Technology in Classrooms

Knoxville students at Northstar Elementary School work through Hour of Code exercises in December.

Pursuit of 21st Century classrooms continue in the educational field in general. Marion County is no exception.

All Marion County schools continue to push forward, generally with 1:1 computer programs for at least some of their grade levels. So-called 1:1 initiatives essentially refer to each student in a certain selection of grades being assigned a dedicated computer.

Pleasantville leads the area, with 1:1 for grades 3-12. Pella assigned laptops to students in grades 4-12. Knoxville is 1:1 for grades 6-12. Likewise, Melcher-Dallas has been 1:1 for three years now, for students grade 6-12. Twin Cedars is the only area school that doesn’t yet have a 1:1 program.

“Anymore having a 1:1 initiative isn’t unique in Iowa,” Pleasantville Schools superintendent Dr. Tony Aylsworth said. “It’s something a lot of districts are doing.”

One area school lacks 1:1 computers, but they still integrate technology into their classrooms.

“What we do utilize a lot of is mobile labs, iPads and laptops,” Twin Cedars superintendent Dave Roby said. “All of our classrooms have boards with projections. We have some instances where [teachers] are doing great things.”

Technology can get expensive quick, and staying on top of technology can be a never ending task.

The Pella School District has been working to find ways to keep their school-issued computers in good working order but also updating them when necessary.

“We have a refresh plan to take our laptops and have those refresh every so often,” superintendent Greg Ebeling said. “[Refreshing] is expensive. These are expensive machines. So, to continue to refresh those costs a lot of money and it’s the same dollars that are being used for facility improvements. So you have that balance of, ‘Can we do everything?’ It’s hard to fit it all under the budget.”

One of the ways Pella is looking to do that is changing course, from using Apple MacBooks and considering a switch to Google Chromebooks. The Google machines are less powerful, yet a large portion of tools used are actually from Google.

“We’re actually exploring what’s going to be our next device,” Ebeling said. “So much of our stuff is done through Google and through the web that the horsepower these machines have may not be necessary for a majority of the stuff we need to do.”

“Chromebooks would be a less expensive option, and we’re able to refresh them easier over time because it’s not going to cost as much,” Ebeling added. “ ... Whether that’s for all grades levels or not, I think we’re still trying to figure that out.”

The switch from one-time purchases of software to subscriptions has also allowed Pella Schools a budget-friendly way to keep up with the latest updates in programs, and also keep some instruction material updated.

“Now we’re buying subscriptions, and the subscriptions stays current that way,” Pella Director of K-12 Instruction Lowell Ernst said. “The nice thing about that also is as content changes it gets changed on the subscription. So, your seven-year-old textbook is no longer old, because it’s always updated.”

The switch to technology is a learning curve, a lot of times for teachers especially. Yet, teachers are finding many things to use for children’s education.

“What I’m seeing from teachers on a larger scale is they are finding so many sources they can deliver directly to kids,” Ernst said. “So, we used to be on a platform called Moodle. We still are, but Google Classroom has come about. So, a lot of things [teachers] want their students to see, they’ll upload to Google Classroom. And we’re talking right now about ... looking for new science materials. What teachers are saying is, ‘We don’t really want to find a book.’ They’re [instead] looking at building a portal. So rather than, ‘I’m doing genetic engineering and now I have to search the entire Internet for genetic engineering, I go to a portal of a company that’s pulled together sources on genetic engineering and I can just pick from those.’”

As technology typically does, it changes people from paper into the digital space.

“It’s not that kids aren’t reading anymore,” Ernst said. “It’s just that kids are reading like kids read now, which is online sources.”

Ernst says changing to this type of method essentially forces kids to become familiar with scoping out online sources for information. In essence, it’s also training students to identify which online sources are reliable, and which aren’t.

“To be able to do that, you’ve got to be out there physically doing it,” Ernst said. “When we see teachers finding their information, their resources online, then delivering those to kids the same way.”

The transition to a more digital world applies to homework, as well. This has also opened up the possibilities for easier collaboration amongst students who might work on group projects.

