County classrooms embrace new technologies

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles focusing on the changing role of information technology in various sectors.
The series looks beyond the push for universal broadband, asking how Internet access and the advances of technology are changing life in Addison County. It stems from the discussions of a regional technology plan being worked on by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. We welcome your responses and thoughts on the article or on technology in general, input that will help the team incorporate as many viewpoints as possible into the plan.
ADDISON COUNTY — In Dawn Berno’s fourth-grade class at Addison Central School, students are learning key skills for the Internet age, ranging from principles of digital citizenship to managing a personal password, with the help of their own netbook computers.
This year, each student in fourth, fifth and sixth grade at the school has the use of a netbook, which the school purchased using a grant from the Digital Wish Foundation. The students can take the small, lightweight laptops home at the end of the day, and when they bring it back to school the students can hook up to a projector at the front of the room and share their work with the class.
“The kids right now are so excited,” said Berno.
As teachers and students at Addison Central School adapt to learning with netbooks, classrooms all across the county are incorporating technology into teaching and administration.
Bob Owens, technology director for Addison Northwest Supervisory Union, said the biggest recent jump for the district has been switching to Google Apps — web-based software for word processing and other tasks. Teachers and students also have web-based email that runs on a Google interface, but they also have access to document-sharing options that Owens said can allow students to collaborate on projects in real-time and share documents, pictures and the like with teachers.
Most districts in the county have also moved some administrative functions to PowerSchool, a web-based class management system that allows students and parents to view grades and attendance records, and that allows teachers to posts assignments online.
And the classroom experience is changing, too — schools are replacing chalkboards with interactive whiteboards, allowing teachers to plug a computer in and to use the board as a touchscreen. Owens said this year, Vergennes Union High School is also experimenting with handheld transponders, which allow students to weigh in electronically on multiple-choice questions and see the results on the board.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Director of Technology Maureen Hennigan said it’s a constant push to integrate new technologies throughout the supervisory union, from kindergarten through high school.
“Those who grew up with the technology seamlessly integrate it,” said Hennigan. “Those who haven’t, need to see their peers using the technology before they adopt it, so we really work on peer-to-peer training.”
Though she sees new systems becoming more interactive and user-friendly, Hennigan said it’s still a struggle to find enough time to train teachers not just to learn the technology, but also to integrate it in effective ways.
“We don’t have the time or the funds to take all our teachers offline and give them two months of training,” said Hennigan.
But there’s one area where Hennigan says she doesn’t see any pushback to adoption.
“The kids love technology,” she said. “Most students, if they see it being done, they can do it themselves.”
It’s not just about flashy technology systems, though.
With free applications and just a little hardware, students can express their learning in ways that go far beyond the written page — in video, audio, slideshow or other presentation.
“Now, instead of always writing a paragraph, maybe you’re writing that paragraph but you’re also using a Flip camera to act out a concept (you’ve learned),” said Berno.
In addition to working with a Digital Wish Foundation technology trainer, Berno has done hours of searching for web-based interactive activities and educational websites she can use to integrate the netbooks and other technologies into her class.
Across the country teachers are turning to the web for help integrating new technologies into lessons, said Bryan Alexander, a Ripton resident and senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.
“Britain and France have national organizations whose job it is to put tech into classrooms. We’re totally random in contrast to that,” Alexander said.
Integration of technology into curricula varies widely from state to state, district to district, and even classroom to classroom.
Because of that, it’s not unusual to find teachers seeking resources and advice from other teachers with blogs or from online education message boards. But for every teacher looking for information, there’s another teacher willing to help out.
“If you have a question about something, you put it out there,” said Alexander. “There’s an active education population online, and people share their stuff all the time.”
It’s not just classroom-based learning where the Internet steps in to offer a plethora of resources.
Thanks to resources freely available online, said Alexander, someone growing up next to the New York Public Library and someone growing up in rural Vermont now have access to many of the same texts.
“Technology is one of the great revolutions for access to information,” said Alexander. “In many ways, this is the best time in history to be a learner.”
A number of universities have also launched OpenCourseWare projects that make their courses available to anyone online, and resources like Wikipedia that are publicly accessible and editable provide a virtual world of information.
But the availability of self-teaching opportunities, said Alexander, makes it that much more important to teach digital literacy to students as early as possible.
“It’s about teaching students to distinguish truth from lies,” he said.
As students move into the online sphere to research and present homework assignments, administrators also face decisions about how best to protect student privacy online.
“It opens up all sorts of questions,” said Wayne Howe, principal of Addison Central School.
The federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) outlines security and privacy regulations governing a school’s treatment of student records, with strict provisions when it comes to sharing student information online.
Middlebury Union High School Principal Bill Lawson said he’s currently discussing with staff of the Tiger’s Print student newspaper whether they can launch a Facebook page for sharing news and stories, and FERPA comes heavily into play when making this sort of decision.
“We want to make sure we’re not printing something that exposes kids to the risks of the Internet,” said Lawson.
Many school administrators also have concerns about giving students unfettered access to the entire Internet. For Howe, that has meant installing filtering software onto the student netbooks.
Still, some teachers have found this all-or-nothing approach to be limiting. The filtering software blocks all videos posted to YouTube, including instructional videos posted by web learning organizations like the math- and science-focused Khan Academy. The Khan Academy structures its curriculum so that students watch videos at home to allow for one-on-one problem solving.
And it’s not just the Khan Academy — increasingly, all manner of educational videos are cropping up on YouTube.
“There’s so much great stuff out there, we don’t want to shut ourselves off from those resources,” said Howe. “But at this point, we’re not going to be able to use it.”
At MUHS, teachers must post all assignments online for students who are sick or absent, Lawson said. But especially in a rural area like Addison County, some students simply don’t have Internet access at home.
Josh Blumberg, director of technology for the Addison Central Supervisory Union, conducted a survey on Internet and computer access among MUHS students in fall 2009. He found that of the 563 who responded, 91.7 percent had access to a computer at home, 86.3 percent had access to the Internet, and 70.2 percent had high-speed DSL or cable Internet connections. And 83.3 percent of those who responded said they were currently using a computer to do homework — though he said that number has likely changed in the past two years.
Blumberg said he expects that in a down economy, the percentage of students who have Internet access at home probably hasn’t changed much. And he said it’s an important number to take into consideration when pushing technology out to the schools.
“One of my big questions is, at what point can teachers give assignments requiring technology?” said Blumberg. “Particularly in a public school, you need to make sure that everyone has access.”
Blumberg said students who don’t have home access do use school and town libraries or computers at friends’ houses, and he said 93.3 percent of students in 2009 reported that they could easily access an Internet connection. Comcast also offers a deeply discounted Internet package — $9.95 per month — for households in which students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
But not all of Addison County is served by Comcast, and Lawson said the push to integrate technology will continue to be tempered by an awareness of those students who don’t have Internet access at home — by providing flash drives for students to take work home, and by ramping up in-school technology use instead of at-home requirements.
“We’re trying to make accommodations,” said Lawson.
Still, Alexander said that being exposed to technology in the classroom is the first step — from fact-checking a teacher or other authority figure using Google to sharing a story online using digital storytelling. The digital skills students learn in their classrooms translate to real-world skills, he said.
“You leave the classroom and it doesn’t become less useful — it becomes even more useful,” Alexander said. “It’s madness not to use technology. That would be like teaching without electricity, or without speech.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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