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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, December 9, 2010
“Beyond the classroom walls”
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND School board members had their thick three-ring binders open before them Tuesday night as they listened to a presentation on the way the district is using technology for instruction and communication. One school board member was so taken with the presentation that, as soon as it was over, she asked when board members could let go of their binders and use interactive electronic tablets instead.
“Theoretically,” began Demian Singleton, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction, answering her query.
“Not theoretically,” returned board member Gloria Towle-Hilt.
“Everything is always open to study,” said Joe Laurenzo, the district’s technology director.
Years of study and talk at Guilderland about using new technology is now a reality, spurred by the $27 million bond issue voters passed in 2007. The bulk of the money $17.4 million was to upgrade the district’s five elementary schools; $3.9 million was to create new district offices at the high school; and $5.7 million was to improve technology and safety.
Formerly, technology costs were added as part of the annual budget and school leaders thought the time was right, with the walls down for renovation, to upgrade.
Tuesday’s presentation began with a video that said students spend 31 hours a week online. “These are Digital Natives,” it said. “They are part of a global community. When they enter our doors, they are forced to disconnect, leaving these tools behind as they walk into this…”
Here, a picture of a traditional classroom, with the desks lined up in rows facing forward, flashed on the screen.
“A new revolution has begun that goes beyond the classroom walls.” This involves personalized education, the video said, where students collaborate, create, connect, and communicate.
Laurenzo went over the details of what the $27 million project has bought. Four of the district’s elementary schools now have projection systems in each classroom and library; systems at the fifth school, Guilderland Elementary, are to be installed by the new year.
The network infrastructure has been upgraded at all the elementary schools as well, and building-wide wireless networks have been installed.
Laptop carts act as computer labs on wheels, and electronic tablets, or “Active Slates,” allow students to interact with each other and with their teachers.
At the middle school and high school, projection systems are complete for classroom and library areas and, just this week, wireless networks went online. The library at each school has a cart with 30 laptop computers.
“Librarians are reporting they’ve been getting maximum use out of the machines they put out,” said Laurenzo.
He also said a video conferencing system will be purchased and a storage area network will be set up to back up data across the district in case of a disaster.
“We’re looking at additional areas we didn’t cover in the first pass,” Laurenzo said.
Myriad modern devices
Singleton described some of the high-tech devices now at work in Guilderland classrooms:
Document cameras, he said, are similar to overhead projectors but work “in a far more interactive manner” and are able to record the images they project;
Interactive whiteboards that are like a giant, touch-sensitive version of a computer screen. Students can move images on the screen anything from a geometric shape to a piece of art by touching them.
“It’s a little bit different than a chalk board,” quipped Singleton, stating that modern students want to interact. “They don’t want to be the receivers anymore,” he said;
Interactive slates, a wireless notebook-sized tablet that students hold in their hands. Singleton said that elementary teachers decided whiteboards did not fit well with their teaching practices. “Students are moving, not tied to the front of a classroom,” he said. So, instead, they use the hand-held slates so that images from anywhere in the room can be projected to the front; and
Student response systems, which are small hand-held devices that look similar to iPods. “These transform the mechanism and process by which we assess,” said Singleton, adding that the devices allow “timely and immediate feedback.”
He also said that students who are “reluctant learners,” who, for example, wouldn’t feel comfortable working out a problem on an old-fashioned chalkboard in front of the class, are more likely to be engaged and take more risks using their own hand-held device, supplying the answers anonymously.
“The interactive learning environments capture it all,” said Singleton, concluding, “These technologies are what our students are used to…an iPod, a cell phone…That’s what they’re used to, and their learning environment should reflect that.”
He also said that the devices allow teachers to individually guide and assess students as they work with options that range from classroom quizzes to digital flash cards.
“We can respond when we see a deficiency on the spot,” he said.
The new tools also let students and teachers make use of recorded images, interviews, and events. “We want students’ hands on these tools, not just teachers’,” said Singleton. “I cannot recall the last time I saw a presentation without technology,” he said, stating it could be as simple as a PowerPoint.
Keeping parents in the loop
“We’re very eager and ready and actively engaging in technology for communication,” said Singleton.
Parents of middle-school or high-school students can now sign up online to get “real time” reports on their children’s progress rather than waiting for the traditional printed report card to arrive home.
William Aube, a house principal at Farnsworth Middle School, said, “We hope it will help parents take a more active role.”
Parents can log on to find out about assignments, grades, attendance, or school events. Aube gave the example of a parent asking a student if he had any homework. When the student replies, “I dunno,” the parent can say, “Let’s log on.”
“We currently have over 1,600 accounts in a couple of months,” said Aube. “Students want it; parents want it.”
Aube went on to say that not all teachers are using the new system. “If we forced people to do it too soon, we’d create a panic,” he said.
Aaron Sicotte, an assistant principal at the high school, projected an example of how the system might be used. Parents can set a “trigger,” which will send them an e-mail if, for example, their child misses a class.
“Let’s say the trigger is if the child’s grade is below 94,” said Sicotte.
In the sample he flashed on the screen, the student’s grade in “Cinema and Literature” went from 100 to 93, which would trigger an e-mail, since it fell below 94.
“The sky is falling,” quipped Sicotte.
The parent could then click on the 93 to get a breakdown of all assignments and see the individual grades. That yielded an assignment called “Prestige/Vertigo” in which the student scored 43 out of 50 possible points for a grade of 86, bringing the average down to 93. The parent could then immediately and directly e-mail the teacher, Sicotte said, as an e-mail window will pop up on the screen.
“I highly, highly encourage any parents or students who have not signed up” to do so, said Sicotte, to “get a clear sense of how your child is doing.”
“I think it might be fair to say our students are still warming up to this,” said Singleton.
“It depends on how they’re doing in the classes,” responded Sicotte.
Board member Colleen O’Connell, who has two children at Guilderland High School, said they avidly check their marks on “GradeSpeed” as the system is called, and had found errors.
“It’s also another set of eyes because they have self-interest,” said O’Connell.