New tech ‘clicks’ with local schools

The blending of technology and learning is key to next generation of education

Jan. 20, 2018 — The Oregon Coast is seldom associated with terms like “cutting-edge technology.” Contrastingly, the coast's allure is planted firmly in its panoramic natural beauty and the ease of escaping the din of our modern world. Outside of Florence, the gentle buzz of small-town modernity settles to a low, rural hum, eventually rippling upriver toward the pastoral ambience of riverside homes in Mapleton, where images of pleasantly simple life seem far removed from thoughts of “cutting-edge” concerns.

A glimpse through a window in a Mapleton classroom, though, might widen some eyes. For all the rustic appeal of Mapleton’s community, a quiet but revolutionary adaptation to the 21st century is occurring inside its schools. For students here, a typical day will present a range of front-line technology into their lives.

While a recently-installed computer lab boasts 25 new computers, each class in the elementary school comes equipped with eight iPads, a Smart Board (an interactive whiteboard), a document camera (a digital overhead projector) and two computers for teacher operations. In higher grades, many of the same tools complement lessons, including 40 notebook computers which float between classes as needed.

For a district its size, the sight of a classroom full of digitally connected students may come as a shock.

“Most people come out here and don’t expect that,” said Jodi O’Mara, Superintendent of Mapleton School District.

O’Mara has stepped into the digital domain with little trepidation, bucking the inherent limitations of a rural school district to win her students a taste of the future. Though the plethora of modern hardware means some veteran teachers face a bit of a learning curve, it's proven little to no obstacle for the students of a tech-savvy generation.

“Students are pretty fluent in all of that,” O’Mara said. “In fact, they can sometimes help the teacher with it.”

On top of classrooms brimming with digital devices, the entire district’s internet connection is fed by fiber optic cables, which can download at speeds of 100mbps (megabits per second). And to ensure constant, uninterrupted service throughout the day, wireless connection points have been installed in every elementary school classroom and across the middle and high school campuses.

Mapleton’s technological advances may seem starkly different from the childhood classrooms in the memories of many, but this sort of digital induction is hardly the exception, with most schools around Mapleton positioned somewhere on this spectrum.

Downriver, the larger Siuslaw School District also benefits from fiber connections in each school, though much of its infrastructure is older and nearing its limits. A small number of tablets are dispersed among kindergarten, first and second grade, but Chromebook laptops make up the bulk of high-tech handouts for grades three and up.

Around 400 Chromebooks shared district-wide supply a student body of nearly 1,400 in addition to roughly 250 older laptops, the latter of which Siuslaw School District Superintendent Andy Grzeskowiak would like to phase out.

“You can take a Chromebook and put it on a desk and it'll go all day long,” he said. “You’re only going get four hours out a traditional laptop.”

Chromebook laptops, which are simpler, lighter versions of their bulky predecessors and primarily perform functions with the Chrome browser, give students instant access to their assignments and records on the school's servers, boosting the convenience and efficiency of the average school experience.

The Digital Classroom

Mapleton and Siuslaw are reflective of a national trend toward “digital classrooms,” a harmonious immersion of teacher and student school life into educational technology. Software, hardware, cloud drives, internet access and other high-tech components make up these classrooms as educators work to develop student experiences that increase engagement and adaptability in a digital generation.

The abundance of devices and digital tools at a teacher's disposal can make for creative applications in any class.

Indeed, Mapleton schools find uses for their technology in language arts, social studies and even their farm-to-table class. The access to digital books in itself makes the technology use applicable nearly across the board.

“Basically any reading curriculum has a big online component to it,” said O’Mara. “A lot of middle school and high school textbooks are now online. Some districts aren't even purchasing new textbooks because you can purchase them online.”

Sarah Timpe, who teaches third and fourth grade in Mapleton Elementary School, finds regular use for devices in her classes. “I’ve used iPads for the kids recording each other doing projects like writing songs and making commercials to show what they've learned,” she said.

Even outside of school, the impact of a digitally integrated classroom becomes apparent. “My sons don’t bring textbooks home,” Timpe said. “They can get online and get the textbook at home.”

