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Solon school district studies the use of technology

Matt Townsley.

SOLON– Technology is a word tossed about casually on a day-to-day basis. But, what it actually entails, and how technology is used, is open for debate and discussion.
“In schools, we tend to think of technology as something that is powered-up, whether it be batteries or plugged into the wall,” said Matt Townsley, the director of instruction and technology for the Solon Community School District (SCSD). At its core however, “pencils are probably a form of technology. A piece of paper is (too), just like a VCR is.” Townsley said “technology integration” is another buzzword being treated as something new when in reality it has been ongoing. “We used to use pencils, and we still do. We didn’t used to have computers, now we do… we’re just maybe using them in different ways.” As another example, students used to look up things in an encyclopedia. “Now they’re likely to go to the computer to look it up.”
In other words, technology is an ever-evolving term.
“We want to see technology being used, but we don’t want it to get in the way, or be seen as an add-on for how students are learning,” Townsley said. “We want to see it (technology) become just another part of the day, just like the textbook is. It’s just another way for students to learn.”
The district participated in National Digital Learning Day on Wednesday, Feb. 5. “We wanted to get an idea of how our students and teachers are currently using digital tools,” Townsley said. So district Media Specialist Kathy Kaldenberg collected a plethora of information from the district’s teachers, and compiled it into a presentation for the school board. The presentation, available at http://tinyurl.com/solonDLD2014 shows first graders using iPads (tablet device) in a music class, students posting their artwork on a website (Artsonia.com), kindergartners accessing websites via QR Codes with an iPad. Solon fourth grade students participated in an hour of learning computer code, earlier this school year, as part of a national initiative.
Teachers have also done a “Mystery Skype,” with teachers in classrooms across the country. In addition to conversing in real time with the other classes, students also used clues to guess where they were.
Also, teachers were able to utilize Skype to allow sixth grade students to meet and talk with a senior astronomer from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute to name but a few applications. The SCSD is a Google Apps for Education district, which means every student from third grade on up has an account granting them access to the Google platform of applications such as Google Docs, which is used for writing papers and even receiving online help from their teacher; even after the regular school day has ended.
It boils down to all grade levels using some form of computer device (tablet, Chromebook, laptop or desktop), not every day, but most days.
Townsley gave a run-down of the roughly 1,000 devices used by the 1,400 students: 120 (estimated) iPads, 90 Chromebooks, 750 Apple (Mac) laptops, and 75 Apple desktops. “We don’t have one for every kid, but it seems we’ve got one for quite a few of the kids. We have, what I think is, some really great access.”
The limited number of machines does, from time to time, lead to scheduling conflicts among the teachers. “We have had in the past, and still experience it a little bit,” Townsley said. “We have an online reservation system (to combat the conflicts).” He said they found, as an example, English teachers would book laptops. Townsley and others, while noting the usefulness of a computer in a writing and/or research situation, asked if that was the best use of a $900 device. “Were we getting our money’s worth out of the machine in that setting?” he asked.
What followed was a pilot project in progress this year whereby a set of less expensive Chromebooks was purchased for the high school language arts department. The additional devices were able to free up the laptops for other classes, such as economics courses, which need a more powerful device.
“So far, we think it’s been a good thing,” Townsley said, adding, “If it’s successful, we might expand it, and get another set so that even more English students can be using them. We could perhaps expand it to the middle school as well and do the same kind of set up.” Purchasing these sets, he explained, would be less expensive than acquiring one set of laptops. “It’s a way of trying to get more devices in kids’ hands without spending any more money than we’re allocated.”

As a district, Townsley said, “We spend between $200,000 and $250,000 each year just on technology hardware. We’re thankful the school administration and the school board supports that, and we want to make the best use of it we can.”
Many school districts have gone to what is known as “1:1,” or one device for each student. As an example, Clear Creek Amana has tentatively approved going to 1:1 at their middle school next year, with the potential to then expand the program to other grade levels. Townsley said, “they’re right on in acknowledging that trend, and we’re well aware of it. What we’re trying to figure out is, when is the right time for us. I don’t think it’s right now, maybe in the next couple of years.”
The SCSD has a district technology committee made up of teachers, administrators and Townsley, who meet several times each year. “We’re the ‘vision and philosophy’ group,” he said. Also, there are technology committees in each school building that work on a more micro level, for each specific facility. Last year, the district committee engaged in considerable study and attended various conferences. The result is what they are calling a targeted 1:1 approach.
“Students aren’t necessarily taking a device home or having one with them all day. It considers that there are various disciplines and grade levels that have different needs.” For example, the lowest grade levels are better suited to iPads, as they are not able to type. Chromebooks work well for high school English students doing research online, and completing writing assignments using Google Docs. Under a targeted approach, grade levels currently sharing devices would have dedicated ones in their classrooms. He noted the high school art department has dedicated machines, beefed up to be able to handle memory-intensive software for digital photography and graphic arts. High school and middle school “Project Lead the Way” classes also have dedicated machines able to meet the software needs of those curriculums.
“What we’re headed for is identifying specific grade levels and content area that have specific uses, and trying to get dedicated devices for them so that the students can access them during the day,” Townsley said. “Maybe five years down the road, we might be at the point where we say, ‘you know what? We need a device for every kid to take home at night.’ But, between now and then, that’s where we’re headed.”
While Townsley and the district committee have a clear picture of technology use in the school buildings, they would like to have a better understanding of the full spectrum: school, home and everything in-between. To that end, a survey went out to the community last month.

“The survey we’re using is called the Clarity survey, put out by BrightBytes (www.brightbytes.net). Results of the survey have not yet been compiled, Townsley said. The surveys from the parents are back, but the district is still surveying students and teachers. High school students were scheduled to take the survey on Friday, Feb. 7, with middle schoolers completing it later in the month. Lakeview students, he explained, are completing the survey in a more scattered manner. He noted the district has compiled some data, on a much smaller scale, in the past, such as asking parents if there is a computer at home that the students have access to; and if they have Internet access.
“From a classroom perspective, can students access the websites and the tools they need?” he said, adding it could be as simple as a necessary website being blocked, or an insufficient wireless network in a building to support the users. “What type of skills do our teachers have from a technology perspective? Do they know how to upload a video? Do they know how to edit pictures? Can they send emails? Do our students know how to do those things too?” Townsley asked. Access, he said, boils down to, “are there enough devices?” Townsley said the results of the survey will give the district specific information from the classroom and home perspectives.
Ultimately it’s a snapshot in time. “We plan to do this again in the future. If we see, for example, that our teacher skills are not where we want them to be, we may do some professional development. Or, we may find access isn’t so great in a particular building or grade level. So maybe with our purchasing, we can address that. Or maybe, we find our wireless (network) isn’t so great.” Townsley pointed out the network at Lakeview was upgraded from consumer grade to more professional grade last summer. “That was just anecdotal, we didn’t need a whole survey to figure that out, but we might find out there are some other areas that just haven’t surfaced yet.”
Over time, he added, the survey may find that the targeted 1:1 is “maxed-out,” and it’s time to go to full 1:1. “Time will tell,” he noted.
Townsley emphasized the survey is free to the district with the cost picked up by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (AEA). “The Iowa AEAs have purchased-in on this, so since we’re serviced by them, we get to use it for free.” He added this is year one of a three-year process, allowing for future snap shots. “We hope to do this at least once a year for the next couple of years to see how things have, hopefully, positively changed.”