Netbooks and iPhones part of 'digital revolution' in Utah classrooms
Kaysville • The Centennial Junior High library looks strangely spacious as seventh-grader Catherine Kettle picks up a postcard among the stacks.
It's an e-book, one of 4,500.
Like most school libraries, it's eerily silent among the more than 20 teens gathered inside. But unlike most, Catherine is reading a ghost story, All the Lovely Bad Ones, on her palm-size computer called a netbook, an inexpensive lightweight laptop given to all of the school's 1,100 students.
Besides library e-books, students use their netbooks constantly, not only to read their textbooks, but to research class projects, communicate with teachers and to turn in assignments.
The Davis School District installed digital devices such at netbooks at four of its schools as part of an initiative called the 1:1 Project that is finishing its third year. The goal is to connect students with technology in the classroom to better prepare them for an increasingly digital world in the future.
If money was available, Davis educators said, they would expand the mobile devices to other schools, but now have to look for more frugal measures. They see their pilot project as having implications for similar classroom-tech programs cropping up around Utah.
It cost more than $1 million to buy nearly 2,500 netbooks ($385 each), install almost 200 computer-access points ($840 each) and educate 132 teachers in new classroom techniques for 2,829 students in the district chosen to participate in the 1:1 Project. Two schools had to be completely rewired and updated for the technology to work.
It's uncertain whether the new devices have improved students achievement. But since netbooks came to the classroom, educators have watched improved attendance and a decrease in the number of disciplinary referrals.
"It is difficult to measure the academic results of the 1:1 Project because there are so many variables that produce achievement outcomes," said Patty Norman, Davis district's interim director of curriculum and instruction.
Setting the stage for the future • The netbooks in Davis schools are just one part of a digital revolution in Utah classrooms. YouTube videos are supplementing in-class lectures. Teachers give out and grade assignments digitally. And gadgets once seen as distractions are now centered on students' desks.
For parents, the technological changes can be bewildering. Some skeptics argue the technologies are expensive and create a "digital divide" between those that can afford them and those that cannot. Others say they are being deployed before teachers have been trained to use them.
Even so, state officials are supporting what they call "smart schools." Three Utah schools were selected to receive $3 million worth of technology, training and support to become a "smart school" over the next three years. Dixon Middle School in Provo, North Sevier High in Salina and Gunnison Valley Elementary will get iPads for each student, along with more desktop computers, a technology infrastructure, audio systems, teacher training, Apple TVs and high-definition TVs for classrooms.
The three schools were chosen from among 49 statewide that applied for the technology as part of a program passed into law last year.
"We need to break the old mold we're using to teach our children," said House Speaker Becky Lockhart in a statement. "We need our kids to be able to access the world of possibilities around them in a way that makes sense to them, and in ways in which they excel. The smart school approach provides that."
Davis educators agree, especially since they used district funds for the 1:1 Project.
"The students are already using the devices, often showing their parents about it, so it's easy for them," said Centennial Junior High Principal Aaron Hogge, who oversees 1,100 students in grades seven through nine.
Some believe the iPad is the biggest technological innovation to hit schools since the overhead projector. Utah educators described tablet devices, smartphones and apps as the most rapidly emerging school devices.
"The netbooks make it easier to access more information," said Centennial Junior ninth-grader Rachel Hansen. She navigates her netbook like a pro, calling up assignments and messages from her teachers in a few clicks.
Freshman Zoe Johnson, 14, said: "I loved the netbook because I've been able to get much more done."
When Alaina Allred walks throughout her English classroom, she see students watching videos on their netbooks. The teacher knows they are not just killing time but doing homework.
"It's really changed the way we do research," Allred said. "The kids can do in a week what took two to three weeks."
Patrolling technology in class • Educators said the biggest concern heard from parents about technology in classrooms involves students accessing inappropriate websites on their mobile devices.
Norman said that students access online material through the district server, which prevents any access to inappropriate material.
"We have total control" on the content students can access, Norman said. "Even if they access it from home."
A couple of Centennial Junior High educators are experimenting with what's being called "flipped classrooms," moving lessons from the classroom to the mobile devices. Teachers post their lessons online for students to assess at home or anywhere they want, then the students are able to use classroom time to discuss difficult concepts.
Tyson Grover, an eighth-grade science teacher, recently combined his students' netbooks and other classroom technology to delve into a civil engineering project.
"We're always looking for ways to give kids more responsibility in their learning," Grover said.
John Kelly, a Westminster College adjunct professor, instructs teachers in the effect of technology in classrooms. He found that teachers often told him they had the latest technology but needed more training in using it as a learning tool.
"It's really all about the teacher training," said Kelly, who is also an educational technology specialist in the Salt Lake City School District.
In the end, the biggest obstacle to converting to digital classrooms is funding.
As the 1:1 Program comes to a close after its three-year pilot concludes this spring, Davis educators are looking to incorporate a cheaper model: Elementary schools will be able to participate in 1:1 digital computing by purchasing technology with grants, fundraising and Utah Trust Lands money. Secondary schools will be working towards BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).
Peter Cannon, a Davis school board member, said he was pleased with the results of the 1:1 Program. He said the initiative jump-started digital learning.
"The challenge is if we wait until we can afford a digital device for each student, we won't be there until the next century," Cannon said. "This is a pilot program for Davis School District [because] we wanted to see how we would manage it."
"We've gotten such a good result," Cannon said, "and that's the direction we need to go."
Educators learn about digital classrooms
On Feb. 6, thousands of educators, students, and schools across the country, including Utah, will celebrate Digital Learning Day, an initiative created by Alliance for Excellence in Education to help teachers share innovative uses of classroom technology.
A recent report by the National Association of State Boards of Education suggests that many educators are not yet comfortable with integrating digital tools in the classroom. The report examines the extent to which many teachers, principals, curriculum specialists, and support staff lack a basic knowledge of technology to make the most of it in classrooms. Lots of barriers exist to closing this technology gap, including one that's generationalthe average age of principals is around 50, the report's authors say, so "it will be some years before a large portion of school leaders are digital natives."