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Cutting Edge Classroom Part II: Student learning in the digital classroom

Glacier Park fifth grader Haylee Bowcut uses an Apple iPad to complete an assignment while her teacher, Brandon Betlach, provides assistance. TJ Martinell, The Reporter - TJ Martinell, The Reporter
Glacier Park fifth grader Haylee Bowcut uses an Apple iPad to complete an assignment while her teacher, Brandon Betlach, provides assistance. TJ Martinell, The Reporter
— image credit: TJ Martinell, The Reporter

Editor's Note: This is the second and final part of the Cutting Edge Classroom series.

By TJ Martinell and Sarah Kehoe

tmartinell@maplevalleyreporter.com, skehoe@covingtonreporter.com

New technology is not just for teachers. Students now have many tools at their disposal they didn’t even have five years ago.

While laptops, document cameras and Power Point presentations have replaced overhead projectors, dry erase pens and transparencies for educators, technology tools are replacing hard copies of text books, pen and paper for students.

Ninth graders in the Kent School District were all issued laptops at the start of the school year while Tahoma grade schoolers have been using netbooks for two years while other bleeding edge technologies are finding their way into the hands of students.

 

FROM THE PENCIL TO THE APPLE iPAD

Through the use of funds generated by the 2010 technology levy, Tahoma students have access to a wide variety of software programs and digital equipment. With netbooks, students are able to work

One department where technology has made huge inroads has been special education in the Tahoma School District. Carol Banks, special services coordinator, stated the new software and equipment has opened new opportunities for students, who either suffer from physical or academic disabilities. Apple iPads, with their accessible and normal aesthetic appearance, have been among the more popular among those students.

“They’re very interactive for our kids,” she said. “Our kids are really engaged.”

Along with the iPad are a myriad of software programs they use, such as Touchchat, Pictello and Read Out Loud. Touchchat allows students with speech debilitations to communicate by spelling or selecting icons from a visual display on the screen. Their messages are then are spoken with a built-in voice synthesizer. Pictello is for children who cannot write but can use visual images to learn new words. Read Out Loud allows students to access books online that are then read back to them.

These software programs are also available to the students when they go home as well as on the school district’s netbooks.

While Banks said that the department has had equipment for a while to handle the software, they were clunky and heavy, while the iPad’s portability makes it ideal for the students to carry around.

According to Bev Kesselring, who teaches ninth grade language arts at Tahoma Junior High, these software programs are accessible to any student, regardless of the department. Although Kindles haven’t made their way into the classroom, students can also download novels through a program called Bookshare. Kesselring added that many of the students are intelligent but their impairments prevent them from demonstrating it.

Freshmen at Kent-Meridian High — like those across the district in its one to one program — were issued a laptop at the start of the school year.

Students work with Adobe Photoshop, create and edit videos and use Moodle, a place for students to turn in assignments, view grades and receive assignments from teachers. Other technology in the Kent-Meridian classrooms include SMART boards and digital cameras.

“Having a laptop really helps me learn,” said Anya Cheban, a Kent-Meridian freshman. “I think that this will benefit me a lot because most jobs now deal with technology, so it’s good to learn now.”

Teens at K-M said their laptops make them better students.

“It makes me more interested in the stuff being taught in class and it makes me more organized,” said Vinnie Malietufa, freshman. “When the time comes for a test or something, I don’t have to try and dig for my notes in my locker or bag because they’re in a folder on my computer.”

Sophomore Taniel Mathia says the laptops have helped him get his grades up.

“I’m a visual learner and so the computers have really helped me because I can look at what the teacher is talking about on my screen,” he said.

Some students described the laptops as second instructor.

“Before the laptops came, we only got information and help from our teacher,” said Ruby Virk, sophomore. “Now we have extra resources online to help us soak up a concept. We can use Google to look up something we don’t understand.”

The laptops have also meant students access textbooks on their computers instead of a hard copy textbook.

