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Could Educational Technology Be the Great Private-Public Equalizer?

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When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010, he said that it would revolutionize education. Because he tended to be right about most things computer-related, people like Patti Linden believed him. “At the time, Apple promised to turn high-school textbooks into iBooks, then segue into doing that for middle-school textbooks,” says Linden, the director of technology and information science for the Rose Tree Media School District. “That would’ve been a major step forward in educational technology. But it didn’t end up happening.”

Linden’s school purchased brand-new iPads and MacBook laptops for the 2011-12 academic year. Jobs died in 2011, and shortly thereafter, the iPad’s metamorphosis into an educational device ran into major glitches. A low point came when the preloaded digital curriculum provided by Pearson was deemed academically inadequate by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which asked for its $1.3 billion back. 

Then Google stepped into the void, creating well-regarded educational programs for its Chromebooks, inexpensive but well-built Android laptops introduced in 2011. Gmail and Google Docs became go-to resources for schools, and teachers were no longer Apple dependent. 

Now that they had their choice of products, teachers could discover for themselves what they wanted out of classroom technology. The acquisition of educational technology in public schools has been a surprisingly democratic process, with each district deciding what works best, without interference from government entities. Meanwhile, state and federal agencies have provided substantial funds for public schools to buy or lease computers and other devices. With money no longer a crucial factor for most of the region, many suburban public schools have kept pace with private schools, where the absence of bureaucracy makes operations more fluid and teachers have traditionally had more say in choosing the tools their students use.  

So it isn’t that far-fetched to say technology could transform public schools, putting them on a similar pedagogical footing as their private counterparts. 

From Left: Students in the West Chester Area School District have access to an array of technological gadgets and tools, from robots to circuit boards; In the Baldwin School’s DREAM Lab, the curriculum covers engineering, computer science, robotics, logical and algorithmic thinking, and data analysis. 

Building the Matrix

The most critical part of educational technology is making sure that devices work when students and teachers need them to. And that requires a whole lot of Wi-Fi. 

No one was thinking about that when the Westtown School opened its doors in 1799. The campus is beautiful, but its 600 acres pose a major Wi-Fi challenge, as do the 12-inch-thick walls in Westtown’s dorms. In 2012, the school underwent a technology audit to uncover and resolve its wireless dead zones. Similar issues are encountered at other private schools with historic buildings that, though architecturally impressive, aren’t inherently tech-friendly. 

The opposite is true of Westtown’s Science Center. Opened in 2014, it’s a 16,000-square-foot, $13 million facility with nine classrooms and labs that are completely wired. 

The age of a building isn’t necessarily a measure of its tech-friendliness. Fifteen years ago, West Chester Area School District installed Wi-Fi systems in two of its schools during renovations. West Chester’s high schools operate on a remarkable one gig of bandwidth. Lower Merion School District‘s two high schools reopened in 2009 and 2010 after $100 million in renovations to each, but they later had to revamp their Wi-Fi systems to provide more juice for classroom technology. George Frazier, director of information systems for Lower Merion, says the solution was to build an independent data center, housed at the district’s administration building. “All of the schools are connected to the data center via fiber optics,” says Frazier. “We have a 500-megabyte connection district-wide. Any resources the students need, they can connect to quickly.” 

Building the matrix costs money, as does maintaining it. E-Rate is making high-speed internet access affordable for public schools. Formally known as the Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries, it was established by the FCC in 1996. Under President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, E-Rate was updated in 2010 and 2014 to meet the growing Wi-Fi needs of school districts, while reducing the amount of funds directed at what are now called “legacy technologies,” like wire-dependent computers.

Pennsylvania also provided funds for public schools to purchase or lease computers and software. Between 2006 and 2008, Classrooms for the Future grants supplied $1 million to West Chester, more than $500,000 to the School District of Haverford Township, and $400,000 to Rose Tree Media and Radnor Township school districts. Other school districts in Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties received smaller grants. Some of the funds were directed at professional-development programs to get teachers up to speed. Still, it would take several years for teachers to figure out how to best use technology in school.

In the Baldwin School’s DREAM Lab, the curriculum covers engineering, computer science, robotics, logical and algorithmic thinking, and data analysis. 

All for 1:1 and 1:1 for All? 

Shouldn’t every student have his or her own laptop or iPad? 

By 2011, “1:1” had become a catchphrase among policy makers and politicians looking for easy ways to boost their educational platforms. But teachers and school administrators have taken a more cautious approach. “It’d be great to have so many computers,” says Patti Linden. “But we have to figure out what to do with them.”

Communication is the first apparent answer. Private and public schools need ways for teachers to safely converse with students and parents. Administrators began investigating learning management systems, the educational equivalent of the content management systems used to operate websites. Various LMS are available; finding what works best takes some time. 

The Baldwin School decided on Haiku, deploying it in the fall of 2014, after running a pilot program during the previous academic year. It was a big change for Baldwin, which had been functioning on a CMS. “I’d stopped using [CMS] because it was ridiculous—it was not designed for our purposes,” says Laura Blankenship, dean of academic affairs and chair of Baldwin’s computer science department. “Haiku had zero learning curve, so teachers got the basics quickly. Then they asked what else we could do with it. Experimenting leads to great discoveries.”

