It's a pretty loaded question, asking state public education officials for their thoughts on increasing technology in the schools...digital, wireless advances that in some instances appear to be revolutionizing the way kids are taught and the way kids process information and, subsequently, display that they've learned a thing or two.
Although the answers can run the gamut and get quite lengthy and meandering, maybe Darin King, director of the North Dakota Educational Technology Council at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, summed up the views of many in positions similar to his when posed with the question, is all this new technology a good thing?
"Yes," he said. "It's a good thing."
In Minnesota, at the Minnesota Department of Education, increased technology in the schools is also looked upon in generally favorable fashion, with some caveats. For one, said Keith Hovis, deputy communications director at the MDE, there are still state mandated educational requirements that students must meet, no matter how instructors disseminate knowledge to them. And for another thing, he added, while some more populated areas of the state don't give Internet speed a second thought any longer because they simply assume it's always going to be super-fast at all times, some rural areas of the state still struggle with speed and bandwidth issues. "This can impact a district's ability to utilize new technologies," Hovis said. "I know this is something being looked at on a federal level, but it is a definite challenge for schools looking to incorporate new technologies."
Both King and Hovis stressed that while the state educational governing bodies they work for are very much interested in various technologies being implemented across their neighboring states, neither agency is particularly hands-on or overly involved in what are meant to be local debates and local decisions.
King, who spent 15 years as technology director in the Grand Forks, N.D. schools before taking his current job in Bismarck, said the issue countless school districts are wrestling with in this region and all over the country involves the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model versus a model that has a school district providing a wireless device, such as an iPad, for every student.
Getting a sufficient wireless network up and running is job one, he said, and countless districts have done that. But where they go from there is another matter entirely.
"There's a lot of BYOD happening all over the country, and I would say it's grown even faster over the past couple years because of the economic downturn; districts are wondering how they can ever afford to provide devices for the kids," King said. Although he doesn't relate it to the booming North Dakota economy thanks to the oil patch, King said that across North Dakota school districts are, especially in the past year or so, moving toward providing devices for their students.
Page 2 of 5 - "They're realizing it's a pretty powerful thing for a kid to have a device in front of him in a school, a device he can take with him wherever he needs to," King said.
Calling himself a "platform agnostic," King said he doesn't have a preference for any particular device. "I just think the kids need a device," he said.
He has some issues with BYOD, mostly having to do with a district, even inadvertently, creating a school climate occupied by haves and the have-nots. "It's about equity," King said. "Do you want a classroom situation where a kid has a $3,000 MacBook Pro, and another kid has a $499 Wal-Mart laptop? Or other kids have nothing at all? I would hate to see technology become the Air Jordans of this generation, with kids comparing their devices like tennis shoes."
Every district is populated by disadvantaged kids, King said, some way more than others. "BYOD could just make that worse," he said.
Another concern King has with BYOD is how it potentially limits true, sweeping educational change in a classroom or school. "How can you advance your way of thinking if some kids have a device and some don't?" he said. "How much can you really change?"
Hovis is a bit more guarded when it comes to saying one school of thought is preferred or better than another school of thought when it comes to using technology in education. "The MDE believes that every child should have equitable access to resources, tools, technology and other educational supports," he said.
If more and more students have wireless electronic devices, scrapping the traditional, paper textbook model seems to be next on the list of changes a school district makes. King said he still classifies electronic curriculums as an "emerging" movement. Social studies is a great subject to start with, he said.
"There are so many options that don't necessarily need to be packaged as just social studies," he said. "Why do you need to go anywhere specific maps or information about a country? It's everywhere. It starts to get more difficult to understand when you start to wonder, 'How do we leverage the Library of Congress to teach social studies?' It's a valid question, and it'll take a lot of heavy lifting to take those extra steps."
It's a long road ahead for districts looking to take a major leap into electronic curriculums, he said. But King strongly suggests that any district looking at curriculum adoption today "should at least be evaluating the digital piece" to avoid the situation where pretty much as soon as a student cracks open a new textbook, some of the information on its pages is out-dated and even obsolete.
Page 3 of 5 - Maybe there's an interim step, King said, like maybe a school purchases enough traditional textbooks for one classroom, and the textbooks stay in the classroom and every class that comes in utilizes them. "Maybe that's how you take a little step forward while at the same time avoid purchasing a $100 book for each student," he said. "Then you wrap the digital component around the textbook."
King said it's getting easier and cheaper for districts to take bold technological leaps. Studies show, he said, that providing a device to each student generates its own efficiencies.
