Tech connects, levels learning differences

With a device in every backpack, teachers extol new options

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By Lacey Sikora 'Connects'

Contributing Reporter

Tech in the classroom has developed rapidly in just a generation. Parents of local students might recall taking typing classes in high school or visiting the computer lab while in college. Today, it's a given that tech is personalized and in every student's backpack. Oak Park and River Forest school districts report the use of tablets and technology in the school environment goes hand in hand with increased security measures and increased learning potential.

Oak Park and River Forest High School is in its fourth year of using Chromebooks on a one-to-one basis, and Chris Thieme, senior director of educational technology, says there are many benefits to the use of technology in the classroom. About the general use of tech in the school he says, "The educational field is reflecting what society is doing. Collaboration and creativity and being used to working in a digital environment are all key for the work force and for life at a university."

 After piloting tablets and Chromebooks, Thieme says Chromebooks were determined to be best suited to the high school environment and the ways the curriculum is presented to high school students.

Currently, the school uses a mix of traditional textbooks and books provided on the Chromebook platform, which Thieme says is great for allowing teachers flexibility in the classroom.  One benefit of the Chromebook is its accessibility to the cloud. Thieme says this feature is key in making sure materials are always available even if something happens to an individual device.

OPRF works to incorporate good digital citizenship efforts through the Technology Learning Center, and through librarians who work individually with classes to help students learn to recognize and use appropriate sources. Thieme says it is a balancing act to help teens use tech responsibly. He says, "There are platforms that have a dual purpose. For instance, You Tube can be used for entertainment and education."

Basic security measures are employed, and firewall and protective software goes with the devices when they leave campus with students. On campus, teachers can use software to monitor what their students are doing on their school-issued Chromebooks. When it comes to protecting the privacy of student data, Thieme says all apps and websites that collect student data are run through a rating system that alerts the school if there are any concerns before the apps are used. 

Social media sites are blocked at school, but Thieme says school security measures on Chromebooks only address that issue in part.  "About 50 percent of the devices at school are not ours," he says referring to cell phones. "That's why it's very important to promote digital citizenship to kids in general. They will and do use social media at school because they all have phones."

In River Forest's District 90 elementary and middle schools, Kevin Martin, director of technology, says students at Roosevelt Middle School each have an iPad that they are allowed to bring home, while students in grades kindergarten to fourth have one-to-one access to devices while at school. District 90 uses software such as Securely, Gaggle and Education Framework to vet apps, filter information and make sure that privacy is protected, while also monitoring school-issued emailed address for any spam or threatening messages.

From calendars, to Power School for grades and to Schoology for communication with teachers, Martin says of the programming, "We use it for soups to nuts."

Knowing that the technology is so heavily relied upon, he says, "We really stress that the iPad we're giving you is a tool, not a toy. It's for research and learning executive functioning."

He says the iPads allow teachers to do things they just can't do with traditional textbooks. "Our special ed department is one of the biggest proponents. Any student with an IEP or 504 qualifies for free books through bookshare.org."

At Oak Park's District 97 elementary and middle schools, all students in grades three through five receive tablets, and all students in the junior high schools receive Chromebooks. Michael Arensdorff, senior director of technology, says the one-to-one ratio was driven by equity. "Historically, we had shared carts by grade level or on a wing. It wasn't equitable in terms of all of the kids experiencing it."

As the district considered how to best prepare kids in the future, they began a pilot program in 2014 with fifth graders, and eventually gave all students in grades three through five iPads that can be taken home at night. Over two years ago, the district launched Internet for All, a program that provides hot spots to families who did not have internet connectivity at home. These changes Arensdorff says, "give all kids that ability because not everyone had that at home."

Arensdorff stresses that security is built into the plan. Students attend a digital bootcamp to learn how to be safe on the internet, and by law, the school-issued devices have filtering tools and security devices built-in to keep kids from accessing any material that is not safe.

Fifth grade teachers Marvin Childress and Rob Breit say the use of iPads and Chromebooks at Lincoln School in Oak Park has greatly enhanced their ability to teach and reach all students in their classes.

Breit says using an iPad instead of textbooks, workbooks and papers, is environmentally friendly. "More importantly, we can differentiate material based on the needs of the kids, and other kids are not even aware of it. We can also have ongoing communication beyond the eight to three hours. Kids can email me questions about their homework while they are doing it."

Childress agrees and says the ability to take the classwork home is helpful, noting that a student who is home sick can participate in classwork as it is going on. He says kids who are struggling readers can use headphones in the classroom to follow along with texts and get the content at their own pace.

"From my perspective," says Childress, "the technology kind of levels the playing field and brings those struggling learners to the ball game."

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