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Schools getting right tools for 21st century – Google Chromebooks, educational products

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The presence of Google devices and apps is felt in over 50 percent of the nation’s schools. And in Rome and Floyd County, the technology company’s low-cost Chromebooks and free educational products have revolutionized how students learn and how educators teach in the digital age.

“I think we’re on the cusp of an education revolution that we can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like,” said Terrie Ponder, a digital integration specialist for Rome City Schools. “I mean, we’ve been stagnant for 200 years in education, you know, our classrooms look the same as they did 100 years ago.”

Craig Ellison, executive director of technology and media services for Floyd County Schools, said failing to incorporate technology into schools would “absolutely” be a “misstep.”

It would be a misstep because today’s students have grown up with technology as an essential component of their everyday lives.

“The children that are in our school system today, you’ve got to understand,” Ellison emphasized, “they’re not even talking and … somebody is going to have a Chromebook or an iPad in front of them, or a cellphone.”

Technology officials for the Rome and Floyd County schools systems all spoke to the benefit of technology in creating a culture of collaboration that has torn down the walls of the classroom and connected educators in a whole new way. They agree that student engagement has widely improved, as the devices kids had for the most part interacted with socially, are now being used as instructional tools.

The learning is personalized to the features of the 21st century, where the always-at-your-fingertips information and resources drive instruction and kids don’t have to “unplug” any longer.

“What they meant is, they’re so used to learning based off the technologies that are available, such as YouTube and using Google to find out facts. So then they’d come to school and, when we didn’t have all this technology, they didn’t have the ability to quickly find that information and quickly find those resources,” Ellison said.

“With personalized learning it’s more about student voice and choice. One of the biggest things I tell my teachers in training is that you are no longer a teacher, but a facilitator of learning,” Ponder said. “I can Google the date the Declaration of Independence was signed; I don’t need a textbook or a teacher to tell me that anymore. But it’s a matter of teaching our students how to find that information, to be able to investigate and inquire about their learning and to ask those questions.”

Where they’ve been and where they’re going

Much of the technology shift has come within the last several years, with both school systems vastly increasing the number of Chromebooks in its schools.

Floyd County Schools has nearly reached a one-to-one, Chromebook-to-student ratio, reaching 10,000 plus Chromebooks in March, nearly five years after starting the purchasing process in May 2012. The system was recently named as a Google Reference District for its incorporation of Google-based educational services and innovative technology strategies. The recognition, Ellison said, is the result of the system really going “full throttle” with technology in 2011, when they became a Google Apps for Education District.

Ellison said the system still has six to eight schools in need of more of the compact laptops to meet that one-to-one goal. Within two years, he said, the system is shooting to reach a point where every student has their own Chromebook.

Each classroom typically has a cart of its own with 25 to 30 Chrome­books and has an independent wireless access point to support these devices, Ellison said.

Matt Stover, director of technology and network services for Rome City Schools, explained that when he came on board a little over three years ago, an assessment found the digital infrastructure across the system to be in “pretty bad condition.

“We used that assessment as a proving point that we had to do something,” he said, adding that the issues ranged from having outdated wireless access points to old wiring at substandard conditions to having the hardware that powers the network infrastructure being 10 to 15 years old.

At that time, Stover said, the one-to-one initiative had yet to completely take root, but officials could see that’s what the future held. But before they could dream of putting a device in the hands of each child, the system had to revitalize the infrastructure which supports those devices.

“We had to replace everything,” he said, which was paid for through a mix of ELOST 4 and federal funds. “It would be absolutely impossible to do what we’re doing now if we had not done that.”

Since 2014, the overhaul of the network infrastructure has yielded the installation of wireless access points — each one can handle 50 to 60 devices — in every other classroom, and classrooms from third grade through 12th grade have been outfitted with Chromebooks for each child. The number of the system’s Chromebooks has reached 5,000 — 3,000 of which were purchased in September 2016.

The system was named in the top 10 of the national 2016-2017 Digital School Districts Survey for medium-sized school districts.

The network infrastructure at East Central Elementary is currently being finished up, and, when done, each of the system’s schools will have been re-equipped with the necessary foundation for a digital push. The next step is to work toward meeting the one-to-one goal with a top-down approach — which was used in 2015 when Chromebooks were introduced first to ninth-graders and then remaining high-schoolers before reaching the lower grades — for second grade through kindergarten. There is currently a gap of roughly 1,200 Chromebooks to make the system one-to-one for an enrollment of over 6,200.

When voters look over their ballots in the November election, they’ll find contained in the question as to continue the 1-percent education local option sales tax, the proposed project to “acquire system-wide technology improvements and equipment” for both school systems. It’s a sign of the value placed on technology by the systems as they continue to try and prepare students for the digital-oriented world they’ll be graduating into.

Why Google?

One of the contributing factors for the systems’ moves to Google was for its free Gmail service. Rather than purchasing email service through another client, the systems could utilize G Suite for Education — this includes over 10 cloud-based educational services — and not only have email for administration and teachers but students as well.

Then, Chromebooks provided schools with a device costing under $250 that operates on a Google-based operating system. The price of Apple’s MacBooks can reach up to $1,000 or more, and the company’s iPads cost right around $500, Ellison said.

“A Chromebook will do 90 percent of what the users need it to do,” he said.

Similar tools provided through G Suite would have cost the Floyd County system hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to support, Ellison said. The system could not afford such a cloud-based computing technology had it not come from Google, he added.

Stover said the Chromebooks come with extended warranties, controlling the hit of repair costs on the system.

But Ellison said repairs can be made “next to nothing,” and even if the system gets three years of use out of them, that’s still a substantial life for about a $200 piece of equipment. And the Chromebooks now are cheaper than the ones they have purchased over the last several years, and newer models even include touch screens, which can benefit special-education students, he continued.

Ryan White, an educational technology coordinator at Floyd County Schools, said the repair rate for the system’s Chromebooks is about 5 percent.

Ponder said any student can sign in on any Chromebook and have it personalized to his Google account — the iPads the system had been using were “unfriendly” to this. She also said students can connect to their Google Drive — this is the home base of sorts for all Google products concerning word documents, power points and spreadsheets — in an offline mode. This means students can work from home without an internet connection and then sync all their work to the cloud when they get to school.

After Rome City Schools switched over to Gmail, Stover said, officials began to see the benefits of the other G Suite apps, specifically Google Classroom, which “totally changed the way that they could integrate digital curriculum with the students right in their hands.”