“It’s so much nicer to have the textbook online,” Virk said. “Then we don’t have to haul around these heavy books in our backpacks.”

The students admitted they sometimes do get distracted by their laptops in the classroom.

“I’ve noticed many students playing games instead of listening or taking notes during a class, but only if the teacher is talking on and on or we are watching a boring video,” said Peyton Hatlen, freshman.

Hatlen pointed out teachers have access to each students’ computer and can stop a student who is misusing it. Administration has blocked student access to social media sites including Facebook and Tumblr.

“If a teacher catches you using you computer for a bad reason they can send you a message that will say, ‘big brother is watching you,’ which creeps us out so we usually stop,” Hatlen said.

The students are interested in getting more technology in the classroom. They mentioned they’d be interested in an iPad, sleeker laptops and Xbox Kinect.

“Using technology to learn really captures our attention, it makes boring things more interesting and it inspires us to do our work,” Hatlen said.

Students have many options for use of technology.

In Tahoma, for example, there is a course which included a “Zine Project,” where students created their own small magazine publication. When the class was taught by Kimberly Allison in 1994, who currently works at Cedar River Middle School, the technology was very primitive. Students had to paste all the work together onto the pages. There were few computers used for typing. If the students used any research for their magazine, they had to go to either the school library or a King County library. Even at the library there wasn’t a computer that would look up the book they sought. They would have to either shuffle through dozens of catalog cards to locate it or enlist the help of a librarian. A photocopier was used to print the final product.

Now, 16 years later, the same “Zine Project” is conducted by Jamie Vollwrath. Although the basic premise of the project is the same the process through which they do it is totally different. Rather than published using a photocopier each project has its own website. As part of the project the students learn how to create their own website layout and design. Any information they desire is within the click of a mouse, where they can search through countless other sites on the Internet, which means much of the work can be done from their netbooks. They can also use other websites as the basis for their own work.

Additionally, the students can share their work through the use of Google Docs, which allows all of them to access and edit the same file online.

At Tahoma High, video production students like Jacob Larson are able to use the same equipment as that of an independent film studio. Apple programs such as iMotion help create special effects for videos, in addition to editing programs like Final Cut Pro X, which was also used to make movies such as “Napoleon Dynamite.” Updates are included as a part of the school’s licenses.

“It’s the best the school can provide,” Larson said of the special effects technology. “It makes it real enough so that you get the image in your mind.”

Allison and Walt Szklarski, the Tahoma Instructional Technology coordinator, stated that they are in the process of implementing a plan to have Google Apps available to the entire school district from sixth to 12th grade. Also, every student will be given a school gmail account, which can be monitored and controlled by the school district.

They are also working on obtaining netbooks for use by students in kindergarten through third grade in addition to Internet access.

“It’s going to improve communication, collaboration and creativity,” Allison said.

Google Apps, Allison said, will aid students trying to share information on team projects or communicating about classwork.

 

USING TECHNOLOGY TO ENGAGE STUDENTS

While many students said netbooks and Internet access have made much of their classwork easier those in the special services department seem to have been impacted most.

Banks explained that students can have learning impairments due to a variety of issues. For some, reading is problematic, while others have no problem reading, but struggle trying to understand and process the information. Even then, there are students who can read and write just fine, but suffer from extreme timidity that prevents them from speaking up in class when they don’t understand a topic.

Banks said with programs like Active Votes, students who once went through the day without understanding the concepts taught, can inform the teacher without revealing their identity.

In Kesselring’s class, one student was unable to pass a test because she couldn’t not comprehend the material by reading. Through the use of Read Out Loud, however, she scored a B on her next test.

“They’re very bright kids, but because of their disability, they’re not able to get the information out there. Now they can,” Banks said.

Unfortunately for the special service students, they are unable to use the software programs as part of the state required Measurement of Student Progress (MSP) test, which Kesselring says can be frustrating for her students. When they reach high school, however, they may be able to make use of those tools when taking the High School Proficiency Exam.