Teachers have found various uses for LMS, including distributing and collecting assignments, creating virtual grade books that are accessible to students and parents, and expanding lessons through multimedia programs. Oscar Sosa, an upper-school Spanish teacher at Westtown, utilized Canvas—Westtown’s LMS—to conduct midterm exams. Students wore headphones to hear the questions and recorded videos of themselves answering in Spanish. “I wanted to see their body language, how comfortable they were, and that they weren’t reading off a piece of paper,” says Sosa. “Not only does it show their oral proficiency, but we have an archive of each student’s video exam. Watching them shows us students’ progression.”

Lower Merion had a limited LMS for several years and is switching to Blackboard for the 2016-17 academic year. Rose Tree Media has used Blackboard for almost a decade, even creating a virtual kindergarten program. It didn’t replace half-day kindergarten, but it extended the program by providing supplemental material for students to do at home with their parents. “Students who use virtual K on a consistent basis outperform those who don’t,” Linden says. “Parents like it because it allows them to interact academically with their kids.”

West Chester is a decade into operating an LMS, thanks largely to June Garwin, the forward-thinking director of information technology for the school district. Garwin has spearheaded West Chester’s educational technology advances over the past 17 years. For the 2015-16 academic year, she shifted West Chester from Moodle to the more expansive Schoology. “We needed a more robust system that allowed teachers to have more interactive lessons,” Garwin says. “Schoology will support our next educational initiative.” 

For years, every West Chester student has received a laptop starting in eighth grade. Beginning this fall, a 1:1 program will be phased in for all students throughout the middle schools. That puts West Chester on par with Baldwin, the Shipley School and the Haverford School, all of which provide 1:1 laptops in middle school. Episcopal Academy begins in fourth grade; Westtown and Lower Merion in second. 

The vast majority of tech-savvy schools have 1:1 laptops by high school. That matters, experts say, because laptops are the key to the next revolution in education, dubbed personalized learning. 

Blended learning, flipped classrooms and personalized learning form the trinity of the next generation of educational technology.

Blended learning refers to the incorporation of iPads and laptops into classroom curriculum, which is where many schools are right now. The next step is to create a flipped classroom, in which teachers upload daily curriculum and supplemental materials to learning management systems so that students can download the lessons and work on them individually or in small groups. Some schools are holding at this stage, at least for now. But others are proceeding to the next level: personalized learning. 

Through personalized learning, students use LMS-enabled classes to progress at their own pace through curriculum. They still go to school and have teachers’ constant guidance, but kids needing extra assistance receive it, while those showing proficiency in certain subjects move on more quickly. They can take final exams well before the end of a school year, then advance to the next grade level, eventually completing their requirements and taking electives that interest them. A student who excels at Spanish, for example, might take an AP course in grade 10 or 11, then experiment with French. 

So while private schools have a baked-in form of personalized-learning, technology is enabling public schools to follow suit. Lower Merion is in talks to create personalized-learning programs for its 8,344 students. West Chester is already doing that for its 12,000 kids, expanding the program to 15 courses this fall. West Chester’s blended classes meet five times per week in two different structures: four meetings in person and one online, or three in person and two online. Just like at Westtown, West Chester students can watch world-language videos, record themselves speaking, and submit their assignments and exams via the school’s LMS. 

What it all boils down to is that students are empowered and excited. “From surveys, we’ve learned that, between blended learning and 1:1 laptops, students are now more responsible for their learning,” says West Chester’s June Garwin. “They’re doing their assignments and doing them on time.” 

Second-graders at the Westtown School work with robots.

Need Help Teaching a Kid to Read? There’s an App for That.

Educational technology has become indispensable in teaching reading, math and social skills to students with autism, Asperger’s and numbers- and language-based learning differences. Here’s a quick breakdown.

Speak It!
How do you say that word? This text-to-speech app helps students learn proper pronunciation, among other things.

Dragon Dictation.
Students who struggle with writing use this voice-recognition software to turn their words into text, then edit it. 

Notability and Scrible.
How do you take notes online? Both of these apps have special features designed for visual learners.

Talking Calculator.
One of the best-rated apps for the blind, autistic and those who otherwise struggle with numbers, Talking Calculator is exactly what it sounds like. 

Ginger.
Everyone needs spell-check, but Ginger checks grammar within the context of sentences, reducing homonyms and other errors.

Co:Writer Universal and WordQ. Similar to autocorrect, these word-prediction apps also say words out loud, which is helpful for people with dyslexia and other reading problems. 

At Chester County’s public schools, tech-savvy learning starts early.

Revenge of the Nerds

Today, geeks run the world. Here’s a brief history of the computers in schools and related technology.  

1930s

Overhead projectors are slowly incorporated into schools. 

1933

More than 50 percent of schools enhance lessons with silent films. 

1964

BASIC is developed at Dartmouth College as an easy, student-friendly coding language.

1967

Texas Instruments introduces the first handheld calculator. 

1971

Via ARPANET, the first email is sent from one network to another.

1972

Floppy disks are sold commercially by Memorex and other companies. They become the go-to for saving files. 

1983

Tandy Model 100 (also known as TRS-80) becomes one of the first notebook-style laptops. More than six million are sold. 

1984

Apple’s Macintosh debuts, as does the Commodore SX-64. The ratio of computers to students is 1:92. 

1991

Apple’s PowerBook is introduced. 

1995

Windows 95 becomes the operating system of choice for PC computers.

2008

MacBook Air is introduced, generations of which are used by school districts today. 

2010

Apple unveils the iPad. Within two years, more than 1.5 million are used by American students. By 2015, more than 15 million are in U.S. schools. 

2011

Google-powered Chromebooks are introduced. They become the favorites of school districts.