Schools embracing the digital age

Published 11:16 am Sunday, November 21, 2010

Classroom operation

Technology plays a large part in how classrooms operate today. Students can text answers in class. They can manipulate images on an X-ray machine. They can even take virtual tours of museums around the world.

“Technology is a huge aspect to their life,” said Lisa Sanders, an 11th grade Global and AP Human Geography teacher at Austin High School. “It is a constant that they have on day one.”

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It’s amazing how far technology has gone in supplementing student learning. When Mark Raymond, a physics teacher at AHS, first started teaching, students were measuring results from science experiments with much more error than today.

“About a 25 percent margin of error was reasonable back then,” Raymond said.

Nowadays, students use digital measuring devices with margins of error less than one-tenth of one percent, making physics lessons much more precise. In addition, Raymond hopes to use cheap high-definition video to record objects in motion, which will allow students to measure and predict where and when objects will travel and eventually come to a stop.

Even basic whiteboards have changed with the times, as a majority of classrooms at Austin Public Schools contain SMART Boards, which combine projectors and whiteboards. Teachers and students can interact with images projected on the screen from the teacher’s computer, giving new meanings to writing answers on the smart board.

“It creates a much more interactive and media rich environment,” said Corey Haugen, the district’s director of information technology. “We can do a virtual frog dissection, not that we’re replacing actual frog dissections. So teachers can say, ‘We’re going to dissect the frog in a virtual environment then were going to go out and do the real thing.’”

Students can even break the rules when it comes to technology. Ninth-grade U.S. History teacher Tom Compton makes students use cell phones in class. About once a week, he gets students to text short answers to a survey question he gives out at the end of the period to, a website which gathers students’ texts and posts them for everyone to see. While Compton sees how well students understand his lessons, the students are showing how well they know class lessons.

“They think they’re getting away with something they’re not supposed to do,” Compton said. “Kids are like, ‘We’re allowed to text?’ When they get more involved and actually get more serious about it … when they get to use their text talk, it’s kind of neat to see that.”

There are even iPad apps for AP tests, according to Sanders. Some high school students can use apps and other computer programs while in class, as though they were already in college. At Pacelli Catholic Schools, every ninth grade through 12th grade student gets a laptop to use in class. The benefits of having each student be able to pull up a term or get extra information can’t be understated, according to Paul Bowden, a science teacher at Pacelli.

“Everything is pretty much at their fingertips, which is great,” Bowden said. Pacelli students are currently working on putting together video lab reports, giving them a different way to go through scientific experiments and report on their findings.

On campus

Riverland Community College students in the Radiography program are benefiting from recent technology changes, according to Sandra Nauman, a Radiography instructor. Whereas in the past, students had to develop film from various body scans in darkrooms, radiography technicians can now produce image scans of x-rays, CT scans on plates, which act like the memory card of a digital camera. Those plates are inserted into a computed radiography processor, where the images come up on a screen.

“They’re so much more prepared,” Nauman said.

Students take images of a dummy which contains fake organs, plastic bones, and other life-like features. The scans they put together are similar to scans they would do at a clinic. According to Nauman, the Radiography program partners with 14 clinics and hospitals in southern Minnesota, all of which have updated their equipment within the last year to processors similar to the one Riverland has. In fact, the processors are the same brand.

“(Students) are actually using techniques on him that they’re going to use on site,” Nauman said. “It’s completely changed how we teach things.”

While interactive technology is prevalent in Mower County classrooms, there are certain drawbacks to using so many digital devices. At Austin Public Schools, parents can look at grades posted online and e-mail teachers with whatever questions they may have. However, that means face-to-face talks between parents and teachers have decreased over the years.

“It’s a double edged sword,” Raymond said. “That opportunity to just sit and talk … doesn’t necessarily occur now. We have to work hard to make sure parents still come to conferences.”

Not everyone feels the same, however.

“I feel like that line of communication is really open, just e-mailing parents,” said Kate Schoonover, an environmental science teacher at AHS. “If it’s easier to get that information to parents then it saves a lot of work.”

The future will bring very exciting technology to supplement learning. Next year, almost all of the classrooms in Austin will come equipped with SMART Boards, according to Haugen. There will also be a new district web site as well, featuring class sites and assignments posted online, along with all of the district information currently posted. Riverland is continuously making new additions to their classrooms, whether it be simulation machines in the Law Enforcement Program or mobile x-ray machines in the Radiography Department.

Teaching students will remain the same, however.

“Of all the industries in the world that has undergone the least amount of change, it’s education,” Raymond said. “If you were to take an teacher from the 1800s and drop them into a classroom today, they could function.”