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Educators find that bringing familiar technology into classroom boosts engagement

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Though digital devices can be seen as a means of social interaction for a generation of kids who’ve grown up with them, some from the earliest of ages, when they are inside the classrooms of the Rome and Floyd County school systems, they are instructional tools.

The use of Google Chromebooks and related apps has redefined how students see the devices of their generation and has removed the isolating barriers of a traditional classroom and opened up a whole new realm of educational opportunities.

“It encouraged a culture of collaboration with our teachers to break down the walls of their castles, their classrooms, so they could finally work not only with teachers in the same building but across the whole county,” said Ryan White, educational technology coordinator for Floyd County Schools.

Through the free apps of G Suite for Education, educators can monitor the students as they work on their Chromebooks in real time, according to Terrie Ponder, a digital integration specialist for Rome City Schools. Teachers can drive instruction by keeping kids on task, offering in-the-moment commentary on a student’s essay or helping them through a challenging problem that formerly had to be dealt with by having a teacher hover over a student at their desk, she said.

Teachers no longer play the role of the “sage on the stage,” Ponder said, “telling you everything that you need to know.” They provide access to the expansive offerings of the internet and the educational programs out there, allowing students to take what they find and show teachers what they know.

It’s all about taking these digital tools — everything from Google’s search engine to code.org — and blending them into methods of instruction, White said.

“We purposefully take those things and try and expose them to things they may not get on a daily basis,” he said, adding the key is to show students the other side of these digital tools and how it can make learning more engaging, since it’s learning on their own terms.

Ponder said the push for coding in schools is essential to building students’ knowledge base to reflect the changing job market.

“These are the skills that our students are going to have to have to go into the workforce,” she said. “A lot of research will tell you if you’re not teaching coding to young children, it’s like teaching them not to read.”

A more engaged student

In the upcoming school year, the Floyd County system plans to wholly dedicate itself to basing its curriculum around the workshop model. That four-part method features an opening, a mini-lesson, a work period and a debriefing for each class.

This model was put on display for board of education members last year in teacher William Carvajal’s Spanish class at Model Middle. After a session of pre-teaching, the class connected with a Cuban woman through Google Hangouts, practicing their Spanish with someone across the state through video.

The keyword both White and Ponder will mention when talking about digital instruction is engagement.

“I tell teachers all the time that if you will provide them with meaningful work, they will be engaged. But if you give them no direction, and just say ‘hey, go research George Washington,’ you’re going to have every kid on something else that they’re not supposed to be on,” Ponder said.

By testing out the programs before they are implemented in schools, it builds a core group of proven tools for student engagement, rather than oversaturating teachers with all these “shiny objects,” White said.

“I mean, we could come in here for a day and do 30 apps in 30 minutes,” White said. “But we really try and focus on here’s one specific tool that you can walk out of a training or if I work one-on-one with a teacher that they can walk out of that and go ‘I’ve mastered that, I know that’ or ‘I have enough base knowledge to take it and run with it.’”

The generation gap

Something to remember is the generation gap between today’s students and teachers who started in education before the digital revolution. So some teachers themselves experience a digital learning curve.

And, for the most part, educators have been completely on board with the idea because they see its power to transform the classroom, said Teri Pendley, principal at Pepperell Elementary.

LeAnn Goya, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at West End Elementary, said students know which teachers use technology the most, and doing so earns their respect as they see their emphasis on and proficiency in the tools of their generation. And paper and pencils just don’t do the trick anymore, she said.

“It’s something that they value,” she said. “This is the way I always envisioned teaching.”

This year, a Muslim student of Goya’s had just returned from a trip to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Rather than simply having the student, who is from Pakistan, tell the class where he went, he took them there. Goya had him come to the front of the class and lead his counterparts through the trip he took on Google Earth. For some, she said, this will be the closest they get to traveling to those places, but technology helped bring that portion of the world to them.

Goya is excited for the system’s implementation this upcoming school year of Google Expeditions, which gives students virtual-reality experiences, where they can go under the sea or visit ancient Mayan ruins or check out the Martian landscapes.

Through Google, teachers can become certified at different levels of proficiency in Google education apps. And next school year, Floyd County Schools is linking this training with what they call Level Up, which is a game-like version of professional development, said Craig Ellison, the system’s executive director of technology and media services.

“Level Up is the bones of how we are going to take teachers and move them up the progression,” he said, adding that the initiative awards teachers and administrators with certificates or, at a certain level, wooden plaques made by College and Career Academy students.

Educators collect “artifacts,” which reflect the completion of a digital task in their process of familiarizing themselves with the tools that make up the digital curriculum.

Though both school systems have set themselves up for 21st century learning, technology officials know what they have in place now is just a jumping-off point to bigger and better things.

“We believe technology is a tool, by itself it is nothing special. However, in the hands of our students it becomes transformative,” said Matt Stover, director of technology and network services at Rome City. “We want technology in Rome City Schools to be driven by the imagination of the kids.”

“This is the beginning of all we thought it could be,” Ellison said.