Start Your Back-to-School Shopping with These Tools
On the last day of school, when students are looking forward to the beach, amusement parks and summer camp, Manny Irizarry is already preparing for the next school year. "Summer is my time to do maintenance, install new technology and test new applications," he explains.
The quiet summer months give Irizarry, network administrator for the Ocean Township School District in Waretown, N.J., the opportunity to pursue technology projects without the daily stress and distractions of troubleshooting and administrative tasks. The lull also allows him and other district IT leaders to prioritize technology budgets and to address their most pressing classroom needs for the upcoming school year.
Before classes resume at Ocean Township's two schools in early September, for example, Irizarry will virtualize district servers, which will allow him to provide virtual clients to all 532 students and 54 teachers in future years; replace an aging student computer lab with new desktop PCs; and install interactive whiteboards in classrooms that don't yet have them.
Indeed, as the 2012–2013 school year draws ever closer, the Ocean Township IT department — and others like it all around the country — will deploy a variety of new classroom tools to engage students and motivate them to learn. IT staff and educators alike say tablets, interactive projectors, convertible tablet PCs and virtual clients top their back-to-school shopping lists.
Hot Read: Tablets
Ocean Township is one of many districts looking at tablets.
During the 2011–2012 school year, the district piloted Amazon Kindle Fire tablets in four classrooms in an effort to tackle its biggest challenge: improving literacy.
For the past several years, reading test scores have been flat, despite the district's efforts to improve them. Among other things, teachers organized students into small reading groups, based on their skill level, to allow for individualized attention. The district also increased reading time in before-school and after-school programs.
But with scores lagging, Dr. Christopher Lommerin, superintendent of schools, came up with another idea: Why not use technology, specifically tablets or e-readers, to encourage students to read? "I realized that motivation is a key factor in getting them to read," he explains. "We can't teach this generation the same way we taught 40 years ago. We have to meet them in their comfort zone, and that's through technology."
So in November 2011, the district purchased 25 Kindle Fires for a sixth-grade classroom at the Frederic A. Priff School. The following April, it purchased 75 devices for the district's third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students. Lommerin, who also serves as the school's principal, considered purchasing Kindle e-book readers, but ultimately chose the Kindle Fire tablets because of their extra functionality. In addition to reading e-books, students can use the device to take notes, do online research, view videos and learn from different applications.
So far, Lommerin's hunch is working.
Students — particularly boys who previously had little interest in reading — suddenly have become voracious readers, says Diane Sneddon, who teaches sixth grade at Priff. "They love it," she says. "They used to read only books they were assigned to read. Now, they're picking up books just for the pleasure of reading."
46% The amount Connecticut's Farmington Public Schools saved by choosing virtual clients over regular desktop PCs
The district also discovered through the pilot that it's saving money on books. Some publishers even allow the district to buy one copy of an e-book, Irizarry says, and distribute that same copy to multiple tablets.
Because initial teacher and student feedback was so positive, district leaders are evaluating this summer whether they should hold off on replacing older notebook computers and divert those funds toward the purchase of 200 more tablets for use in more classrooms.
In the meantime, IT staff and teachers are preparing for a second year of the pilot and exploring ways to better take advantage of the devices beyond e-reading. Last year, Sneddon used educational applications that allowed students to practice math and vocabulary. To save on paper, she also sent assignments and tests electronically, allowing students to answer the questions on the tablets.
Irizarry currently is working to integrate the tablets with existing classroom tools to increase collaboration and communication. This summer, he and Sneddon will test apps that would allow students to write on their tablets and have their work projected on their classroom's interactive whiteboard. And come September, the district will train teachers on how to incorporate the devices into the curriculum.
Lommerin hopes to equip every third- through sixth-grade student with a Kindle Fire within the next two to three years. While it's too soon to know the impact, he expects reading scores to improve further. "It's generated a ton of excitement, and that's what we want," he says of the tablets. "This motivates them to read."
Dazzling Display: Interactive Projectors
At Hillside School District 93, a single-school district of 485 K–8 students in Hillside, Ill., Technology Coordinator Robert Gilmore Jr. has been busy furnishing classrooms with tools that make the educational process more multimedia-rich and hands-on.
"Bringing technology into the classroom is about connecting with students, getting them engaged and attracting some learners that you couldn't reach before," says Hillside School District 93's Robert Gilmore Jr.
With support from the district administration and the Board of Education, last summer Gilmore installed Epson DC-11 and Elmo document cameras in all 50 classrooms and outfitted most of them with Epson BrightLink multimedia projectors, which turn traditional whiteboards into interactive ones. This summer, he's completing the project by purchasing four more projectors for the four classrooms that don't yet have the equipment.
Gilmore deployed the BrightLink projectors instead of interactive whiteboards because the district already had replaced its chalkboards with regular whiteboards. The projectors and whiteboards give teachers interactive whiteboard functionality without the expense, he says.
The technologies enhance the curriculum in powerful ways. For example, teachers can use interactive lessons that allow students to write on the board, highlight items and move objects around. With a notebook computer attached, teachers also can show students online videos or websites. "A teacher teaching the solar system now can get an image of Saturn on the board, rotate it, write over it or draw arrows," Gilmore explains. "It's a more enriching, interactive experience to students than telling them to turn to page 12 to see a flat picture of the planet."
