As schools across the country reopen for the new academic year, students will be greeted by more than teachers, administrators and their peers.
Many will also have new laptops or tablets through one-to-one computing programs, upgraded classroom technology for blended learning, and teachers trained to more effectively use technology to personalize instruction.
For many IT leaders, administrators and teachers, the technology also fuels their excitement and inspiration for the new school year.
Students at the Center of Applied Sciences and Technology (COAST) in Brunswick County, N.C., are starting the year with new options for learning about STEM subjects tied to in-demand, high-paying careers — such as cybersecurity, game art and design, digital design and animation.
What started as an alternative school is now more akin to a magnet school.
COAST students will also have access to tools such as 3D printers and a 5-kilowatt solar panel, as well as professional software such as AutoCAD.
Daniel Richardson, who teaches clean energy technology at the school, and Susan Tietje, who teaches technology and design, are working to secure grant funding to expand the program with Mavic drones, which can be used for jobs such as search-and-rescue efforts or real estate advertising.
Options for those types of careers are multiplying, Tietje says. The instruction is “giving our students an edge with what they can put on their resume. They can do side hustles now with what we’re teaching them,” she says.
Historically, the nation’s public schools have struggled to prepare students heading toward careers instead of college after high school, says COAST Principal Randolph Horne.
COAST’s mission is to use technology to prepare students to “contribute back to our community in all kinds of ways,” Horne says, such as improving quality of life, contributing to the tax base and being self-sufficient.
“This could be the type of thing that changes their life’s trajectory,” Richardson says, noting that in-demand, high-paying careers would help students provide for their families and future children. “It’s the type of thing that could impact families generationally.”
Gamifying Teacher Training on Blended Learning
At the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, Educational Technology Director James Nevarez is emphasizing training for teachers — and finding ways to make the lessons fun.
This year, the district expanded its one-to-one computing program to its middle schools.
Now, every middle school student will have an assigned Chromebook, and every high school student will have an assigned Dell PC that can convert to a tablet.
The district also practices blended learning, using Instructure’s Canvas as its learning management system.
With the tech deployment comes a focus on helping teachers feel confident blending online instruction with traditional practices.
That effort began last year, Nevarez says, with tapping some “trailblazer” teachers at the middle school campuses to start a technology committee at their respective schools, he says.
District teachers learned to use Google Classroom and Google’s G Suite apps.
They receive support for gaining Google certification as well as training on Canvas to help them understand the basics for setting up their online presence.
The approach, Nevarez says, is to help teachers get comfortable with being uncomfortable, for “being willing to take a leap of faith and be brave rather than perfect.” So far, teachers have earned roughly 1,300 badges as they master related skills.
This school year, Nevarez plans to build on that success, adding a higher skill level for teachers to strive for.
To reach the top, teachers have to be technology mentors, helping at least one person from each grade level on their campus to integrate technology into instruction in a meaningful way.
“I’m excited that we have a superintendent that’s invested in allowing me to take this approach,” he says.
MORE FROM EDTECH: See how blended learning has developed in K–12 over the years.
Classroom Technology Prepares Students for the Future
With the support of her principal at Dr. C. Owen Roundy Elementary in Las Vegas, Christia Osborn-Preston will teach a new class this year on technology, covering topics such as robotics and coding.
Osborn-Preston, who has 22 years of teaching experience, also plans to expose students to Google Classroom to help prepare them for using G Suite tools when they advance to middle school.
Those lessons will take place in a space Osborn-Preston calls The Innovation Lab. It doesn’t look like a traditional classroom; rather, it’s furnished with standing tables, bar stools and bean bags.
A SMART interactive whiteboard hangs against one wall, near plush armchairs. Students will work with a classroom set of Chromebooks, tablets and other tools, including Coding Express from LEGO Education.
In this space, Osborn-Preston and her principal want students to be creative, to think critically, to collaborate and to use technology. She deploys skills she recently learned as a Google Certified Innovator.
“I really wanted the environment to not look like a regular classroom,” she says, but instead to be inviting and spark curiosity.
Many of the students at her school come from low-income families, and some of them experience food insecurity. For many, English is a second language. Educators want to equip them to be able to make their own way in the world, Osborn-Preston says.
“We just really want to give them every tool that we can and every skill that we can,” she says. “We have to give them what we can now so that they can be ready for everything.”
Supporting Engagement, Blended Learning with New Technology
In The School District of Philadelphia, recent installations of new SMART Boards will support more small-group collaboration among students. District leaders expect to have almost 3,000 new interactive whiteboards installed by fall, CIO Melanie Harris says.
The interactive whiteboards accept input from multiple sources at once, allowing two or three students to collaborate.
The devices are ideal for center-based classrooms, a layout that enables students to work at the board in small groups, independently, with a teacher or at other stations in the classroom, Harris says.
The district’s technology infusion also includes about 75,000 Chromebooks and 8,000 tablets.
All of that technology requires a robust networking infrastructure.
District leaders “made a strategic decision a decade ago to build out our internet access,” Harris says. “You couldn’t do all of this cool stuff if you didn’t have great bandwidth.”
The district has 20 gigabytes of internet capacity, she says, including high-speed internet and Wi-Fi in every learning space.
But “great instruction is not always with a device,” cautions Fran Newburg, the district’s deputy chief of educational technology, noting that the core approach to teaching still needs to be strong.
MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out these five considerations for buying classroom technology.
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic — and Coding
Other educators say they are planning to weave technology lessons into core subject areas.
Students at Loess Hills Elementary in Iowa will learn to code as part of an ongoing computer science emphasis that began in recent years and has become a model for the state. Under Principal John Beeck’s leadership, teachers plan to have students participate in the international Hour of Code and write simple programs to direct robots through mazes.
Even for kindergarteners, learning to code helps with understanding other skills, such as numbers and directionality — left, right, straight, back — Beeck says.
“It’s very motivating,” he says. “The kids love it.” Loess Hills is part of Sioux City Community Schools, which has a districtwide emphasis on personalized learning and incorporating technology into instruction, and is in the third year of implementation of its Future Ready cohort program.
For the new school year, the district expanded its one-to-one computing program to cover grades six through 12. This year, students will get to take home their assigned devices.
“It’s really good for kids. The Future Ready project and trying to get more and more teams of teachers to use technology — it really is an equity issue,” says Associate Superintendent Kim Buryanek. Those experiences should not be limited to students in a particular classroom or at a particular school, she says.
“I want every student in every classroom to have those experiences, and it’s really important. Technology isn’t going away, and our students are going to have to be adept at using a variety of forms of technology. We just want to prepare them for the future as best we can.”