“I think you see there are some materials that teachers have adopted that actually assign them those things and then turn them in that way,” Ernst said. “They’ll upload those assignments rather than turning them in on paper a lot of times. So then the teacher can give feedback directly to them.

“I think it’s definitely changing what homeworker looks like.”

One thing the schools must keep in mind however, is while their students all have computers, the Internet has not yet made it’s way to all students. That’s what the district continues to monitor, is ensuring things can be downloaded to the computers at school for those that may not have Internet at home.

“Most of the time you can do that,” Ernst said. “You can download and store stuff, and then work on it at home.”

Outside of 1:1 programs and homework transitioning to computers and largely away from paper, industrial tech programs have become more technological at area schools.

This has come about from partnerships with local business, such as tools found in Pleasantville’s agriculture, FFA and welding classes.

“If you walk down there you will see a lot of technology that we could never afford as a school district,” Aylsworth said. “Through partnerships with Vermeer and Weilers in Knoxville, these partnerships aid in developing a relevant curriculum for schools.

“Taking some of the equipment they have that perhaps no longer meet the industry standard, is a greeting training tool for kids. Anything to do with computers, computer drafting, anything they can advance manufacturing — those are all the areas I can see us emerging in terms of technology.”

Knoxville, as well as schools in Pella and Pleasantville joined hundreds of other schools in hosting Hour of Code events. Students used websites with grade level challenges. Often times, students weren’t physically code but through trial and error they essentially programed an on-screen animation to do specified tasks.

The goal with the particular lesson is to begin familiarizing students with the concept of coding, which often involves problem-solving and thinking critically to utilize various functions to execute an overall goal.

Technology integrationists, Tyler Pearson and Lindsey Carlson, also help teachers do just as their title suggests: integrate technology.

One recent example was setting up a Skype interview, allowing an eighth grade social studies class taught by Chris Hudson to speak with members of Muscogee Creek Nation about the Trail of Tears.

Other new technologies center around interactive learning, such as virtual reality devices that recently made their way to Knoxville Schools.

Knoxville has spent over $18,000 in various grant monies to purchase several innovative items. Several virtual reality headsets were delivered recently, and the potential is just beginning to be realized.

The devices pack a growing number of opportunities for students to utilized and learn from. For example, students can take a virtual reality trip through the human digestive system to get a first-hand virtual look at the entire process. Students can also take trips to places around the world, from large cities to refugee camps or even the ocean to explore and learn about other areas.

Media companies like the New York Times are even putting together current event videos that discuss current events around the world.

“So, if they’re in Syria ... it’s like a story but it’s in virtual reality,” Carlson said.

In the future, with 360 degree video cameras becoming more accessible, students may be able to create their own virtual reality content.

In addition to the virtual reality sets, Knoxville has made a slew of other technological purchases, including Spheros, Swivel robotic cameras, upgrades to the media center at Knoxville High School, and portable green screen kits.

In the end, it all ends with the goal to provide the 21st century education and give students access to learn critical skills that are necessary in many careers, or if they continue their education in college.

“Just trying to honor that 21st century education,” Knoxville superintendent Cassi Pearson said. “Things change so quickly [and] trying to stay on top of things is a challenge, but one that we are excited about. I think for our kids, if we don’t let them experience some of this they’ll have a disadvantage when they go to college or get into the workforce.”

Kyle Ocker is the managing editor of the Knoxville Journal-Express. He can be reached at editor@journalexpress.net or by calling the newsroom at 641-842-2155. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.

Nicole Presley is the managing editor of the Pella Chronicle. She can be reached at editor@pellachronicle.com or by calling the newsroom at 641-828-3882. Follow her on Twitter @NicolePresley92.

Ethan Goetz is a general assignment reporter at the Knoxville Journal-Express and Pella Chronicle. He can be reached at reporter@pellachronicle.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ethan_Goetz.

Kyle Ocker has been the editor of the Knoxville Journal Express since November 2016. He formerly held the titles of sports editor and associate editor at the Centerville Daily Iowegian, a sister paper to the Journal Express.

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