It's funny how fast the topics of conversation and the technological hurdles change so quickly now, King added. The State of Maine implemented a statewide laptop initiative around 12 years ago, he recalled. "I was in Grand Forks then and I couldn't comprehend how we could ever do that, and it was because of battery life," he recalled. "Did we have to put a plug-in in every classroom for every laptop? I couldn't wrap my arms around it then."
But a few short years later, the technology improved and the possibilities became very real. "The battery in a device lasts almost all day, and you don't have to redo your entire electrical infrastructure...then the wi-fi piece emerged," King said. "Now, today, we have the coverage and the density for a large number of kids that we didn't have before. It all has to get cost-effective, and I think we're getting there."
Area schools updating to align education with new technology
As technology advances, the way students receive information changes.
Butterfield-Odin Schools and St. Pauls Lutheran School are working hard to keep technology in their classrooms current.
St. Pauls Lutheran School
St. Paul’s Lutheran School is moving forward with technology by purchasing Google Chromebooks for the fifth through eighth grade classes.
Google Chromebooks are small, lightweight laptops that can be used for browsing the web, applications and storage of textbooks. Students at St. Paul’s are excited about the opportunity to use new computers for their studies.
“Everything now days is more and more technology, and whether we like it or not the school side of it is going toward technology too,” said St. Paul’s Principle Steve White. “I think it really excites the kids because they like to be on computers, they like to play video games, they just like to look at screens – so if we can put a textbook on a screen maybe that will motivate them a little bit more to do their work.”
Page 4 of 5 - The use of Chromebooks will also save the school money because they will not have to spend money on replacing textbooks every year. Generally speaking, online textbooks are much cheaper than paper books.
“If you buy a textbook, one that you can hold, that's forty, fifty, sixty dollars depending on what it is per student, and with the chrome books, it's eight dollars a year for the text book,” said White. “Plus, since you buy it every year you get the updated version every time.”
This means all of the textbooks at St. Paul’s will be up-to-date with the latest information available. This ensures that the students of St. Paul’s are receiving the finest education possible.
The Butterfield-Odin School district also has technology in their future plans with dreams of creating a paper-free school.
The school would like to be about 50 percent paperless by the fall of 2014, but going paperless will bring some challenges.
They have begun this process by purchasing iPads for each classroom and requesting donations from the community for technology.
The school is hoping to have a variation of iPads or Google Chromebooks available for its students, which will save thousands of dollars on books in the long run – but will have heavy up-front costs. IPads will be available to students who don’t have access to their own personal device. Students will be able to use these devices for educational purposes, much in the same way students of Butterfield-Odin are now able to access laptops provided by the school.
The school is also encouraging students to BYOD (bring your own device) to classes. Superintendent Lisa Shellum said that kids are already using their phones and devices in class, the steps that Butterfield-Odin are taking will help students to access educational sites on their smartphones, laptops and smart tablets.
Butterfield-Odin is currently laying down the infrastructure for making the school a paper-free zone. With close to three hundred units of technology all feeding off the same internet server, updated internet speeds and accessible technology are a must. The school has already upgraded its internet speeds and is moving its mail and web services to gmail this summer for more information storage and the ability to use the google docs application.
Teachers are also receiving training on using iPad technology for teaching. Math programs that incorporate digital education have been used and will continue to be used as Butterfield-Odin works toward becoming paper-free.
A new math program, ALECS will be brought to Butterfield-Odin for a three month trial period in the fall of 2013. The program auto-enrolls students in a math-path, based on their scores on a test. It allows advanced students and basic learners to learn at their own level for an extended period of time.
Page 5 of 5 - Students without wifi access at home will have a difficult time doing assignments or accessing additional lessons at home. To solve this problem, Butterfield-Odin is looking into purchasing Verizon flashdrives that students can bring home for wireless access. The flashdrives will have the same filters that the internet at school has, so students couldn’t access any unwanted sites, and would allow students to do their homework at home with the aid of internet.
Part of the reason for Butterfield-Odin upgrading its technology is the rapidly changing difficulty of testing. By sharing online resources with its students, the school is hoping to improve overall test scores. Resources and tutorials are important for the school.
A technology committee was created during the 2012-2013 school year to begin the process of improving overall technology at Butterfield-Odin.
So far, students of Butterfield-Odin raised money for the purchase of iPads along with contributions from the public. The school is also working to improve the Mac computers in computer labs and purchase more lap tops that can be rented and taken home.
By taking these steps forward, both Butterfield-Odin and St. Pauls Lutheran School are working to ensure that their students receive the most up-to-date and technologically savvy education possible.