by Sherry V. Crawley
“The classroom walls are coming down,” says Hoke Wilcox, an instructional technology specialist at Kennesaw State University. “Technology is very much a part of children’s culture now. Teachers are adapting to a population that wants to have ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning.”
A set of technology standards based on national guidelines were implemented in Georgia’s public schools in 2011, encouraging schools to make technology a part of the routine. Technology is no longer a stand-alone discipline, but rather an integral part of instruction, allowing for cross-curricular, real-world learning.
Accomplishing this seamlessly is where the art and science of teaching begins. Across Georgia, schools are trying new techniques, putting the latest tools into the hands of students, and working all the while to help parents keep up.
The message from educators: Talk to your kids, try something new and support your children’s school and teachers, who are working to grow good digital citizens.
It would be impossible for a school to continuously supply students with up-to-date laptops or the latest tablets. Educators are finding ways to leverage the tools their students already have to bring technology into the classroom.
Heather Temske, a fourth-grade teacher at Sweet Apple Elementary in Fulton County, chose to be part of a pilot program that allows her students to bring their own technology to school. Students with laptops, tablets and smartphones are sharing with their classmates, creating a collaborative and connected environment.
“It’s amazing what you can do on a phone these days. Having connected devices is great for research, sharing and communicating,” Temske says.
Her students use technology regularly; from writing fables and then making Claymation movies of their stories to getting writing advice live via Skype from an author. Notes Temske: “It allows them to show what they have learned in non-traditional ways.”
Some schools are testing the idea of replacing costly and quickly outdated textbooks with tablet devices, allowing greater flexibility to both teachers and students.
St. Thomas More, a K-8 private school in Decatur that serves almost 500 students, has shelved textbooks and given its seventh- and eighth-grade students iPads purchased with grant funds two years ago.
Heather Kloer, the school’s computer teacher and technology coordinator, explains that teachers create units by putting together a digital package of photos and videos, podcasts and articles, website links and presentations. Students wirelessly download the entire unit at school and then have access to everything they need wherever they go.
“Having all the information on the iPad has made it much easier to study,” says Erin Egan, an eighth-grader at St. Thomas More. “With all the resources that are available, I can look something up or check a PowerPoint if I don't understand or want to know more. When we relied on textbooks and paper materials, I would have to wait until I could access a computer to look further into something.”
From connecting with students in their own school and around the world to learning the ins and outs of cyber etiquette, Kloer believes that using iPads and other technology is essential to prepare kids for the future.
“The genie is out of the lamp,” she says. “These kids have technology-rich lives. They want to be active creators of their own learning.”
Some 12,000 Georgia students are turning to “virtual learning,” by taking online courses for school credit.
The virtual school (gavirtuallearning.org), for grades 9-12, lets students take up to three full credit hours per semester to supplement their regular classes at school. For example, a student who attends a school that doesn’t offer a specific foreign language can often take a specific course online and submit the grade for their high school transcript.
Charter virtual schools also are also starting to catch on. Both the state-run and the charter programs offer webcasts with Georgia-certified teachers. Studnets interact via both phone and email. The state-run program has some flexibility; students can view a webcast that’s part of an online course when convenient – not only at one specific time and date.
So how can parents, many of the VCR and even cassette tape generation, help kids excel when they are scrambling to keep up themselves?
Parents should talk to their kids to find out the technology they need to know in order to help support their kids’ learning process, says Coleman Cooper, a ninth-grader at the Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology.
“My mom is always on the parent portal to check my grades,” he says. “Our grades update daily. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating that she knows every little assignment I do, but I’m happy she is aware of what I’m doing in school.”
Jim Verrecchia of Acworth has six kids, and two attend Cobb County schools. He says he sometimes feels overwhelmed by emails and other electronic communication from his children’s many teachers – and sometimes frustrated by the range of digital tools being used by educators. “Kids today are lucky to have these tools at their fingertips,” he says, “but these things don’t replace human relationships.”
Some schools are addressing this divide, bringing parents and educators together in person to talk about life online. The Atlanta International School, a private school in Buckhead with 1,100 students from preschool through 12th grade, has developed a series of digital citizenship workshops just for parents.
Rachel Hovington, head of curriculum and professional development for AIS, says the optional classes are designed to help parents become more comfortable with the deep role technology plays in their children’s lives.
“Parents share strategies and ideas and realize they are not the only ones dealing with the issues associated with technology use,” she says. “We want them to feel more comfortable and realize it is their responsibility to have an ongoing conversation with their child.”
In our increasingly connected world, technology is what unites the universe. Wilcox says he believes that being ready for the real world is what makes exposure to technology in the educational environment so important.
“In the workplace, just about every job uses technology. You can’t escape it,” he says. “In order to prepare our students to move forward, we need to expose them to these things in a responsible way.”
Kloer at St. Thomas More believes the use of instructional technology can help nurture a child’s future in unexpected ways. Last year, fourth-graders at the school created a relationship with a school in Uganda. “Our kids raised money to build a well because the kids there had to walk for two hours to bring water to school.”
The students at St. Thomas More used their digital and artistic talents to create materials to promote the fundraiser; they practiced their writing skills while communicating virtually with the children in Uganda; they gained valuable experience working with others to reach a common goal.
Clearly, Georgia’s students are not the only direct beneficiaries of the exponential growth of technology in education. New websites, teacher-focused blogs and social networking are helping teachers create a global community.
“The community is beyond what a couple of teachers in your school do and share,” says Sweet Apple’s Temske. “We have been these little islands, but now we can truly collaborate with other teachers.”
Their Favorite Tools
There are countless educational technology resources available on the Internet. Here are a few sites educators we interviewed recommend.