A key benefit to integrating modern technology into classrooms is the adaptability it affords various learning methods. In Mapleton, interactive whiteboards at the front of classes augment learning by offering audio, visual and even tactile stimulus — in which objects can be touched and interacted with on the board. Adaptive online programs such as DreamBox boost math skills by tailoring instructions and interactive games to each student's personal progress.

These immersive experiences are an acute contrast to passive learning models of old, which rightfully bore criticism for their stale, rote-memorization style of education. Newer models present a logical engagement point for a generation that has grown up using smartphones and tablets.

“The kids are definitely interested in the technology,” said Timpe. “It’s definitely a draw for them. I think especially with the DreamBox math app we have, I’ve seen a lot of improvement in math skills from use of that.”

Some classes are even offered online. Though mainly used for credit recovery and electives rather than primary instruction, they open the door for more case-by-case adaptability. Because smaller districts like Siuslaw and Mapleton don't always have a teacher on staff that specializes in particular electives, online classes can provide students with a wider class selection in subjects such as German or psychology.

Online classes typically consist of two teachers: one in the classroom, who helps facilitate the online lesson and answer questions; and one on the screen, who may be a professor or specialist in the desired field. While some online video lessons can be live depending on the program and online instructor's time zone, most are pre-recorded. Grzeskowiak cites the asynchronous nature of living on the West Coast as the main limitation.

“To time it and do it live is very, very difficult,” he said. Even attempts to synchronize Siuslaw and Mapleton lesson hours proved unworkable.

Regardless, the individualization afforded by the lessons makes them valuable tools. In addition to expanding elective choices, students who need extra attention can benefit from these classes.

“Online classes are a great option when you have a kid who transfers into your school,” said O’Mara. If a student from another district enrolls with credits that don't map on to their new school's system, online classes can fill gaps and effectively put the new student on track. 

Making Digital Citizens

While both school districts have embraced the evolution of technology in the classroom, they are also keenly aware that allowing access and exposure to this landscape comes with its caveats.

Overuse of online classes, for example, is a concern for O’Mara.

“For some kids, that works,” she said. “And if that’s the avenue that they’re going to go down in their job skill set when they graduate, I think that’s perfect.” The danger lies, she says, in swinging the curriculum too heavily in favor of this method in sacrifice of interpersonal interaction.

The troubling overlap of the digital world and social life finds a nesting ground in the increased use of social media, such as Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, becoming everyday forms of interaction. “It’s opened up the number of people that kids can interact with,” said O’Mara. “However, I also think it has lessened personal interaction and how kids interact with people in person and the skills that they have to do that.”

Understanding body language, social cues and conflict resolution notably all play in to a child becoming a productive member of society and there are concerns the narrow scope of internet interactions may break down social deftness.

How one interacts with the click of a button has a vastly less personal touch to it than face-to-face interaction, but equally significant potential consequences.

According to Grzeskowiak, it needs to be stressed to students that “you can be horrible to somebody at the speed of light and not get that back.”

Impressing upon students the ideals of social responsibility goes hand-in-hand with warning them about online dangers. In no uncertain terms, some notoriety of the internet has been earned in cases of unwanted solicitation of minors and predation. Both school districts recognize the need for educating youths to navigate the internet safely and use their technology responsibly.

In Siuslaw School District, for example, middle school students are treated to an annual “digital citizenship” class, which teaches not only how to use their technology, but how to use it responsibly. Students walk away with a necessary awareness of how to interact with peers and how to spot red flags in internet chatrooms.

Despite these obstacles and potential drawbacks, both superintendents agree it's worth investing in classroom technology.

Grzeskowiak recalls his own advantages as a student in the '70s. “I had a set of encyclopedias at home,” he said. “And I had a typewriter. And so I was able to do certain things at home that other kids couldn't.”

The peaks and valleys of the educational landscape have long been shaped by the “haves” and “have-nots,” and as technology and access to information have scaled through the decades, a singular rule of thumb has remained constant: “If you have access to materials — and it doesn't really matter what that's been over time — you have an advantage,” said Grzeskowiak.

Today, the advantage of having a school with up-to-date technology quickly becomes evident when considering the extent to which education is offered online, through devices and on computers.

