Schools integrating newer technology

BEVERLY – Students in John Bostic’s social studies classes at Fort Frye High School aren’t just studying the past.

With their new curriculum largely electronic, they’re also getting a taste of what their teacher believes is the future of education.

“We’re really teaching two things here – we’re teaching history and how to use the technology,” Bostic said.

Each student in Bostic’s ninth-grade class on a recent schoolday was using an iPad to read the textbook, take notes, answer questions and take a quiz. And schools throughout Washington County are making increasing use of tablets, laptops, smart phones and more.

“The whole idea is getting to that point where we can use electronic communication as a tool,” said Kyle Newton, superintendent of the Warren Local school district.

The Warren Local Board of Education recently approved the first reading of a bring-your-own-device policy that would allow students to use things like smart phones and tablets in school, with their teacher’s permission. Newton said it makes sense for students to use technology in their education that people use in their jobs and daily lives, but they need to learn how to use the devices effectively and properly in a classroom setting, just like raising one’s hand or sharpening a pencil

“It’s going to be a long process because right now they want to get on Twitter, they want to get on Facebook,” he said.

At Fort Frye, Bostic was among the teachers who selected the new social studies curriculum. Textbooks can be accessed online, along with supplemental material like videos, quizzes and text that can change to present the same content to students at different reading levels.

“I really think this is where it’s going to be in the long run, because it saves you money on textbooks,” Bostic said.

While some students prefer the iPads because they can type notes instead of writing them down and don’t have another book to lug around, others were having trouble warming up to the devices.

“I think I’d rather use a textbook, honestly,” said ninth-grader Joshua Carroll. “It’s kind of awkward because the screen is bigger than your hands, but the keys (for typing) are smaller.”

Carroll said he finds technology “fascinating,” but that can be a drawback as well – sometimes, he pays more attention to the device than the content.

Classmate Cameron Hupp uses an iPad at home for games and looking things up on the Internet, but not for homework.

“With the books, I like the satisfaction of flipping the pages,” he said, noting he has a better idea of how much of the assigned reading he has left with a physical copy of the book.

Hupp said reading text from the iPad screen hurts his eyes and he finds the online book hard to follow.

Ninth-grader Maddison Poole sees advantages and disadvantages to the new curriculum.

“I think it’s somewhat easier in the classroom to use because you can get through it faster,” she said.

But the iPads stay in the classroom, so students must access the text online for homework reading and assignments. Poole is among what Bostic described as a small group of students who don’t have Internet service at home. When she has reading to do for homework, she must check out one of the hard copies of the books, of which the district bought 30.

Bostic said seventh- and eighth-grade students have taken to the iPads more easily than the higher grades. He thinks more will come around as they continue to use them.

“You’re changing a culture here. Because kids are going to do what’s comfortable and easy,” he said.

Science teachers are looking at new curriculum options this year, and Bostic hopes they will follow a similar approach.

Fort Frye Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said it’s too early to tell if the district will continue to transition to more electronic texts.

“At the end of the year, we’ll be able to evaluate what works and what didn’t,” she said.

Starcher said the main challenge is connectivity, and not just for students at home. The Internet goes down at the school from time to time as well.

When that happened, Bostic said, the classes “went old school with book and paper and pencil.” They’re now working to download the textbooks onto the iPads so they will be available even if service is down.

At the Washington County Career Center, officials utilized a $40,000 grant to help purchase Amazon Kindle e-readers in 2011. The grant has continued, and the center graduated to Kindle Fires and added more than 180 Microsoft Surface tablet PCs for all of its English and math classes for the current school year, Superintendent Dennis Blatt said.

The center took part in a Microsoft education promotion and received the devices for $249 each, Treasurer Joe Crone said.

Using the Surfaces means English teacher Sherm Koons no longer has to walk around with “reams of paper” and the students can’t say they lost their homework.

“Now it’s all on the cloud,” Koons said. “I can comment, I can highlight. It makes the whole thing more effective, and it’s a lot more interesting for them, and it’s more interesting to me.”

Jerry Bradford, chief information officer for the career center, said students can work on assignments from home and also access programs like Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

“We want them to have the same typed of experiences that they would have in the workforce,” he said.

Brandon Nash, a senior from Marietta High School, said there’s been “a pretty smooth transition so far.” Nash recalled taking computer-based quizzes in Koons’ class, but having to go to a computer lab to do it.

“Now with Surface tablets, that’s all instantly accessible; we don’t have to leave the room,” he said.

The center also saves money on textbooks, which range in price from $140 to $270 apiece, by only purchasing enough to cover students who don’t have Internet access at home. The rest are electronic copies.

In Belpre, Belpre High School social studies teachers opted to keep older textbooks this year in exchange for some new hardware to supplement the material, Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said.

The small laptops were purchased for about $160,000. They allow students to access historical documents online as well as subjects not covered in the textbooks, he said. The high school also debuted its A+ Learning System this year. In a dedicated lab on campus, students can work on credit recovery, enrichment activities and flex credits, covering classes not offered at the school.

“Kids can take a variety of courses online,” Dunn said.

The system can also be accessed by students who can’t come to school, whether for health, behavioral or family issues, he said.

And for the third year, math classes in grades seven through 12 are using electronic textbooks, accessible online. The district has a few hard copies for students without Internet access at home.

Among other districts in Washington County, Marietta City Schools is working with its new information technology contractor, Smart Solutions, to upgrade hardware and connectivity throughout the district, said Ruth Kunze, director of curriculum and technology for the district. Once that is accomplished, the district will be better able to consider adding electronic resources like textbooks, she said.

However, books purchased this year do have an online component students can access outside of school.

“The students can access everything they would need from their textbooks and workbooks,” she said.

Harmar Elementary also had some state funds available to purchase 50 iPads this year, Kunze said.

“They are piloting a math program, and they’re using iPads for the online component,” she said.

There have been some discussions about electronic textbooks in the Wolf Creek Local school district, said librarian and technology coordinator Lisa Wagner. For now, Waterford Elementary School has some iPads to use for math remediation and some high school teachers give assignments online.