Technology turns the classroom upside down

Paper is optional, on the way to becoming obsolete in Mollie Marot’s biology classroom at Badin High School.

Although her students have heavy, three-inch thick textbooks assigned to them, those are only in case of emergency should the technology fail. Instead, her students use an electronic version of the textbook on their school-provided iPads.

“I’m not lecturing at all,” she said, especially in her Advanced Placement classes, where the curriculum is jam-packed with strict time lines.

Educators said technology today is only scratching the surface of how education will be transformed in the next decade. They said technology will dramatically drive how students are taught in the future.

Costs will be driven down with the use of technology by eliminating overhead and some staffing needs, but the question still remains if it will improve student performance, educators said.

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“On the iPads, the textbook is alive and user-friendly,” Marot said. “They can look at videos instead of photos. They can highlight text and email it to someone who’s working on a project with them, and if they want to, they can even have the iPad read the text to them. The paper version can’t hold a candle to what the e-textbook does.”

The technology also allows them to use scientific instruments that plug directly into the iPad, which also has a built-in timer, and through the virtual cloud, the whole class can collaborate on a spreadsheet at the same time and look at the results together before the bell rings.

“They’re doing things, using equipment that I didn’t get to until my third or fourth year of college,” Marot said.

What Marot is describing is now being called a “flipped classroom,” where the role of the teacher is changing from that of a purveyor of information to a facilitator for learning.

“We’re no longer simply the distributors of knowledge,” said Robin Surland, senior director of technology and innovation for Middletown City Schools. “We have a new role now to help children find knowledge and sift through the massive amount of information that is out there.”

The information aspect is one of three ways that technology has transformed education, Surland said. Today’s students have new paths of creativity at their fingertips, and powerful tools of collaboration and communication that would have seemed like magic even five or ten years ago.

The days of the book report and poster board project are all but gone. Instead, students are making movies and slide shows, working together on projects from across the city — or even around the world.

If students are studying, say, the Oktoberfest celebration in Germany, it’s not a big deal for them to find a peer in Germany who can tell them about it first-hand, Surland said.

While experts say there will always be a place for “bricks and mortar” school buildings, the Internet can allow an entire class to be taught on-line.

The ramifications are immense, according to Zach Vander Veen, Hamilton City’s Schools’ director of technology.

Teachers can get immediate feedback on whether or not the students are learning the things they need for them to learn. The day is coming when the results of state-wide assessments can be available the same day as the test.

“In the past, if a student got sick and missed a week of school, when they got back, they were a week behind,” he said. “With almost everything being on-line, they can stay current even when they’re not in the class.”

The greatest challenge for schools, especially public schools, is to make sure that the technology is available for everyone, he said, whether they bring their own devices to school or if the school is able to provide one-to-one access to pads and personal computers.

“We’re not there at the moment,” he said. “We will be eventually, but you have to do your research. With ‘bring your own devices’ you have to make sure the infrastructure can handle it, if the teachers can handle it and if there are the right supports in place for it to be done well.

“One of the fundamental questions you have to ask is equity,” he said, “how you fill in the gaps for the students who don’t have devices or don’t have Internet access at home.”

But as the cost of technology goes down, giving each student a pad or personal computer becomes closer to reality for even cash-strapped public schools.

Technology is so intergrated into every part of the school that it’s difficult to come up with a total cost, said Joni Copas, spokesperson for Hamilton schools. Some equipment purchases come from grants to special education or career education budgets in addition to a district’s general fund, and there are various sources of one-time grants to defray the direct costs.

A study released earlier this year by the Fordham Institute, however, indicates that the cost of the technology and training could actually reduce per-pupil spending by public schools due to the offset in the efficiencies of a blended education model.

“The traditional-school model spends over half of its budget on labor, with the majority of the rest put into school operations,” according to the report, “The Cost of Online Learning.” “Content and technology costs combined are but a tiny fraction of overall costs. A blended model, by comparison, has the potential to save approximately $1,100 per student.”

Taking it a step further, “By significantly reducing the cost of school operations, a virtual school can potentially save more: some $3,600 per student, a third of the total cost of a traditional school.”

The report has the caveat, however, that the reduced costs do not necessarily equate to improved student performance.

Another challenge is to keep the teachers ahead of the students as today’s youth are “native users” of technology while most teachers are “immigrant learners”, Copas said, although that is changing as younger teachers come into the profession.

“Sometimes, we just need to stay out of their way,” Marot said. “These kids have been playing Nintendo since they could hold a control pad, and I have to stay a half-step ahead.”

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