iPads welcome: The Oregon School District is helping to lead a high-tech education revolution
Kids have been trying to sneak portable electronic devices into classrooms for decades. From the old Coleco handheld football game to today’s smart phones, anything that glowed, made obnoxious noises, and could fit neatly inside a knapsack was enough to satisfy kids’ appetite for distraction.
Well, here’s some bad news for students: Your ongoing rebellion will now have to take another form. For fun, try sneaking a slide rule onto campus. But bring your iPad. You’re going to need it for class.
“The way that technology has provided mass customization to many other industries, it’s starting to do the same thing for education.” – Jon Tanner, Oregon School District
The technological revolution that’s overtaking the business world, our social lives, and nearly every other nook and cranny of society is quickly reshaping education, and locally, the Oregon School District is among the leaders in the movement.
At the December School Leaders Advancing Technology in Education (SLATE) conference, participants identified preparing for advances in technology as the number one issue facing Wisconsin schools.
For the Oregon School District, that means getting ahead of the curve and fundamentally re-evaluating the education model that’s been in place for most of the last century. Traditionalists may hearken back to the intimacy of the one-room schoolhouse or the military precision involved in teaching rows and rows of attentive, gleaming ’50s schoolchildren, but according to Jon Tanner, technology director for the Oregon School District, the watchword today is “personalization.” And that means tablets, cell phones, and other one-time contraband have to be part of the pedagogical mix.
“The way that technology has provided mass customization to many other industries, it’s starting to do the same thing for education,” said Tanner. “So right now, Amazon tells you what they think you’re going to like, Netflix has rankings, you can do things online with banks and shopping and everything like that. Technology is starting to influence education that way now, too, where we can find different and better ways to deliver instruction and to help students learn than we could before, and the biggest example of that, I think, is what people call individualized or personalized instruction.”
According to Tanner, modern technology is making it easier to customize education so that each child can be taught in the most efficient way possible.
“We can try to teach things to a kid in a way where they learn the best, so instead of the batch model we’ve been using for about 100 years, where you get a whole bunch of kids who are about the same age and you put them in a room and you teach them for the exact same amount of time in exactly the same way, we can start to do that a little differently,” said Tanner. “We can let kids progress at a different pace, and where we have them learn in possibly a different way, and the only way to do that is to have technology do some of the more efficient work, where we don’t have a teacher who’s doing some of the more repetitive things or some of the data tracking, things like that. So it’s starting to change how we deliver content.”
There are three main components of the personalized learning model, says Tanner. The first involves teaching students in a way that they learn best, so highly auditory kids might be well served by listening to a traditional lecture, whereas a highly kinesthetic kid would be given something to do with her hands. Secondly, kids are given the opportunity to progress at the pace they need to, so if they catch onto something really quickly, they can use the extra time they now have to work on areas where they’re not as strong. Finally, students get customized learning paths so they can choose how they demonstrate proficiency.
“So when you have those three components, they’re very flexible and so you can do things in a lot of different ways,” said Tanner.
Of course, just as the personalized learning approach Tanner speaks about is tailored toward individual children, there is no monolithic technological solution by way of device or app that directs the school district’s approach.
“So we’re figuring this out, but we’ve had teachers who’ve said, ‘okay, I’ve found a piece of software that works really well,’ and what we’ve discovered is that we just need to be careful that we pick things that are available to people at a low cost for a wide variety of platforms,” said Tanner. “So, for example, we’ve started using Evernote in our intermediate schools in grades 5 and 6 to organize student work and to send them to-do lists so they could check off what they were doing, and the students use it to make portfolios of their work to show what they’ve accomplished and what they can do. And so Evernote is a widely used application; it’s not education specific, but it’s a workflow thing that really helps. And it runs on pretty much everything.”
While these dramatic changes are just starting to take root in the Oregon area – a Facebook page titled “Technology Rocks at Oregon School District” shows just some of the ways kids are learning through new technologies – Tanner says it’s a revolution that’s sure to come everywhere sooner or later. Members of Oregon’s school board acted, says Tanner, after reading books like Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, realizing they couldn’t afford to stand pat and let change overwhelm them.
But the changes are also important with respect to our future workforce. As everyone knows, the iPad didn’t even exist until recently, so teaching kids how to use specific gadgets is seen as less important than teaching them to find the best ways to use modern technology to acquire knowledge and adeptly navigate the world.
“The idea 10 years ago was, well, we have to teach kids how to use Windows because, of course, they’re going to use Windows when they’re in an office job,” said Tanner. “Okay, maybe, but five years ago there were no iPads. So instead, what we’re going trying to do is to teach them, how do you use whatever resources are there?
“So for our district anyway, we’re not saying that we’re going to commit to just one platform. We’re saying that we would like to provide multiple experiences for students. Instead of saying we’re going to give every kid an iPad, we’re starting to do more with the bring-your-own-device model. So in middle school and high school, we’re encouraging students, if they already have a cell phone or a tablet or a computer at home, instead of saying you can’t bring that in, we’re saying, no, please do. Just make sure you can use Google apps, that you can get on the Web, because that’s what we’re going to use to teach that.”
Of course, all that technological capability poses a problem for some school districts. Mike Payne, an education account executive for Netech Wisconsin, an IP infrastructure technology solutions provider, said that as laptops, iPads, and cell phones become as integrated into learning environments as they have into people’s daily lives, some schools are realizing that they have some catching up to do.
“Technology has become a [learning] tool now, whereas before it was almost the opposite,” said Payne. “If a kid was caught in class with a cell phone or an iPod Touch, it was taken, and now that’s become part of education. So that’s happening pretty fast because a lot of administrations are seeing this as an opportunity, and it’s putting a lot of folks on the technology side of the school in a little bit of a tough position, because they were never asked to prepare their infrastructure for something like that. They were never asked to prepare this massive wireless environment where each student is going to have a device needing access to the Internet.”
But while the pace of technological advancement may make some school administrators feel like they’re speeding down a winding country road without a map, Payne says there’s no need to panic. The first step is trying to get a handle on where they’re going with their curricula.
“They really need to understand what exactly they want to do from a teaching standpoint as it relates to technology,” said Payne. “Are there future ideas for incorporating video into the classroom? Are you looking to do the flipped-classroom model, where the teachers record their lectures, students watch the lectures at home as their homework, and in class is when they’re working? Obviously, technology plays a role in that, but first they need to really understand what they’re doing.”
However school districts deal with the coming technological challenges, it’s not difficult to see how these new methods could revolutionize learning, and even indirectly help with the growing problem of employee engagement in the work world. Tanner said that the Oregon School District is shifting its focus more toward a “commitment model” and away from the traditional compliance model, perhaps fostering a sense of self-reliance and self-motivated discovery that’s often sapped away over the course of a student’s career.
According to Tanner, the district’s personalized approach, which was started in 2010, has already bumped up graduation rates, and it’s also heightened interest in the district’s alternative education program.
“One of the core components of our alternative school is online learning,” said Tanner, “and so basically we have students who for whatever reason haven’t succeeded in our traditional school model, and in some cases they’re students who’ve dropped out of high school and went out into the world and then said, ‘wow, I really actually want to come back now after seeing this. I could have learned some things. It would be great.’ It’s kind of funny because we have students who would do whatever they could to be out of school, and now they’re coming back and saying, I really want to apply to get into this alternative school. And one of the core components of that is not only the caring teachers who connect with them on an individual basis, but also online courses.”
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