“I’ve seen kids that are smart, but they can’t show that they’re smart until the 10th grade,” Kesselring explained.

Jamie Mercer, who teaches at Tahoma Middle School, said new equipment allows the students more of an opportunity to interact, rather than passively listen during class.

“Their level of engagement is tenfold,” she said. “They would much prefer to use a computer or an iPad, anything we have available. Because of that engagement every year the kids are leaving here with higher and higher level of skills.”

The use of iPads and netbooks also gives students equipment that they are fond of using outside of school which improves their use of it, according to Tahoma High physical education instructor Jeana Haag, who uses an iPad as a part of her outdoor activities.

“For students, they can always ask what’s going on in class,” she said. “It allows us to do more with students to visually demonstrate things to them. It’s the type of media they are used to.”

Another way it has impacted student learning is how it has helped individualize their learning pace rather than have to wait for other students when working on classwork, according to Kelli Sepanen-Proctor, who teaches Spanish at Kentwood. Through the use of online audio lessons that come free with the class textbook, her freshman students are able to listen to the lessons for as long, or little, as they desire.

“It allows them to work at their own pace,” Proctor said. “If they need to listen to it five times, then they can. Others buzz through it. If students are absent they have access to it if they are gone.”

But what benefits the students the most is their status as “digital natives,” meaning people who have grown up in a digital environment where rapid advances in technology was a part of their upbringing. Because of this, teachers don’t have to spend class time teaching the students how to use any of the software or equipment, regardless of their academic progress.

“In junior high, they’re so skilled they’re showing their peers how to do it (use the programs),” Whittlesay said.”The progress is the same, but the content changes.”

In the era of instant communication, the use of emails, Google Docs and Moodle are natural for students like Hailey Holrook and Randall Mueller, 10th graders at Tahoma High.

Holbrook admitted that some of the time the use of the Internet and computers, which can be prone to freezes and unanticipated shutdowns, can be frustrating but it’s still a better system for student-teacher communication — where she can have an answer to a question within minute — rather than having to wait until the next day. Mueller stated that most of their work now in class is done on notebooks which, he said, has made it a lot easier to turn in homework assignment as opposed to printing it out.

Yet not all students have embraced the technological changes. Those who are more traditionally minded when it comes to classwork have had difficulty adapting to the new system, such as Derek Welch, a freshman at Kentlake.

“The computer is good, but I’d rather have a textbook,” he said. “I don’t know why. I just like having a textbook. I think it’s better to flip through pages than to scroll up and down a screen.”

Fellow Kentlake freshman Xena Aguayo expressed a similar sentiment.

“I’m more hands on of a person,” she said. “It’s more difficult (for her).”

Both Welch and Aguayo said that while the district-issued laptops for ninth graders allows his peers to easily identify each other in the halls and in classes, he doesn’t believe the laptops are as beneficial to students as it seems.

“I don’t like carrying it around,” Welch said. “The main thing (benefit) is the kids know how to use computers.”

With a textbook, he stated, students don’t have to worry about accidentally dropping it or having it easily damaged. Additionally, if they forget one textbook, it doesn’t include every other textbook, which is what happens when a student forgets his laptop. In some schools, he said, a student can be given a detention for forgetting their laptop or its charger.

He did state that Moodle and the use of email has helped students, which Aguayo agreed with as well.

“It’s practically like I have a tutor,” she said.

Another unforeseen side affect of the use of technology is cheating. Just as it has become easier for teachers to collect results on online assignments, so too, it is easier for students to copy each other’s homework through the use of cut and paste.

“It’s way easier now,” one high school student said. “Not going to lie.”

Even when teachers take precautions to prevent cheating, students can find a way around it, such as a lock which prevents the cut and paste option for text.

Though teachers can use a program called DyKnow to monitor students’ screens, one high school student said that it is used less often than it seems.

“I don’t know any teacher that uses it,” they said. “They just threaten you (with it).”

 

 

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