Technology a growing part of classrooms

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More and more schools, like Pacelli who have provided laptops to their students, are embracing technology to aid in educating. - Herald file photo

It starts with a flash drive. Then it goes to a laptop. In a couple years, it could be tablets. Little by little, area students are using more and more technology in the classroom right from the start of the school year.

Gone are the days of floppy disks where students could put basic word documents and little else on the precursor to flash drives. In many classrooms, learning goes hand-in-hand with one-to-one technology access, which means every student has access to their own computer or database.

“When I went to school and first started teaching, all we had were the books in the library or the textbooks in the classroom,” said David Krenz, Austin Superintendent. “Now all you have to do is click on the Internet browser. You’ve got more information than the Library of Congress.”

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There’s no better example of technology in the classroom than Grand Meadow Public Schools. For the past five years, Grand Meadow High School provided laptops to ninth-graders through seniors due to a technology grant they received.

The program is so successful that Grand Meadow schools bought several iPads and iPods last year to provide further technological access to elementary and intervention classrooms.

“We’re right on the edge of what needs to be done in terms of technology,” said Grand Meadow Principal Paul Basel.

Grand Meadow officials keep costs low by buying second-hand laptops from corporations, which are often better than store-bought laptops according to Jeff Oian, technology director. Corporations usually dump laptops after two or three years, once they’re deemed obsolete.

“We buy those for 40 percent of the costs,” he said.

Grand Meadow students are working with the second round of laptops Oian bought.

Several schools are taking Grand Meadow’s lead, whether through providing laptops or putting tablet computers like the iPad into classrooms.

Pacelli Catholic Schools laptop program was an unequivocal success last year according to Pacelli Elementary School Principal Mary Holtorf. High school students, from freshmen to seniors, were each provided laptops (at about $125 for the year) to use in the classroom and at home.

Students used the laptops for digital presentations as well as reference materials, according to Holtorf, who was principal of Pacelli High School last year. The program opened up space at the school’s computer lab and Pacelli cut paper costs as a result, as more assignments and projects were done digitally. It’s the access to information and decreased paper costs that make many local, state and national education officials excited about one-to-one technology.

“It’s a tool,” Krenz said. “It’s not a toy or a game, it’s a tool you need to be successful. If we really want to meet the student’s needs, it’s a necessity.”

What’s more, education officials are taking steps to make sure students know computer use is a tool. Pacelli officials learned last year that a digital ethics class might be in order after one incident involving a student. Holtorf said the student didn’t do anything seriously wrong, but the incident prompted discussion amongst Pacelli officials about digital citizenship.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” Holtorf said.

As a result, Pacelli is putting in an Open DNS service to block certain sites, from chatrooms to anything pornographic, from students’ use on campus. In addition, Pacelli is also upgrading its Internet service to fiber optics, in order to match students’ and staff’s needs for better Internet service.

All told, the year passed with little to no computer-related incidents and no broken computers.

“I was really proud of how they treated them,” Holtorf said.

In addition, Pacelli will pursue more technology-related initiatives under new president and high school principal Joseph Steepleton, who said earlier this month he was impressed with how far ahead Pacelli was in terms of technology.

Austin’s a little behind the curve when it comes to one-to-one technology. It’s district policy for students to carry flash drives from grade school through high school, as every elementary except for Sumner Elementary School mandates flash drives as an essential school supply starting in fourth grade.

That’s largely due to the costs of providing every student with their own computer.

“We’re trying to take it in small steps just because the financing side of it is not an easy go,” Krenz said.

Austin students are by no means underprivileged when it comes to technology. Every student has access to a computer lab, although computer lab space is in hot demand. In addition, iPods and tablet computers are used in several schools. Austin’s special education programs recently got 26 iPads to use this year as well. Neveln first-graders will get a surprise this year, as each first-grade classroom will come with six computers so students can use learning programs earlier.

The end goal, to many educators, is getting tablets in the classroom. Many officials are talking seriously about replacing thick textbooks with tablets, which cut costs further and allow students to transport more materials they may need. Grand Meadow officials are looking to switch to tablets in the near future and Austin officials are looking at something similar.

“We’re not in a place where we’re ready to go there but we’re having discussions for sure,” said John Alberts, director of educational services.

Regardless, the technology wave is coming, and students are ready to swim.

“Any time you can garner that kind of information and those resources, it becomes a world of information that is at the teacher’s fingertips.” Krenz said.