By Terry Dean
Longfellow kindergartner Julia Legler looks very much at ease with her classroom iPad.
She and other students are using them on this day not for play but for learning. Legler's assignment is to take a picture of something using the classroom's iPad and then spell the object out on the device.
F-L-O-O-R is one of the words Julia correctly spelled.
Kindergarteners like her have been using iPads in Oak Park's elementary school District 97 since fall 2011. All eight elementary schools received the devices for kindergarten classroom instruction. It was a district initiative, designed to get these devices into kids' hands to accelerate their learning. And it's one more step toward the district's "paperless classroom" vision and concept.
Actual writing, which is still taught to some degree in the younger grades, isn't going away entirely, says D97 Supt. Albert Roberts.
But D97 is looking to use technology more with students and teachers, Roberts says.
The paperless classroom is one aspect of the district's overall technology plan. Implemented in 2010 just before he arrived as superintendent, it's since been revised under Roberts' tenure.
Improving technology in the district was a highlighted goal in the district's 2011 tax hike referendum campaign, which was approved by voters.
Prior to 2011 and since, the district has upgraded much of its technology. It's bought such items as smart boards, LCD projectors, new computers, smart books and laptops. In 2011 — year two of the five-year plan — the district purchased 200 iPads for kindergarten classrooms. The tech plan overall was estimated to cost around $4 million. An additional $5 million in new tech spending was called for via the referendum.
Roberts, a former classroom teacher and principal, sees technology replacing much of the paper and writing work students have long done. That trend, he insists, is not a bad thing.
"Kids will still need to learn how to write. That's not going away. But kids are more creative and imaginative than just with paper in hand," he said.
District administration later this month is expected to submit a recommendation to the board concerning more tech upgrades and improvements for the district. The paperless classroom concept is already taking shape.
Students are using video for some classroom projects and assignments rather than simply writing or typing them out. Roberts sees that trend continuing. For instance, pecking out pages and pages for a term paper, he says, may not be the best use of the students' time in the future.
"The real goal is to help them become excellent communicators and very literate; to be productive in the work that they do. We know kids are not going to be working everyday and every hour with technology, but to use it in a way that makes them engaged and to work collaboratively," Roberts says.
D97 has already reduced much of its "paper trail" in recent years.
The weekly, big bundle of fliers, notices and other school-related information sent home to parents was ditched a few years ago. They were replaced with the "digital backpack," a web-based feature on the district's website (www.op97.org) with links and PDFs with all that information.
The paperless trend extended to the school board's activities.
The bulky board packets were replaced with an electronic "board book" on the district's website, featuring agendas, minutes and links to reports.
As for students using their own smartphones for instruction in class, Roberts is open to that possibility. Other school districts, he noted, have policies stating specifically how and when students can use their phones on campus. That's something D97 administration and the board would need to work out, he said.
Classroom teachers also have their own web pages with assignment info. The teachers are also trained to use the technology themselves before using it with students, says Julie Mullen, one of D97's tech specialists who work with faculty.
Parents, she adds, are mostly supportive of the district's efforts to reduce its paper trail. The digital backpack was in fact a response to parents' complaining that the weekly packets should be replaced with something electronically.
The technology, according to Mullen, is helping engage parents as much as students.
"It lets them see what their kids are doing instead of just having it on paper," she said.