More Than Machines
This is a special feature from the State Educational Technology Directors Association (www.setda.org).
“WHAT A DIFFERENCE THIS PROGRAM has made for Nicholas—it is wonderful!” exclaims Geneas Huether, Nicholas’ mother. “He actually hears the lessons, he can ask questions, hear the class discussion—and he even takes a lunch break when the class has lunch.”
Fourth-grader Nicholas is a homebound cancerpatient who attends Plainview Elementary School in rural Chesterfield County, SC. This year he was provided a laptop and webcam as part of Chesterfield County School District’s Student Technology and Education Proficiency initiative.
Prior to the implementation of the STEP program in 2007, this kind of direct virtual participation would have been impossible. In his several previous homebound experiences, Nicholas was isolated, working independently with little to no communication with his teachers or fellow students. “Other years, Nicholas just had a teacher visit him in the afternoon and quickly go over his work,” Huether says. “Now he is really part of the class and can see his friends. We hope that he can return to school next fall, but if he can’t, we can’t imagine working without this program.”
Nicholas’ experience offers a glimpse of what Chesterfield’s STEP program has made possible. Much more than a laptop program, it is a model example of a comprehensive approach to improving teaching practices through the use of technology. The goal, according to John Wagnon, the district’s educational technology director, is “to help improve academic achievement and technology literacy scores through increased student engagement.”
The initial STEP funding came from Title II-D of the No Child Left Behind Act—Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT)—and provided each sixth-grader at Plainview Elementary School and McBee Elementary School and each seventh-grader at McBee High School with a laptop computer for use at school and home. In addition, through an agreement with the local telephone company, students with limited economic means are provided free home internet installation and a reduced rate of $5 per month for service fees.
STEP classrooms receive a host of digital tools, including document cameras, interactive whiteboards, and projectors. Another key feature: technology coaches, who train participating teachers and, Wagnon says, instill “a comfort level” that allows teachers to “innovate and explore new avenues.”
The tech coaches have also helped guide teachers in using the new tools to incorporate project-based learning into core subjects. According to technology coach Pat Hendrickson, this has been key to the success of the program. For example, at McBee, sixth-graders typically participate in The Stock Market Game, in which students invest a hypothetical $100,000 in an online portfolio, and Plainview sixth-graders take part in Junior Achievement’s JA Global Marketplace, which teaches students about the global economy and how it affects them.
“This element of the program encourages teachers to collaborate with one another and compels students to work across the curriculum,” Hendrickson says.
The district credits these instructional changes for the major gains its students made on standardized tests at the end of the 2007-2008 school year. Overall, 66 percent of Chesterfield students exceeded their expected subtest scores in reading on the Measures of Academic Progress assessment, and 48 percent exceeded their normative growth expectation in math. Even an improvement in behavior is credited to STEP. There were 361 disciplinary incidents in the Chesterfield district during the project year, whereas 823 incidents were recorded a year earlier.
“The capacity of teachers to motivate adolescents in an academic setting has its limitations,” Wagnon says. “We believe that the laptop technology served to enhance student motivation, resulting in a more productive learning environment.”
These kinds of outcomes are convincing states and districts across the country to focus their resources on similar comprehensive integration models. The State Educational Technology Directors Association’s (SETDA) “2009 National Trends Report: Focus on Technology Integration in America's Schools” looks at efforts to replicate the successes of previous EETT grantees, including North Carolina’s Impact model and Texas’ Technology Immersion Project (TIP). Data from the study shows notable improvements in achievement among students who receive a technology-supported education. One dramatic statistic comes from Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, NC, where college-going rates rose from 26 percent to 84 percent in the five years since implementation of a modified Impact model. Arthur L. Davila Middle School in Bryan, TX, a TIP participant, has seen its scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills increase steadily in both math and reading over the past two years. Among the school’s seventh-graders, the pass rate on the reading portion of the TAKS rose from 62 percent to 75 percent, and on math from 51 percent to 65 percent.
After seeing similar academic gains made by its students, Chesterfield extended the STEP program to McBee High eighthgraders this year, and then for 2009-2010 won a new EETT grant that will continue the laptop program for all three grades.
In addition to the federal support, Chesterfield is receiving a boost from the state that will allow it to install WiFi service and LCD monitors on its school buses. The district encompasses both the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge and the Sand Hills State Forest; transporting students around the park and/or forest to their schools means commutes that can exceed three hours round-trip. The new technology will enable students to make the most of the travel time.
Short videos that support classroom instruction will be shown on the monitors, as well as others on topics relevant to students, such as study skills, bullying, and protecting the environment. STEP students will also have the option of using their laptops for independent online activities via the WiFi connection. The state is partnering with AT&T, which will bear most of the project’s equipment costs.
“Despite the challenging economic times,” Hendrickson says of the district’s tech integration efforts, “we are making it work.”
A Spirit of Collaboration
Another striking model of the success of comprehensive technology integration is found in Pennsylvania, where state money goes to finance equipment, infrastructure, tech support, and professional development for schools participating in Classrooms for the Future, an initiative that puts advanced technology tools into the classrooms of high school students across the state.
Southern Columbia Area School District’s lone high school implemented CFF in 2006. The small, rural district’s vision of technology-infused education is founded on strong leadership, professional development, increased broadband access, and project-based learning in the core curriculum areas. It found a perfect partner and sponsor in CFF, which could flesh out that vision with the technology tools necessary to fulfill it.