Technology goes to the head of the class
By Jennifer Wohlleb
Owensboro Independent school board Chairwoman Nancy Eskridge was thrilled as she watched a student walk down her street, take off his backpack and kneel to tie his shoe.
“He carefully laid it down, tied his shoe and then put his backpack on,” she said.
The precious cargo in the backpack was a new laptop, provided by the district to all students in grades 5-12 as part of the district’s new one-to-one program.
Photo: Fifth-graders at Owensboro Middle School get acquainted with their new laptop computers, the last step in the district’s comprehensive technology plan. By Julie Ellis/Owensboro Independent Schools
The computers were the final step in rolling out the district’s comprehensive technology plan, which was more than a year in the making.
Superintendent Larry Vick said the plan got its start when the district received federal stimulus dollars.
“We wanted it to be an investment in our district and not be something that was just going to go away,” he said. “I knew we couldn’t buy technology with the stimulus money – we had to hire people – but the idea that floated around the instruction department, was ‘Let’s use this money to develop a first-class digital curriculum before we buy the technology.’”
To that end, the district hired six curriculum specialists: math, science, social studies, language arts, elementary and technology.
“The technology person was to help the others take their ideas and transform them into digital format in the proper programs and storage,” he said.Lessons
When Owensboro rolled out the laptops at the beginning of this school year, it already had 600 digital lessons ready to go as well as the training and framework to help teachers continue creating their own.
Getting to that point required science digital curriculum developer Lora Wellman and her fellow specialists to spend their first few months researching different tools and resources to see what was available.
“Then we began getting our teachers involved, asking them to request lessons,” she said. “We had a template they would fill out and request a lesson that was tied to a particular standard. Then we would take that and any suggestions they gave us, things they did in the past, things they would like to do, we began to digitize it and put the best resources into it that we had found.”
Wellman said as a science teacher, many of her lessons were interactive and hands-on, characteristics that translated well to a digital medium.
“Typically a lot of my lessons involve interactions or simulations, where kids can manipulate things online, almost like a lab environment,” she said. “We include a lot of videos, and lot of times the worksheets become electronic and the kids can submit things electronically.”
Vick said the thinking was with the new common core standards being implemented, districts already were going to be creating new lessons, why not digitize them?
Wellman said doing that not only allows educators to speak to students in their language, but creates an environment where education becomes much more individualized.
“We want them to be able to use the tool, but what we’re really wanting to do is transform how learning occurs,” she said. “We want to see self-paced instruction, we want to see individualized instruction, we want to see teachers pull kids out to work with them on their individual needs. We really want to utilize these tools to free up our teachers to do other things that our students need.”
Matthew Constant, assistant superintendent of technology and federal programs, said providing the ready-made lessons was just a stepping-stone.
“We also provided for the capacity for our teaching staff to learn really easily so that they understand we don’t have to reinvent the instructional wheel,” he said. “We start with what’s already been a great lesson and look at opportunities to infuse technology where is seems to fit the most seamlessly.”Hardware
Once the curriculum was in place and technology leaders prepped and ready in each school, the district turned its attention to finding the right computer. In that, Vick said Owensboro’s approach was different from most districts because the hardware was the final step in the process of the laptop program, not the first.
“We found that when many districts decided to do this, in the spring they would take bids on the computer, they would usually buy the low bid and the computer company that was successful would come in and show the teachers the bells and whistles, and demo a few things,” Vick said. “We then typically expected the teachers to take the machines home over the summer and do all this work and these lessons on their own.”
Owensboro also took a different approach by distributing computers to all fifth- through 12th-graders in the same year, rather than phasing it in a grade level at a time.
“A lot of times (districts with laptop programs) would start it with the freshman class and add on each year,” Vick said. “It was hard to implement because you had freshmen in some classes with some sophomores (who didn’t have computers), so how do you design a lesson when they don’t have the same access? So the term I use is that we got our feet wet up to our neck.”Rollout
It took the first six weeks of the school year, but each student now has a computer – an 11-inch Macbook Air, chosen for its light weight, lack of moving parts, power and ability to retain value at the end of its four-year cycle.
Vick said a legislative change made in 2010 allowed the district to use $2.3 million in excess building fund money to buy the computers. The district also provided special backpacks with a padded compartment for the computer. Students are required to keep them in the backpack when not in use.
Students are asked to pay a $50 user fee each year, which will be pooled to use for maintenance and replacement if needed.
“We have a payment plan, $5 a month for 10 months,” Vick said. “If anyone can’t come up with the $5 down payment, we have some teachers who kicked in. No child is going to be left out of this because of financial resources, but we wanted everybody to have a little skin in the game, so we didn’t actually waive this fee for anyone ... if someone misses a payment, we’re not going to take the computer back. We think these are so essential to instruction.”
Constant said preparing the district’s infrastructure was also part of the process. He said there have been a few glitches.
“You really plan for 2,400 more users to be on your network and you do everything you can to get ready, but you really don’t know how it’s going to react until you flip the switch on,” he said. “And when we’ve had all of those users, we are maxing out the bandwidth we’ve been given. We’re going through processes now with the state to get more bandwidth and they are open to that and working with us on that. It’s a good problem to have, reaching the limit of what you’ve been given and doing so appropriately.”
Parents were also part of the rollout. Constant said nearly 98 percent of parents attended the 90-minute training sessions.
“We were very honest with them about things like digital citizenship and cyberbullying, how to partner with us when they are at home to help us monitor where their kids are going, and some tips on where the laptop should be when they are at home,” he said.
Owensboro Independent Schools’ leaders are hoping students treat their new district-provided laptops as their own, so they’ve adopted a plan where that could become true.
“We want kids to take care of the machines and we have a plan where when they graduate, they can purchase it for a depreciated price,” Superintendent Larry Vick said.
The Apple Macbook Air computers, which will be used for four years, were purchased in part because they are expected to retain their value and usefulness.
As part of the district’s one-to-one laptop program, each student in grades 5-12 pays an annual $50 fee. If there are no problems with the computer, then up to $200 of that fee will be applied to the price of the computer if students want to purchase them when they graduate.
“This year’s freshmen, when they are seniors, that machine is going to be valued at $250, but they could have a $200 credit,” Vick said. “So for $50 they could take it to college or the work place. It’s kind of a unique concept to encourage them to take care of the machines.”
The district is also letting students use the computers for nonacademic pursuits.
“We’re also allowing them to put their music on them, and after school hours we unblock Facebook,” he said. “We’re encouraging these kids to use these devices as if they were their own, because they can be if they choose to purchase.”
Students are expected to treat these tools with respect and use them appropriately.
“Just as in any classroom without computers, you’re going to have students who push the envelope,” said Matthew Constant, assistant superintendent of technology and federal programs. “We have a minority of kids who are challenging us and we expected that, but for the majority of the kids, they are treating the laptop like it is their own. They are protecting it, they are doing everything they can to take care of it, especially our youngest population. They really believe they got a new best friend out of the deal.”
Students who do misuse their laptops will face discipline, but not the loss of their computers.
“If a kid misuses it, the discipline is not going to be not letting them have the computer for school use,” Vick said. “We could restrict them to using it at school or completing tasks on it after school. Not having it to use at school is not going to be a disciplinary action because that would be like taking away a textbook.”