The City School District of New Rochelle (CSDNR) in New York's Westchester County wants its students to have a competitive edge when they graduate. Becoming technologically savvy is a big part of that.
"The goal is to motivate and engage students," says Dr. Christine Coleman, the district's director of technology since 2003, "and to prepare them for a world that has changed from an industrial to informative society."
To that end, CSDNR officials have invested heavily in technology. Over the past eight years, they've equipped every classroom with interactive whiteboards and other 21st century learning tools. More recently, they've added netbooks, tablets and smartphones; offered blended courses, in which students get both face-to-face and online instruction; and provided 24x7 access to school resources online.
Although lack of budget is the biggest challenge to incorporating technology into high school classrooms, according to the 1,000 high school students, teachers and IT professionals surveyed for CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report, New Rochelle and countless other school districts around the country are continuing to make educational technology a priority. Even as 47 percent of surveyed IT managers find themselves working with decreased budgets for the 2011–2012 school year, they remain committed to classroom technology integration because it engages students, improves achievement and teaches important skills such as creativity, critical thinking and information fluency.
Budget crises notwithstanding, the percentage of surveyed school IT managers who say their existing technology is "current" or "cutting-edge" increased from 41 percent in 2010 to 64 percent in 2011. What's more, 65 percent say they plan to improve their technology in the next two years.
Most schools agree that a technology-infused and -integrated curriculum is where education needs to go.
The percentage of school IT managers who say their 2011–2012 budgets will:
Don't know 13%
Remain the same 25%
SOURCE: CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report
What's a 21st Century Classroom?
The 21st Century Classroom Report found that teachers' technology expectations for classrooms have evolved over the past year. In 2010, their must-have classroom tech tools were limited to an Internet connection, a computer and an LCD projector. Now, they believe classrooms should include wireless network access, a computer, an interactive whiteboard and digital content.
New Rochelle provides that and more. When Coleman came aboard, the 11-school, 12,000-student district owned two interactive whiteboards. Today, every classroom has a computer for the instructor, an interactive whiteboard, a projector and a laser printer.
In addition, the district's K–5 classrooms include four desktop computers, a laser printer and Internet connectivity for student use. Each school also offers mobile computing labs with Wi-Fi equipment, student response systems and wireless document cameras that teachers can check out from the school library.
Coleman took a phased approach to these deployments, equipping each classroom with a standard set of classroom technologies over a four-year period. Interactive whiteboards, in particular, have had a huge impact on learning, she says. Teachers can design lessons that are loaded with graphics or animation. Students can go up to the board and use their fingers to solve problems or use the board's accompanying wireless tablet device to answer from their desks. The boards also allow teachers to deliver more interesting, multimedia-rich presentations.
"If students are learning about the Roman Empire, teachers can show a video clip from a movie, look at a live webcam feed of a location in Italy, play a podcast or show an article on the Internet," Coleman says. "It provides for visual, tactile, audio and interactive learning, and it keeps our 21st century learners engaged and motivated."
Schools also are adopting student response systems in increasing numbers, with 44 percent providing them in 2011 (up 9 percentage points from the previous year). According to the 21st Century Classroom Report, it's the third most widely deployed technology in schools — behind wireless connectivity (70 percent) and interactive whiteboards (69 percent).
Student response systems increase interactivity and spark classroom discussions by allowing teachers to poll and quiz students, says Dean Farar, director of technology for the Yuma (Ariz.) Educational Technology Consortium (YETC), an organization that handles IT for Yuma Union High School District's six high schools and Yuma School District One's 18 K–8 schools.
"It gives instantaneous feedback," Farar says of the technology. "It helps teachers determine whether their students understand their lectures, and if not, teachers know they need to go over the material again."
YETC's districts, like most others, buy technology as their budgets allow. They've purchased some student response systems, but focused first on interactive whiteboards. Yuma School District One, for example, previously owned about 150 Promethean interactive boards; it added 69 more this year. Today, about half of the district's 435 teachers are using the boards. "We're facing a budget crunch," Farar says, "so we spend a little here and there and try to make progress toward a standard toolset."
