Tuesday, February 14, 2012

School district seeks shift to digital textbooks

The Oshkosh school district doesn't want to fall on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Everything the district has done for the last 18 months has been aiming toward a shift: putting smart devices in the hands of every student and incorporating digital technology into standard curriculum. From infrastructure changes to setting up wireless networks to buying rights to electronic textbooks, the district has taken steps toward achieving this goal — a goal that several nearby districts have already reached.

The Oshkosh school district made a foray into teaching with smart devices this year. With grant funding, the district has bought more than 400 iPads in the last year — a small step toward one for each of its 10,000 students. Most of them are in Jefferson, Merrill, Roosevelt and Washington elementary schools — schools given the "School of Recognition" title because their students test better on state standardized tests than would be anticipated based on their poverty levels. A handful of the devices are also at West and North high schools.

"Are we going to be a district that is competitive or not?" said Deputy Superintendent Dave Gundlach, as he ran through a list of local districts.

Menasha's middle school has one device for every student. Neenah will soon have the same ratio at every grade level, and Ripon and Rosendale are already there. The Fond du Lac school district is buying 3,000 Chromebooks for its high school students.

"If you're a parent coming into the community, that's probably going to be part of your consideration of where you want your kids to go to school," Gundlach said.

The shift is occurring at a national level, too. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski challenged schools and companies to get digital textbooks in students' hands within five years — a call that came just two weeks after Apple Inc. announced it would start to sell electronic versions of a few standard high-school textbooks for use on its iPad tablet. Florida, Idaho, Utah and California, as well as individual schools and districts throughout the country, have already embraced digital learning environments.

The process is not an easy one, and it doesn't come without cost. The district needs to work with textbook companies to set up an "institutional license" when purchasing digital books. The most fiscally challenging aspect is making sure students have access to devices on a permanent basis so they can actually read the books. There are also policies to rewrite. Relatively new "acceptable use" policies outlawing the use of cell phones and other electronic devices during class are already antiquated, as the district will soon encourage students and staff to bring personal technology to school.

Those leading the charge believe the payoff will be significant. Gundlach said current discussions of the achievement gap use measures developed 10-20 years ago, but the digital achievement gap will be even starker. He compared districts using digital textbooks, which can be updated immediately with new information, to districts using five-year-old textbooks as an example.

"This isn't just a digital version of a book," Gundlach said. "What's really useful is when you can embed different types of media in the books. That totally changes what you're trying to explain to the students. You can link out to the most up-to-date resources."

Integrating technology

Merrill Elementary has 90 iPads for its 267 students. Teachers received professional development training to learn how to use the devices effectively, and the school uses them at every grade level.

"I think it is the direction schools are going, because at school it's really our job to try to make that connection as seamlessly as possible," said Merrill principal Sarah Poquette. "There are so many digital pieces of technology out in the real world, and we need to keep up with that so we're preparing 21st century learners."
Students use the iPads to create multimedia presentations and to facilitate discussions about class readings, along with practicing basic math and reading skills with educational apps. Poquette said the more experience teachers have with the iPads, the more ideas they come up with for how to incorporate them into learning activities. The school is currently planning a "family technology night" to bring parents into the loop of what their children are doing at school.

"I love infusing technology in the classroom," said kindergarten teacher Rocco Marchionda. "IPads bring rich, dynamic content in front of students at an affordable price. It's all about getting kids interacting with dynamic media."

Marchionda has used iPads with third-graders and kindergarteners, and said the constantly developing content allows teachers to target specific skills and concepts for every grade level.

Other schools are exploring the possibilities of other devices along with iPads. Teachers at Oaklawn Elementary have received grants for iPads and for Kindle Fire devices. Oaklawn principal Scott Johanknecht said digital devices are another tool to be used, adding that it's up to teachers to seek opportunities.
"It's a fun way for us to learn," said Juliette Mattair, a fifth grade student at Merrill. "It's like super technology."
Mattair, who had never used a smart device before, said learning to use the iPad came naturally to her. Her favorite apps are a math game called Hungry Fish and a painting application called Kids Doodle, despite the fact that her favorite subject in school is writing.

Poquette said students received instructions, as with any other school-issued equipment, to take good care of the iPads, and there have not been any damage issues so far. The only problem is that she wishes they had more — and she plans to apply for more grants to try to make that happen.

Budget issues

Despite that, current budget restraints leave the district with no concrete timeline to pursue the plan. The money has to come from somewhere, and right now, Oshkosh doesn't have the revenue stream to make it a reality. Some districts have reallocated money spent on other resources, while others have had referendums to fund a sustainable technology budget. The pros and cons of different approaches, including a "bring your own technology" plan or leasing devices, are being considered.

Gundlach said the districts that have succeeded with similar initiatives have provided extensive training to staff, students and families. Providing professional development opportunities is key. Gundlach said the district hasn't done a good job of spending professional development time on technology until recently.

"You can't expect teachers to redesign what they do without having the tool in their hand," Gundlach said.
Right now, the district is putting all of its energy into the referendum to rebuild Oaklawn Elementary, Gundlach said, adding that there haven't been discussions about any other options after that. Since so many pieces of the technology plan have been put in place, the district would be able to plan for the shift very quickly, Gundlach said.

"It's a retooling of education," Gundlach said. "And it's a retooling that other districts are already done with and are beginning to see their benefits."

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