Schools see a tech revolution, but will students see results?
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, August 11, 2012 – St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva has glimpsed the “future of education”: a reimagined school district where students can learn 24/7 and set their own pace in the classroom.
She is asking taxpayers this fall to chip in an extra $9 million a year for St. Paul’s schools. It will pay for a technology-powered overhaul that she says will revolutionize learning.
Already, sweeping changes are unfolding across the metro area, in the classrooms of tech-savvy teachers and in districts rolling out multimillion-dollar initiatives. Educators are setting aside time for students to work on online projects, creating video lesson repositories and mapping out each student’s progress with digital tools.
Classroom technology skeptics argue that there is little hard evidence that technology investments pay off in achievement gains to justify the often-hefty price tags. St. Paul has spent more than $5.5 million on Apple devices alone in the past couple of years.
Advocates counter that technology lets educators engage students on their own digital turf and tailor instruction to diverse learning styles even in a 30-pupil classroom.
“Technology has changed everything,” said Steve Buettner, Edina’s director of media and technology. “We can’t ignore it because we don’t yet have concrete data on a link between technology and grades.”
St. Paul officials say the district has been setting the stage for the technology plan rollout for more than a year.
It has beefed up its schools’ capacity to support wireless devices. It has loosened a once-restrictive policy on using personal devices at school. It is seeking bids from companies to create a “personalized learning platform” that will place students, teachers and parents on the same page like never before.
Think of a distant cousin of the Facebook profile: On student pages, it will store and crunch data on grades, attendance and discipline; it will allow kids — and parents — to keep track of assignments, revisit recorded lessons and connect with teachers and peers. Teachers could easily swap educational materials and troubleshoot in tandem.
To illustrate what the tech plan could mean for students and teachers, the district conjures Ms. Summers, the high school social studies teacher of St. Paul’s future. Her students are about to spend six weeks working on an Internet marketing campaign based on the concept of freedom.
Within minutes, an online quiz on Day 1 tells her how much students already know and where there’s room for improvement. To get background information, students can choose to watch an educational video, tackle an interactive tutorial or join Ms. Summers for a discussion in the back of the class. They chat about freedom in interactive videoconferences with students from a remote village in Africa.
It’s a vision of the future in which students get to make more choices — in class, during time for independent work carved out of the school day, and at home. Teachers do less lecturing and more explaining and guiding.
“More and more, we’re facilitating learning rather than being the ultimate keepers of information and knowledge,” said Peter Beck, who teaches world history at Harding High School.
Collaborating online, his students have created a glossary of Cold War terms and a podcast on fascism. One Sunday, they peppered him with questions online about an exam the next day.
The district has stressed the plan is not about handing out iPads. With 38,000 students, that would not be practical.
Instead, officials are embracing a bring-your-own-device philosophy, with computers or tablets available only to those students who don’t have their own.
The bulk of the $9 million would go toward training teachers and offering tech support. Officials such as Ivar Nelson, the district’s information technology director, talk about 24/7 “Geek Squads” that can address a stumped teacher’s software question and school-based “Genius Bars,” where students get help navigating a device.
“Technology has transformed our lives,” Silva told the board recently. “It has to transform the learning.”
‘FLIPPING’ THE CLASSROOM
On a recent morning, Jen Legatt, Spring Lake Park’s technology integration specialist,__showed a group of teachers how to pull student work off their iPads and onto interactive whiteboards for classroom discussion. She advised them to make students record a short video of themselves solving an algebra problem rather than assign 30 problems on paper: That way, educators will know exactly where students trip up on their way to a solution.
The nonprofit BestPrep-sponsored workshop brought together more than 100 educators, including a contingent from St. Paul, to the University of St. Thomas.
“Education right now is like an awkward teenager — the next five years are going to be uncomfortable for everybody in the family,” Legatt told the teachers, some of whom, she later said, were “just getting comfortable turning on a computer.”
Educators across the metro are jumping in.
