March 3, 2013
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.
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.
At Rosedale Elementary one day last week, students used their netbooks for various learning activities.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.