Digital Content Grows
Districts can deploy educational technologies without exceeding their budgets, of course. Thanks to federal stimulus funds, Yuma Union High School District (YUHSD) recently purchased 3,650 ASUS netbooks for freshman students and their teachers. According to Superintendent Toni Badone, YUHSD's one-to-one program delivers two benefits.
First, it helps advance the district's recently launched "Ready Now Yuma" initiative, which aims to ensure that students master a rigorous, curriculum-driven program of study and skills in preparation for college and their careers. Giving students access to technology is a part of that, Badone says.
The netbooks also allow students and teachers to download free e-books and use other free digital content (such as educational videos). This is valuable, Badone says, because state budget cuts have prevented the district from buying new textbooks since the 2007–2008 school year.
"We couldn't use the stimulus money for textbooks, so we purchased netbooks instead," she explains. "Now, we're reviewing open-source and public-domain types of materials." English teachers, for example, can have their students download The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice and other titles in the public domain.
YUHSD isn't the only one embracing digital content. According to the 21st Century Classroom Report, electronic textbooks and other digital content are emerging as a valued learning resource. Although just 11 percent of survey respondents are using digital content today, 62 percent say they are considering digital content or using a combined print textbook and digital environment.
Over the past year, New Rochelle has introduced a blended learning environment, in which students attend class daily but also receive online instruction. The move not only introduces digital content to students, it also increases communication and collaboration.
Because online and blended learning are growing in popularity in colleges and universities, and such opportunities typically support course management systems, CSDNR felt it was important for students to experience this new learning approach and technology, Coleman says.
Photo: Steve Craft
To that end, the district installed a course management system last year and piloted blended learning in five sections of a high school health class. Outcomes included increased communication and collaboration between the teacher and students, as well as improved student grades.
As a result of this success, CSDNR added more blended learning courses this year. About 650 middle school students are taking blended English classes, and roughly 1,300 high school students are taking blended art, biology, English, history, math, science and social studies classes. Students attend class every school day, Coleman explains, but teachers also design online assignments and enriched materials, which students work on in groups via online discussion boards and web conferencing.
Teachers upload recordings of their classroom lectures, scan in portions of textbooks, and provide links to online articles and videos. Students also can turn in their homework anytime, anywhere using a digital drop box. The arrangement allows students to "really take ownership of their learning," Coleman says. "It fosters literacy, communication and collaboration — and provides more writing opportunities — in the virtual environment."
Transitioning to this type of learning environment doesn't happen overnight. According to the 21st Century Classroom Report, 94 percent of students use technology to study or work on class assignments. Yet fewer than half (46 percent) of teachers are regularly assigning homework that requires technology.
Adopters of 21st century classroom technologies share best practices for successful deployments at edtechmag.com/ k12/21stcenturybp411.
Recognizing this disconnect, districts are working to provide anytime, anywhere access to technology tools and school resources. A growing number of them are adopting Google Apps for Education, a free cloud service that allows students to access office productivity software on any computer, tablet or smartphone. Students can build websites, instant-message, video chat and e-mail, safely filtered, inside their district's Google cloud.
Greenwich (Conn.) Public Schools, for example, made Google Apps available to its sixth- to 12th-grade students last year so they could store files, share documents and work on assignments together, says Janice Gunnip, the district's director of educational technology. "Students want to work with each other," she says. "They're used to social media and used to collaboration."
Third- to 12th-grade students in New Rochelle, meanwhile, use a Google Apps portal to access their school's course management system, educational websites such as BrainPOP and other online applications. The portal's access restrictions are especially notable, Coleman says. "It's a safe, secure environment for both students and teachers," she explains, "with opportunities for online collaboration and e-portfolio development."