Convenience, flexibility and speed of access are integral components to both a student's ability to learn and a teacher's ability to deliver meaningful lessons.

O’Mara agrees that the integration of more digital classrooms is an advantage. “I think the job market is going more technology-based, which allows for more freedom at home and what your job is,” she said. “For Mapleton, that's why we try to give them the exposure at school.”

Modernizing Mapleton

The efforts of schools to keep pace with the demands of modernity have long been thematic to the education arena, and Maple School District was no exception to this struggle.

Before renovations and upgrades began last year, the district's schools had suffered from a limited, sub-par internet connection.

“Three years ago we had 10 megabytes (per second). Two years ago we upgraded to 20 megabytes,” said O'Mara. “And it was slow.”

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission defined “broadband” as a minimum download speed of 25mbps. A nation-wide policy was thus established, stating that all Americans should have access to this as a minimum standard. Failing to meet this standard in Mapleton schools bore frustrations in the classroom.

With 40 notebook laptops shared between the middle and high schools and another 40 iPads for the elementary school to complement lesson plans, bandwidth became a glaring issue as the schools' internet capabilities often struggled to meet the demands of the classroom technology.

For example, “If all of our iPads were on at the elementary and connected to the internet and a classroom set of [notebooks] tried to connect, it would boot people off,” said O'Mara. “It was almost not worth using the technology.”

But in May 2016, Mapleton School District's luck began to change.

“We hit the jackpot. We really did,” O’Mara said. “It all started because our community said, ‘Yes, we want to support our schools.”

Following a vote in favor of the school’s general obligation bond, a perfect storm of funding and fiber transformed a tiny district with outdated infrastructure into an educational paragon of modernity.

“Our community was gracious enough to pass a $4 million bond,” she said. “And then we in turn got a $4 million matching grant from the state of Oregon and then on top of that we received a $1.5 million seismic grant for the elementary and a $1.5 million seismic grant for the high school.”

The influx of funding allowed for badly needed infrastructure renovations to begin last spring, which also opened the door for high-grade Cat 6A Ethernet cables and new wireless access points to be installed.

Then, in a fortuitous turn, months of working with Lane ESD to bring better internet to Mapleton ended in a pleasant surprise when collaboration between CenturyLink and Lane ESD saw fiber installed to dispel the district’s bandwidth woes.

While the bond and grants massively helped the district commit to its infrastructural needs, O’Mara adds that the fiber alone would have been an enormous boon to the schools’ classroom integrity.

The funding to upgrade partnered with the introduction of fiber, Mapleton School District's bandwidth issues were virtually eradicated, which freed teachers to take full advantage of classroom devices and tools, turning the district into nothing short of a success story.

Though the Mapleton district was the recipient a fortunate series of events, bringing schools up to date is more than just a roll of the dice. Grant writers and tenaciousness go a long way and much of a school’s good fortune starts with community support for bonds. O’Mara believes the funding is there to create more success stories like hers.

“I think there’s a big push in the state of Oregon for access to technology,” she said. “We've had some great grants given to us through Western Lane Community Foundation and Mapleton Community Foundation that have helped to provide for some of those tablets and get technology in the hands of kids.”

Upgrading a school's technology, however, is only one among many considerations as officials contemplate the flow of funds. Siuslaw High School, for example, is marked for potential replacement and ongoing deliberations over the school’s long-term outlook have waylaid other development ideas. An investment in technical infrastructure now lacks appeal.

“We’ve delayed doing it just because we know we've got the new high school potentially coming up,” said Grzeskowiak, “and so spending the money to do it now wouldn’t necessarily be a wise use of the funds.”

Doing nothing is not an attractive option, either. As it stands, the school's current infrastructure puts a cap on its technological capacity.

“We’re limited on several fronts,” Grzeskowiak said. “Just because of the way that building is designed … running wiring is a problem — and on top of that we're kind of maxed out for our electrical capacity.”

In order to update any further, Grzeskowiak is faced with a simple obstacle of logistics. “We physically don't have the space for it,” he said. “We’ve got transformers in buildings that are at capacity. We cannot build up any more.”

If the new high school does get built, there are plans to establish it as the district’s new technology infrastructure hub, running a district-wide digital system for phones, intercoms and bell systems.