Together, the projectors and document cameras have had a huge impact on the teaching and learning experience. Among other improvements, teachers now can use the document cameras to write notes on paper, project those notes on the screen, and even save an electronic copy for posting to their web pages. "If students are absent, they can go to the web page and read the notes that they missed in class," Gilmore explains. "And the teachers love it. They can't get enough of it."
Favorable Form: Convertible Tablet PCs
This fall, Wichita (Kan.) Collegiate School will launch the 21st Century Collegiate Classroom, a one-to-one program for its 1,000 middle and high school students. After considering different form factors, school leaders chose a hybrid: the Lenovo ThinkPad X220, a fully functional notebook computer that allows students to rotate the 12.5-inch screen into a tablet. The cost of the tablet PC will be added to students' annual tuition.
"We looked at more cost-effective tablets, but this is a college preparatory school, and expectations are high," says Laura Cusick, instructional technology facilitator for the private, pre-K–12 school. "Students do a lot of writing, which [dictated having] a sufficient keyboard."
The convertible tablet PC will give students the flexibility of having both a regular notebook and tablet, allowing them to take notes, do math problems and draw with their digital pen. That tablet functionality is critical, Cusick continues. "Teachers need to see kids working on problems in real time so they can give immediate feedback," she says.
Teachers also will be able to send lesson slides, videos and other digital content to students' tablets — and even poll students to make sure they understand lesson concepts — using DyKnow interactive learning software. Each classroom already is equipped with projectors and document cameras, but the software eliminates the need to purchase interactive whiteboards, Cusick says, because it "turns everyone's screen into an interactive whiteboard."
Meanwhile, the Spearfish School District has just completed year six of a one-to-one program at Spearfish High School, one of four schools in the western South Dakota district. This summer, the five-person IT team is replacing the students' 3-year-old tablet PCs with HP EliteBook 2760p tablet PCs. "Before, we had three computer labs for 700 students to do research. Now, everyone has a laptop. It gives them equal opportunity for access," says Technology Coordinator Scott Hardesty.
In June, Hardesty and his IT colleagues unboxed, asset-tagged and locked down the tablets so students won't be able to reconfigure them. In mid-July, they'll use Novell ZENworks to install software images, including Microsoft Office 2010 and Adobe Creative Suite 6. Because the district will move from Windows XP to Windows 7 with the new tablet PCs, IT staff will make sure other applications that the district uses are compatible with the newer operating system, Hardesty says, adding that the imaging process will take about three weeks to complete. IT staff will distribute the new devices to students when they return in late August.
Smart Substitute: Virtual Clients
Farmington Public Schools, an eight-school district in Connecticut, is replacing the 8- to 10-year-old PCs in its four elementary schools and one middle school with virtual clients because they're more affordable and easier to manage, says Ted Lindquist, director of technology.
When Lindquist went shopping for replacement desktop computers, he discovered that purchasing new PCs with new monitors and five-year warranties would cost approximately $375,000. In contrast, a virtualized solution composed of 375 thin clients, virtualization software and 10 servers would cost about $203,000.
Having successfully piloted a virtualization project this spring, Lindquist and his three-person staff will spend their summer months rolling out NComputing's L300 thin clients and vSpace Server virtualization software. According to Lindquist, the decision to virtualize was a no-brainer. "It's considerable savings, and that doesn't even account for the amount we save in support and maintenance," he says. Before purchasing the products, the IT staff tested the thin clients and compared their performance with desktops. "Thin client performance is really good," he adds.
Spearfish also is transitioning to a client virtualization model in the near future. But first, Hardesty will spend the summer upgrading network switches at the middle school and at one elementary school. "I want to get gigabit speeds to each workstation to improve performance," he says.
Once those upgrades are made, Hardesty will begin implementing server- and PC-based client virtualization solutions from NComputing. He hopes to deploy the technology in 14 classrooms and two libraries this summer, he says. If it proves successful in the 2012–2013 school year, he will add more clients next summer.
Learn about more classroom technologies that can enliven learning this fall in our roundup.
Into the Fire
Manny Irizarry learned to manage the Amazon Kindle Fire on the fly.
When Dr. Christopher Lommerin, Ocean Township School District's superintendent of schools, decided to pilot tablets last November, Irizarry, the New Jersey district's network administrator, had one week to play with the devices and figure out how to deploy them. The district is a Microsoft shop, and the Kindle Fire was the first Android OS device he'd worked with. "My first priority was to make sure we could secure them and get them locked down before we handed them to students," Irizarry says.
Because the tablets have a web browser, a chief concern was meeting Children's Internet Protection Act requirements and preventing students from accessing inappropriate content. Irizarry began by reconfiguring the network and segmenting all Kindle Fire traffic on its own virtual local area network. This allows him to limit bandwidth usage and bolster security by ensuring that all tablet traffic filters through the district's WebSense solution.
Because Amazon hadn't yet created management tools, Irizarry had to configure the tablets, which included establishing connections to the district's wireless network and downloading e-books and applications, one device at a time. He also removed social media apps and password protected each device so students couldn't do their own downloads.
Tablet Deployment To-Do List
- Make sure you have the network infrastructure to support tablets. Manny Irizarry, network administrator for Ocean Township School District, built a wireless network using Aruba Networks equipment three years ago. "Without the core infrastructure in place, it's hard to do any online streaming," he says.
- Make sure you have adequate staff to provide tech support. As teachers begin familiarizing themselves with the technology, they will come to the IT department to ask for more e-books or applications or to seek advice on how to use the tablets in their classrooms, Irizarry says.
- Be proactive. Test applications that may prove useful in the classroom and share them with teachers.