight.

In Clover, the 2014-2015 school year will be the first year of “ Connected Classroom,” Clover’s comprehensive 1:1 technology initiative that gives an Apple device to every one of the district’s nearly 7,000 students. Every student in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade will get an iPad and every high school student will get a MacBook Air laptop, said Beth Goff, the district’s director of instructional technology.

Starting in the third grade, if a student pays a $50 insurance fee, she or he can take the device home, much like the iRock program.

Deployment of these devices will begin as early as the second day of school, Goff said.

“It’s going to be crazy but it’s going to be fun,” she said.

Clover decided to assign each student an individual device instead of simply having enough to go around because when you give a student something that’s theirs, they take ownership of it physically and emotionally, she said.

“It’s just theirs and they control it,” Goff said. “They can always go through this trusted resource.”

Officials in the Chester School District hope their 1:1 program, known as hiTEC, will bring technology and the resources it offers to the entire community, not just to the high schoolers who will be given HP Elite tablets in the new school year.

“Some people at home are going to be looking at it, too and that’s OK,” said Charles King, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Improving connectivity for the entire community can only benefit Chester, he said.

Chester officials decided to go with the Elite tablets instead of iPads or other devices because of the district’s partnership with Microsoft and because the Elite is a “mobile, state of the art device,” King said.

Students first got tablets during the second semester of the 2013-2014 school year, King said. It was optional for teachers to utilize the tablets last year, but this year, it’s mandatory. All students will have their own tablet, and a one-time $50 fee allows them to take it home all four years they’re in high school.

Technology is just a tool

Administrators and teachers across local districts agree that technology is only as effective as the manner in which it’s used. It’s never helpful to just use a tablet or a laptop for the sake of using a tablet or a laptop.

“Technology augments the instructions, it doesn’t drive it,” King said.

Part of the message that the instructional technology specialists in Rock Hill send their teachers is that the devices are only there to supplement what they’ve already been doing.

“We’re getting these teachers to use the devices where it’s meaningful and appropriate,” said specialist Shemia Thompson. “It’s about teaching and learning, and technology naturally fits in.”

An iPad is exactly the same as a pencil, said Amanda Boatwright, a new kindergarten teacher at the Sunset Park Center for Accelerated Studies. It’s just another tool for teachers.

Alternatives to 1:1

The Fort Mill School District does not have a 1:1 program. Instead, every school decided what devices it wanted for its teachers and students. Each school has a custom mix of iPads and Chromebooks for class use. Students can also “BYOD” or “Bring Your Own Device” if teachers allow it, which is particularly popular at the two high schools, said district spokeswoman Kelly McKinney.

But all students are using Google Apps for Education, a program that stores work in the mobile “cloud” so it can be shared or accessed anywhere a student has a computer or mobile device and an internet connection.

Lipi Pratt, a gifted and talented teacher at Sugar Creek Elementary School, is capitalizing on this accessibility by creating a Google Doc for each of her students. A Google doc can be accessed and edited by people who have been granted permission to access it by the document’s creator. In this case, that’s Pratt. Currently, the documents for Pratt’s students only have a welcome letter, but as the year goes on, both Pratt and the students will be able to edit it and create a running dialogue.

They’ll also be able to share what they create with others, which Pratt said is essential in teaching students how to be responsible internet users. Children are already sharing their lives online, but they can be taught how to do so responsibly, Pratt said, much in the same way you’d teach a child how to cross the street.

Tim Smith, a 5th grade teacher at Gold Hill Elementary School, jokingly likes to say the Fort Mill School District is “device agnostic,” meaning any computing device can be utilized within the district.

“The beauty of the flexibility there is you’re letting the student do what they’re comfortable with,” Smith said.

The flexibility also allows teachers to pick whatever tools best suit what they’re doing in their classroom, without specific device restrictions.

When she enters a classroom in Fort Mill, technology integration specialist Kiersten Cummings said she can feel the excitement. The kids know if she’s in the classroom, she’s bringing devices to help facilitate a lesson that incorporates technology.

Technology in the classroom, whether it’s a 1:1 program or a class set of devices, “levels the playing field,” Cummings said. Students can work on their own level, and when they have a device in their hands, there’s “100 percent engagement.”

“When you give them a laptop or a tablet, you’ve already gotten them sucked in,” Cummings said. “It’s a win-win.”

The Future of 1:1

Heather King is a new teacher in the Rock Hill School District. A fourth-grade teacher at India Hook Elementary, King said she’s “anxious, but excited” about incorporating iPads in her classroom. But she said it makes perfect sense for technology to be a focus, because the world is heading in that direction.

“Most of the children have this technology already,” she said.

In Rock Hill, the school board voted 5-2 earlier this summer not to spend $360,000 to buy 860 more devices. School district administrators, with the support of many teachers and students, had recommended expanding iRock to include ninth graders at all three high schools and tenth graders at South Pointe High School. But the five board members who voted against the purchase had concerns about the district’s focus on iPads instead of using multiple devices and the lack of data to support purchasing additional iPads.

In Clover, the district’s “Connected Classroom” program will begin this year, and Beth Goff, director of instructional technology, said her district is confident that its already strong teaching and academic performance will only be enhanced by the additional technology.

“It’s exciting to know the impact (technology) can make in the classroom,” Goff said. “We’re hoping we will see the test scores to match.”

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