Classrooms' future cast in bluish light

Teaching technology a long way from slates, hickory sticks
Mar. 30, 2014 @ 07:59 AM

Dim, bluish lights often glow in John Spicer’s darkened U.S. History class at Hibriton High School. The overhead fluorescent lights overhead are off. You couldn’t see what you were writing in your notebook. But none of the students have notebooks before them.

In fact, there are no papers, pencils, pens or erasers either. Instead, students sit with a lightweight Google Chromebook before them, lighting their faces in a soft, bluish glow. In Spicer’s class, they do not need anything else.

This is the type of scene Caldwell County Schools officials are pushing for in all their classrooms. It's a way to bring learning materials straight in the student and, they hope, make them more eager to attend class because of the hands-on technology available to them.

Everything is on the computer, from class work to tests. For tests, multiple-choice answers are automatically graded, and students receive immediate feedback. Short-answer and essay tests are graded online by Spicer, then given back to the students through the testing program. During class, students connect with Spicer’s website through their laptops. On a SMART Board at the front of the room -- the electronic replacement for the old-fashioned blackboard -- Spicer displays the students’ digital posters and plays games where students come to the board and slide historical events into different categories.

Even Spicer uses his laptop for all his work, bringing it along to conferences and other places to get work done.

“In the old days, if you missed a day and came back to school in the late afternoon, you picked up a stack of papers and graded all night. Well, this way, it’s all done before I come back,” Spicer said.

To give his students this technological education, Spicer applied for a grant and was awarded $14,000. He was able to purchase Google Chromebooks for every student.

“My first few weeks with this I was just cussing myself every day, like, ‘Why did you write this grant?’ It was just so much work to get started, but now, it’s just easy to do,” Spicer said.

He does not worry about his students cheating or copying off each other. He said it is easy to monitor the screens as he walks around the classroom.

“If you set the standard, they usually rise to it,” Spicer said.

Craig Bryson, director for accountability and technology for Caldwell County Schools, said the setting found in Spicer’s classroom is soon to be, if not already, the norm for the county.

“This year, we’ve purchased a lot of Chromebooks, put a lot in the high school, put a lot in the middle school. They’ll check them out, and then they’ll have usually enough for everyone to have one. Most of the carts we set up, we put 25 in,” Bryson said.

Bryson said that students today want to learn with devices in their hands. He said it keeps them “more involved.” Devices include iPads, tablets, Chromebooks, even iPods and cellphones. Caldwell County Schools have implemented BYOD – Bring Your Own Device – with the aim that students can bring their smartphones or tablets to school, but while there it becomes an education tool rather than a distracting toy.

“The goal is to put them in the student’s hand,” Bryson said. “However, they have to share, but normally in the classroom they pretty much have their own device to use, cart-wise.

To keep the students from the dangers and temptations of the Internet and focused on educational materials, the schools have certain websites blocked on their wireless and data plans.

Bryson said, “We feel more comfortable with a kid taking his phone, pulling it out, not using his data but using ours, because if he uses ours, we can filter. So, I can control a little bit.”

Previously, everyone wanted SMART Board interactive whiteboard systems. They replaced the old, dull projectors. Now, teachers could write on the board, create equations, play games and show PowerPoint presentations all through touch or pen. However, Bryson said that SMART Boards are just another way for teachers to lecture. Students were still missing that hands-on experience.

“SMART Boards are nice. They’re more of a teacher product, which allows the teacher to still sit up in front of the class and lead the class. Like in high schools, with laptops and phones and Chromebooks, you can still have a SMART Board, but the teacher can be saying, ‘Here’s some places to go. Here are the sites for doing Shakespeare. Here are some places you can go. Click here. Here’s what this one looks like. Now, you take your device and go,’” Bryson said.

On March 10, the Board of Education approved the 2014-16 technology plan for Caldwell County Schools. Priorities for the next two years include universal access to personal teaching and learning devices, access to digital teaching and learning resources, model of technology-enabled professional development and 21st century leadership for Caldwell County Schools. The plan also states that the schools will move into a shared services model. This means that Caldwell County Schools “can opt into some things” such as virus protection and Microsoft Office products so that all the schools are using the same programs and at a lower cost, Bryson said.

“The equity is the hardest part because here you have a poor school and a wealthy school. All counties are that way. Our job is to make sure the poor school has the same ability, the same devices. Our job is to make sure we’re doing things equitably,” Bryson said.

Some wonder if updating the plan every two years is enough. With the rate that technology is changing, maybe it should be every year. However, Bryson said that then he would constantly be working on a plan. As soon as one year’s would be finished, Bryson would have to start on the next year’s.

“It used to be four years. The problem is if you do it yearly, you’re always doing it. They’re trying, with the reduction in paperwork, fours years is too long because everything changes so fast. Everybody was way out of their plan. Four years ago Chromebooks didn’t exist,” Bryson said.

Bryson is not worried about their plan or keeping up with the times. He is confident that students are getting what they need.

“We’re hitting those targets. We’re moving forward. How fast we’re moving depends on funding. It is fund-driven,” Bryson said.