Many districts are piloting the use of tablets and smartphones to determine their educational benefits. New Rochelle, for example, was one of 20 districts selected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission's "Learning On-the-Go" E-Rate pilot program, which supports off-campus wireless Internet connectivity for mobile learning devices. The district is in the process of issuing netbooks, tablets, smartphones and broadband access cards to some low-income and special-needs students, as well as some English language learners.
Elsewhere, Greenwich Public Schools launched a one-year mobile learning pilot using tablets, e-readers and MP3 players. District officials purchased about 150 mobile devices and are testing them in a high school science class and in other schools to try to improve special-needs students' reading skills.
"It's important to explore the potential of mobile devices in education because so many students have smartphones and other computing devices," says Fran Kompar, the district's program coordinator for K–12 media and technology. "This is the world we live in. Our students are connected, and we want to make sure their educational experience reflects that."
Learn more about the City School District of New Rochelle's involvement in the "Learning On-the-Go" E-Rate pilot program at edtechmag.com/k12/CSDNRpilot411.
Some schools that have tried similar pilots are seeing improvements in student achievement. In Virginia, for example, Prince William County Public Schools recently tested tablet devices in 15 schools. The effort, which also focused on students with special needs, had a positive impact, says Brian Hackett, an instructional technologist for Forest Park High School, one of 83 schools in the district.
A special-education teacher used tablets with 10 students, giving them individual applications to work on. Because students are at different cognitive levels, some used auditory response applications, some used the touch screen to manipulate their applications, and others used their fingers to write answers, says Hackett, who also chairs the district's New and Emerging Technology Committee.
"Teachers seek out innovative ways in which to find out how each child learns," he says. "These devices have given students that ability to personalize their learning, making it meaningful."
Plan First, Buy Technology Second
When district administrators call Billie McConnell, they typically say this: "We have some funds. What technology should we buy?"
That's the wrong question, says McConnell, assistant professor of teacher education and director of the K–12 Digital Learning Institute at Abilene Christian University in Texas.
Instead, they should begin by creating a vision of what they want to do with technology, he says, and then determine which technologies to buy to fulfill those goals.
According to Tom Daccord, co-director of EdTechTeacher, a provider of professional development for teachers, educators are apt to ask how they should use technology to teach. That, too, is the wrong question, because it "reinforces the teacher-centric classroom of disseminating information to a passive audience," he says. (To discover how instructional technologists are training teachers to leverage 21st century technologies in the classroom, see "Team Effort.")
Instead of focusing on how they teach with technology, educators should think about how students learn with it. Doing this, Daccord continues, will help them develop active classroom learning activities (such as having students create videos, podcasts and blogs). These types of lessons "empower students to take ownership of learning, where they work individually or with others to create knowledge and create content," he explains.
Teachers also need to realize that they don't have to be experts on technology, McConnell says. They just have to design lessons that facilitate students' use of technology. "Students know how to use technology," he says, "and if some don't, they can teach each other."
Communication and Collaboration Gap
High school students and teachers are online, but their technology-use habits are inconsistent.
59% of students say they use technology to communicate with other students.
68% of teachers use it to communicate with other teachers.
But only 14% of students use technology to communicate with their teachers.
And only 23% of students say they use technology to collaborate with other students.
SOURCE: CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report
Top 3 Digital Content Benefits
Asked to identify digital content's key benefits, high school students, teachers and IT professionals cited the following:
- Access to current information 36%
- Ability to access multiple sources of content from one device 34%
- Instant access to content 31%
SOURCE: CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report
The More, the Merrier
School IT managers say that they are supporting a growing number of technology tools and capabilities, including:
- wireless network/Internet 70%
- interactive whiteboards 69%
- student response systems 44%
- course management systems 42%
- video and/or web conferencing 41%
- digital content 39%
- open-source applications 35%
- virtual learning 32%
- media tablets 21%
SOURCE: CDW•G's 2011 21st Century Classroom Report