21st Century Curriculum | Feature

Blending Netbooks, Tablets, and Digital Curriculum

Three years ago, as part of a curriculum review, the leaders of Staples Motley Schools in Staples, MN, were debating how to put more computing power into their students’ hands. As part of that strategy, the 1,400-student district was looking to create a blended learning environment that would carry it forth for at least four years—if not longer.

“Our principal at the time asked us to start preparing for a 48-month timeframe—not just one year,” recalled Clay Houselog, a high school physical science teacher. “We wanted something futuristic.”

Getting there would require a major effort from the district and its teachers, who were working with 20th century technology, a tight budget, and a student body that was both underwhelmed and disengaged. With some government funding available, Principal Ryan Luft and his team considered which hardware, software, and curriculum options were available to help create a “backbone” for a digital learning program.

The district was already using ODYSSEYWARE’s online e-learning solutions for credit recovery, so it saw potential in using the same vendor to help it develop a 21st century blended learning environment. “The solution fit with what we were doing in the classroom and our desire to advance and change,” said Houselog, “so we started using their curriculum to get ourselves and our students into the digital world.”

As part of that initiative, the district initially invested in classroom sets of netbooks, which Houselog said enable easier typing/data entry than tablets, and also tend to work better with the software that the district chose. Houselog currently uses 36 netbooks across the three sections of physical science that he teaches, while some other rooms have begun using tablets in conjunction with the netbooks.  

Combined with the ODYSSEYWARE cloud-based curriculum, the netbooks have slowly replaced the district’s traditional textbooks. The curriculum is customizable and includes both courses and assessments. Teachers like Houselog use it to combine online and text-based resources, and to create their own courses (using both online lessons and external resources, such as instructional videos from organizations like Khan Academy).

Wearing Out His Pants

To support the introduction of new mobile devices on campus in 2012, the district installed new routers in strategic locations throughout its buildings. Houselog said, “Initially we just didn’t have enough WiFi capacity, and the lessons wouldn’t load when too many students were trying to access them. But we resolved that problem and haven’t had any internet issues since.”

Houselog said the new classroom technology allows him to infuse both blended and “flipped” learning into his science instruction. “I introduce a new topic and then we have a classroom discussion around it,” he explained, “but I also post all of my classroom notes online for the students to review in advance.” After the classroom discussion wraps up, Houselog uses assignments and assessments to gauge student understanding of the material.

Having his course materials digitized lets Houselog get an instantaneous picture of where his students stand and whether it’s time to move along to the next chapter. He can also quickly pinpoint problem areas and intervene with individual students on those areas. “I set the system at four attempts,” he said. “If, after that many times, the student doesn’t get the material, I seek him or her out and find out where the trouble spots are.”

Those “trouble spots” are of high interest to students these days, according to Houselog. “I’m literally wearing out my pants by bending down and working with students individually more than I ever did before,” he said, laughing. “Students are constantly asking me to pull up their tests and review them because they’re dissatisfied with their grades. I’ve never seen them work this hard and be so engaged.”

Measuring the Results

The results of a 2012 student survey support Houselog’s assertions. Working with an outside firm, Staples Motley surveyed its pupils to find out what they thought about their new technology-equipped classrooms and 21st century pedagogy. “Above all,” Houselog said, “they said they loved the fact that they can retest and relearn to get the grades that they want.” Of course, there are also complaints about the system. “One student told me that he hated the new process because now he actually has to learn,” Houselog said.

The district has also seen improvements in its graduation rates and student retention. Its credit recovery program has benefitted from the tech initiative. In 2012, for example, just one student failed to graduate from the program—down from 22 nongraduates the previous year.

Houselog concluded that, thanks primarily to the technology infusion, both student and teacher engagement have improved significantly. “Our students are excited about learning and using their brains; it’s very invigorating and rejuvenating for all of us,” he said. “It’s definitely been a success.”

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