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March 3, 2013

The Tech Transition: Southwest Parke students increasingly learning through digital tools

Sue Loughlin The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Reading comprehension has improved in grades 3-9, and instruction can be tailored to meet the specific needs of each student.

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Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Understanding the world: Fifth-grader Abigail Phillips, 10, reads about honeybees on her laptop in Rachel Loomis’ fifth-grade class Wednesday at Rosedale Elementary School.

Those are some of the benefits Southwest Parke Community School Corp. has seen in the first year of its transition to a digital curriculum. In August, the district distributed netbook computers to all students in grades 2-12.

Increasingly, students are learning through digital tools, rather than through traditional textbooks.

The transition “is about where I would expect it to be for the point we are at,” said Rachel Porter, the district’s digital curriculum integration specialist. The changes involve a 21⁄2 year transition.

The goal is to be non-reliant on printed textbooks by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

Every teacher incorporates use of the netbooks to some extent, she said. Some are “fully transitioned,” although they still might use books, pencils and paper when that’s the best thing to do, Porter said.

Other teachers might use the netbooks for one small portion of a class period.

“We’re not trying to create online classes here. For any given activity, we want to use the best tool,” she said.

Even when the transition is complete, teachers will still use books, paper and pencils when appropriate, Porter said.

Among the benefits of using netbooks has been a significant improvement in reading comprehension scores among students in third through ninth grades. The district uses a reading program, Achieve 3000, that continuously monitors students’ reading comprehension with something called a Lexile measure, a scale for measuring text difficulty and student reading ability.

On average, students gain 54 Lexile points in a typical school year through traditional methods. “Our students have gained an average of 113 points already this year through using the digital tools we’re providing,” Porter said.

The reason, she said, is because each student is getting exactly what he or she needs in terms of instruction. Rather than “teaching to the middle,” each student does learning activities on the netbook based on where that student is in the learning process.

Learning as they go

Kyle Kersey, assistant principal at Riverton-Parke Junior-Senior High School, said that at this point, use of netbooks and digital curriculum “is still a transition … It’s an ongoing process.”

But he’s impressed with the number of teachers “who have jumped into it” without it being mandated. “We weren’t 100 percent prepared for as many teachers to jump on board as fast as they did and be able to manage it or deal with some of the issues that popped up. That’s a great thing,” he said.

As he visits teacher classrooms during evaluations, “I see some outstanding things taking place that have never taken place before because we didn’t have devices available,” he said.

In fact, students have been using their netbooks so much, the devices may run out of battery power by midday and have to be recharged. “We put in additional charging stations,” Kersey said.

Sometimes, students forget to bring their netbooks to school with them, or they forget to charge them at home.

The technology department “has had to change priorities to always put students first and what is best for students,” he said.

According to Porter, all English-language arts teachers in grades 3-12 use Achieve 3000, while math teachers use a similar program “that gives kids what they need at their level.”

High school students learning a foreign language use a program called Duolingo, in which they can both write the language and — using some other tools — record themselves speaking the language.

A chemistry teacher is having students do lab reports using Google Docs, which allows multiple students to work on the same document at the same time, from their different computers.

It tracks who typed what “so the teacher will know everyone contributed to the lab report and not just one person did all the work, which is typical in group work,” Porter said. A business teacher also uses Google Docs.

“Student accountability, in general, is way up because of the technology we’re using,” Porter said.

Embracing

the technology

At Rosedale Elementary one day  last week, students used their netbooks for various learning activities.

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Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza Up for discussion: Rosedale Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Rachel Loomis discusses a story with student Mason Harney that he and his fellow students are reading on their laptop computers Wednesday at the school.

In Rachel Loomis’ fifth-grade class, Jaycee McClain had finished her reading assignment and was using a game to learn about the 50 United States. “You have to drag the states to the right part on the map,” she explained.

McClain believes that by using netbooks, “It won’t be as hard to teach kids and it might help them understand more on these websites.”

Fifth-grader Andrew Kneeland described the netbooks as “cool” although “sometimes they are a little slow,” he said. “There’s a lot of good learning sites,” and he likes the educational games.

Students use the netbooks for part of each day, but not all the time, Loomis said. Each day, they’ll spend about 30 minutes working on reading comprehension using the netbooks. About once a week, they might use Aleks, a Web-based program, for math.

Students use the computers to do research and write a report, or they can play educational games if they’ve completed an assignment.

Among the benefits of the netbook, Loomis said, are that certain students “are very much interested in using the technology … and do things for us that maybe they wouldn’t have done on pencil and paper.”

Overall, “It’s been a learning year,” she said. “We’ve come across some bumps,” but nothing insurmountable.

Asked if it’s a good change, Loomis said, “I think for the future that these kids are moving into with all this technology … yes, I think it is, if it’s used the way it’s supposed to be.”

In Anna Virostko’s classroom, second-graders used their netbooks in the morning to work on sentences (punctuation and capitalization) and math facts.

They also read a story each week and take a spelling quiz on Thursday; there are different activities to learn spelling, including electronic “flashcards.”

Students also like to write stories on their netbooks, Virostko said.

She spent the summer working with Porter to develop curriculum for her class and “she’s been continuously working on it,” Porter said.

“They love the math programs,” Virostko said. When they master so many problems, they earn an online “badge” and progress to the next lesson.

Second-grader Derron Hazzard used a timed program to work on his subtraction math facts. The first time, it took him 1 minute and 34 seconds, and the second time, 1 minute and 4 seconds.

“He just kept plugging away,” Virostko said. “They love the competition part of it. That is their favorite part.”