This fall, districts such as Lakeville and Farmington are putting thousands of iPads in students’ hands. Farmington has set itself the goal of switching to completely paperless classrooms by 2016. Among the advantages: no more lost homework or class notes, and instant feedback on assignments through online assessment tools.
Teachers in Stillwater and across the metro are “flipping” their classrooms: Recording video lectures students can watch at home, so educators can kick off a class with, “Anybody have any questions?” and jump into hands-on projects. The Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop district in southwest Minnesota is looking into installing wireless coverage on buses so students can do schoolwork during their rides.
Edina, one of the districts that inspired St. Paul’s plan, is rolling out its own technology plan after passing a $4.5 million-a-year levy in 2011. The district carved out time in the high school day for students to work online independently in hybrid classes: in media centers, hallways, the sun-filled atrium of the performing-arts center.
With teachers recording and archiving lessons, Buettner often finds students skipping ahead or revisiting lessons they didn’t quite get in the computer labs.
Edina and other metro districts are setting up the online portal St. Paul envisions, according to TIES, the Minnesota instructional technology consortium. Parents can have an unprecedented window into their kids’ school experience — and more opportunities to get involved.
“A parent can say, ‘You didn’t do so hot on last week’s quiz, and here are some cool links with activities we can do together,’ ” Buettner said.
Such portals are a part of an Obama administration push to personalize learning through technology. The latest installment of the Race to the Top grant program calls on districts to set up digital student profiles that spell out goals and keep track of progress.
But the Q&A at the end of Legatt’s BestPrep session unleashed a flurry of anxious questions.
What if classroom troublemakers harness the technology for distraction and disruption? How do you keep students from wiling away time on YouTube instead of working on assignments? Wouldn’t it be too easy to pull up Google and look up answers to online quizzes in class?
The solutions, Legatt said, are the basics: good teaching and solid classroom management.
DOES IT WORK?
Though prices are falling, such technology-driven changes remain an investment — one districts make even as they sometimes trim budgets elsewhere. This spring, Farmington cut $1.3 million, including some teachers, to free up money for its technology plan.
In St. Paul, which has budgeted $6.6 million for technology infrastructure this school year, the proposed levy increase would raise taxes on a median-value home by $65 a year. School officials point out that the bulk of the overall $821-per-pupil levy request would go to toward proven programs such as all-day kindergarten.
Stanford University professor emeritus Larry Cuban, one of the most outspoken doubters of classroom technology, takes districts to task for rushing to splurge on technology. He says research has mostly failed to produce data that conclusively link technology with gains in student achievement.
“There’s too little evidence, period,” he said. “It’s scattered, it’s sparse, and it’s insufficient to justify a referendum to allocate money for technology.”
The novelty that gadgets inject into classrooms wears off fast, Cuban said, and engagement wanes.
In Minnesota, too, districts have sometimes struggled to show that technology boosts achievement, at least through conventional measures such as test scores.
In pitching the technology plan to the school board, St. Paul officials touted Washington Technology Magnet, which over the past year served as a laboratory for some of its initiatives. But on state tests this spring, Washington lost ground, including a 5-percentage-point drop in math.
Still, advocates for classroom technology say standardized tests cannot measure many of its benefits, including preparing students for information-age workplaces.
Aaron Doering, a professor of learning technologies at the University of Minnesota, has studied the effects of bringing technology into the classroom. In the hands of a skilled and trained educator, tech can be powerful, he said.
“Students do learn with technology,” he said. “But is it the answer to absolutely everything when it comes to student achievement? No. It still comes down to the teacher.”
In St. Paul, Nelson, the information technology director, says districts haven’t always been strategic enough in deploying technology. Devices don’t magically enhance learning. Schools must train and support the teachers who will use them. With all of the initiatives as part of the plan, he said, the district will expect measurable results.
“You don’t get to use the technology and say, ‘I think this worked,’ ” said Stephen Hoffman, assistant director for academic innovation and technology integration. “No. Show me that it worked.”