Building a new school and streamlining such a system, however, doesn’t come cheap.

A general obligation bond for construction projects is anticipated for May, though the school board hasn’t formally approved a project list or project amount yet. While a new high school is the primary concern, seismic projects at the elementary and mechanical improvements for the middle school are also under review.

“The reality is, commercial construction is not getting cheaper,” said Grzeskowiak.

Moreover, public entities such as schools must meet higher standards than residential construction projects — and higher standards mean higher costs.

Regardless of how May’s vote turns out, Grzeskowiak’s main concern with the high school lies in meeting modern standards by giving the high school the infrastructure and technology to “do collaborative workgroups so kids can participate in meaningful effective discussion that leads to critical thinking, synthesis and analysis,” he said. “And to make sure every class happens in a classroom,” referring to classes that have been relegated to smaller rooms due to lack of space. 

The Digital Future

Providing the adequate environment for these goals involves not just increasing space, but increasing the number and quality of devices that can be placed in students' hands. Future educational environments will likely demand more hi-tech access and both superintendents see greater integration of technology in the future.

Ideally, O’Mara is looking to achieve a one-to-one student-to-notebook ratio for grades above elementary, which could possibly enable students to take devices home with them after school.

Grzeskowiak also envisions this kind of digital immersion. “Our education foundation just wrote a grant for us and we're looking to try to go one-to-one Chromebook/notebook for all kids grades four through 12,” he said.

The Siuslaw district has also purchased a learning management system that interfaces with the school information system. In effect, every student has a records profile, which is linked to their teacher’s profile, which has all of their class records and grades.

“It’s meant to be a one-stop shop for teacher planning, grade submission and then student notes and … assignment submission as well,” said Grzeskowiak. “So if you miss class, the notes are there. The videos are there. You can submit your homework through there. If you miss a quiz, you can log on and take the quiz.”

The convenience to teachers and students is intended to be matched with off-campus benefits as well. “It takes a lot of the paper out of the system,” said Grzeskowiak, “and makes it an easy check for parents instead of ‘Hey, where’s your homework? You didn't bring it home.’ A parent could then download that piece to do at home.”

Future developments in the tech industry will also urge schools to keep pace not just as an advantage, but a necessity. Subjects such as science, business and computer technology often have little choice but to match modern standards.

Before its upgrades began, Mapleton School District had fallen short of those standards, but O’Mara feels they are on the cusp of meeting the definition of a modern school system, especially once remodeling of the high school is finished.

For Siuslaw, “We're close, but we're not all the way there yet,” said Grzeskowiak. The district has adopted a somewhat patchwork method as funds are made available, picking a couple classrooms a year and building the infrastructure as needed.

Seamlessly integrating upgrades into an infrastructure that lacks physical capacity, however, remains Grzeskowiak’s main concern.

The future of technology in the classroom points to more robust and integrated applications.

The U.S. Department of Education itself endorses a model of embracing technology in such forms as online classes, digital textbooks and games which inspire critical thinking. Resources and possible applications abound on a horizon that may only end with an educator’s creativity.

Though it’s hard to accurately forecast the applications of classroom technology in years to come, O’Mara and Grzeskowiak agree smartphones will see more use in the classroom setting.

“It would be nice to see it become an educational tool,” said O’Mara. “Because most students have it and those that don't would then have access to one through the school.”

“The classroom computer became the glorified typewriter. And then the computer became the glorified presentation machine,” said Grzeskowiak. “In essence you’re going to see the phone become more than just a glorified computer and that's really the next kind of evolution in this.”

If change truly is the only constant, it’s evident the coming generations must be equipped to face it.

Modest improvements to the classroom have their place, but addressing leaps of progress in an increasingly technologically-dependent society will require forward-thinking educators, well-equipped classrooms and, as in Mapleton’s case, community support.

Striking the right balance between the digital and analog world will be an ever-present responsibility for teachers and parents alike as technology becomes more immersive and potentially less interpersonal.

“It is funny, too, though,” Timpe said about her Mapleton Elementary School students. “You do have the occasional person who does not enjoy it. And they'll be like, 'Can I read my book instead?'”

She added optimistically, “And that’s okay!”


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