One of the challenges, she said, is learning all the teaching materials that are available.

Sometimes, they face minor technology “glitches” they have to figure out.

“Kids need to have troubleshooting skills with technology,” Porter said. “It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s also part of the learning process.”

More serious problems go to tech support staff, including Porter, Jill Wiram (director of instructional technology) or Ben Porter (network and systems manager) and the Student Support Center Staff at the high school.

Other growing pains included some initial bandwidth issues, as well as insufficient netbooks for a higher-than-expected enrollment. Both problems have been addressed, Porter said.

Paige Yando, Riverton-Parke senior, believes it’s easier to get school work done on the netbooks.

While the devices tend to lose battery power quickly, they also charge up quickly, she said.

Marissa Bovair, a ninth-grade student, said the netbooks are used a lot in her English class. For gym class, students might use the device to take a test.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

1:1 & Digital Curriculum Information

Enter this bundle of information explaining our 1:1 initiative and transition to digital curriculum.  You’ll learn why we are pursuing these changes and what they do (and do not) mean for your child’s education.

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August 16, 2012

School eBooks

Digital curriculum kicks in as Southwest Parke schools issue netbooks

Sue Loughlin The Tribune-Star

MECCA — On Tuesday and Wednesday, Southwest Parke Community School Corp. distributed about 800 netbook computers to students in grades 2-12.

It’s part of a transition to digital curriculum from print, district leaders say. Increasingly, students will learn through digital tools, rather than through traditional textbooks.

“It will be a big transition, but it will help us in the future,” said Cloey Kinne, an eighth-grader at Riverton-Parke Junior-Senior High School, who was in Jason Wilburn’s U.S. History class.

Wilburn plans to make much use of the netbooks through My Big Campus, an online learning platform that uses a format similar to Facebook (it is not associated with Facebook).

Wilburn told students they’ll be able to use their netbooks to make video presentations and even music videos for class. “We’ll have fun with that,” he said.

Students also will be able to download notes in which they must listen and fill in the blanks. “They have to pay attention,” he said.

Wilburn believes use of the netbooks “will allow all students to learn better. It gives them an opportunity to do things they couldn’t do before because they were limited with resources.”

Students will take the netbooks home each night, and families pay a rental fee similar to what they previously paid for textbooks.

On Wednesday afternoon, Riverton-Parke High School juniors and seniors received their DakTech netbooks and learned some important rules and guidelines.

They need to bring the netbooks to school each day and charge them every night. They also were told to never give out usernames/passwords and to “use [the netbook] appropriately.”

Devices that malfunction or are damaged must be reported to the Student Support Center or office, and the school district will repair devices that malfunction.

But there are consequences, and costs, if students have more than one incident of devices that are damaged from misuse, neglect or even accidentally.

The district recommends riders on home insurance policies to cover the netbook, said Rachel Porter, the district’s digital curriculum integration specialist. The netbooks are equipped with an anti-theft system so they can be tracked if lost or stolen.

District officials were nervous about the “rollout” of the program this week and handing out 800 computers, Porter said, but “It has been flawless for two days. It has gone very, very well.”

Student reactions vary. Some of the elementary children “come up and wrap their arms around me and say thank you for the computer, like I’m Santa,” Porter said.

Some of the students would never be able to afford a computer on their own, she said. “Some of the parents have made comments about how they could never provide that for their child but they know it’s important.”

Older students believe the change to a digital curriculum is a good one, but they are concerned about such things as computer systems crashing and losing homework. (Porter strongly encourages students to back up their files).

“I like it and I’m always up for a new challenge,” said senior Brian Obenchain, who will work in the Student Support Center at the high school to help troubleshoot computer problems.

“I really think if it works it would be great,” Obenchain said. “I’m a skeptic on maybe on how all this stuff running at once might slow it down a little. But if not, that would be awesome. I’d really like it to work.”

The district is making the transition to a digital curriculum because “we feel this is something we need to do for our kids,” said Leonard Orr, district superintendent. “We really believe that within the next five to eight years, probably every school will do some form of digital curriculum.”

The intent is not to use computers just for the sake of using computers, Porter said. “We want to use it at points where it will help students learn.”

This first week of school, “We’re just getting our feet wet right now. We have an enormous amount of professional development planned for the teachers to train them in how to use the computer,” Porter said.

She worked with 10 pilot teachers during the summer.

The vision is for all teachers in the district to incorporate at least one digital component in every lesson and “to be non-reliant on printed textbooks by the start of the 2014-15 school year.”

The transition to a digital curriculum will better prepare students for the workforce and college, district officials say.

The district chose the netbook because it uses the Windows-based software Southwest Parke uses, and it can be used for statewide testing requirements, which increasingly are being done online.

The netbooks cost $569 each and the district purchased about 800 student computers. Teachers have a similar version.

Students rent the netbooks, just as they would textbooks, and turn them back in at the end of each year. Rental ranges from about $100 to $150 a year.

While students can make some personal use of the netbooks at home, the computers are school district property and subject to the district’s filtering system. Students are allowed to put on personal pictures and music “as long as it’s something that won’t get them in trouble,” Porter said. “We have the right to search at any point.”

Currently, students can use Facebook after 5 p.m. but YouTube is blocked. Procedures related to Facebook could change “if it becomes a problem,” Porter said.

The initiative also involves student management software that will allow teachers to monitor what students are doing.

The district has experienced an enrollment increase of about 40 students this year, and officials believe the netbook initiative is probably a factor in that increase. Total enrollment in pre-school through grade 12 is about 1,100 students, Orr said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.