When a lesson on loom use in Iran unexpectedly transcends into a dialogue about the global equality of humankind, a teacher has to wonder what went right. Layne Zimmers, who helped guide her sixth-grade students through that very lesson, says she knows exactly what it was – technology and the ability to access the world with the click of a mouse.
“We were looking at an image of a woman in Iran making a curtain on an old-fashioned loom,” Zimmers says, explaining that she then gave students a zoomed-in look at the country via the web-based satellite mapping program Google Earth. “Immediately, they saw a soccer field. … This kid automatically goes ‘Oh my goodness.’ There are all these news stories and all of this information out there that sometimes puts a negative connotation on the Middle East. Although we may have conflicts with certain groups and certain people, they’re just like us when you look at the big scope of things,” Zimmers says. “For them to initiate that conversation and that thought – it evolved into something else that I wasn’t prepared for, and they started it.”
Zimmers teaches at Springfield District 186’s Lincoln Magnet Middle School, the only school in the district with a holistic emphasis on integrating technology into the classroom and the only school where all students tote their own laptop from class to class and on to their homes.
With just a textbook, Zimmers’ students would have had far less opportunity to discover the one thing they could relate to in a country halfway across the globe. With computers and the Internet, however, those same students instantly found a connection, Zimmers says.
It’s that type of engagement some school board members referred to when last month they unanimously approved a three-year, $6.2 million lease for new Apple computers to be swapped out for old ones throughout District 186 – the same district that in June adopted a 2011 budget with a $6.2 million budget deficit. The agreement means Springfield schools will receive 5,610 new Apple laptops, all of which will replace computers that are at least three years old. Apple will also upgrade 19 district servers, add 55 more servers and provide at least 450 hours of professional development training to district teachers.
In addition to an upfront payment of about $500,000, the new contract will require three annual payments of about $1.9 million. What costs aren’t absorbed by reduced maintenance costs, trade-in value or grant funding will be paid for with general state aid funds. The district didn’t include in its current budget about $2 million of additional state aid that it is now receiving, primarily due to an increase in its low-income student population. The district will tap into those dollars to pay for the upgrades, should other funding sources prove inadequate.
“I know that this is a great deal of money, and I know that technology tends to get a back seat. And I think that we have to stop thinking that way if we’re really going to start serving our students,” board member Cheryl Wise said just before the board approved the expenditure. Wise justifies the purchase based on the technological skills the workplace requires and an immediate need for increased student engagement in order for those students to better absorb the standard curriculum. She says the district has a problem engaging students, in part because so many of them are accustomed to working on a computer, with which a worksheet just can’t compete.
Sixth-grade Lincoln Magnet teacher Melissa Netznik calls today’s students “digital multi-taskers.” “I couldn’t do my homework this way, but my kids have their computer open, they might be texting and over here they’re sending messages and they’re doing this on their homework,” Netznik says. “That’s how their brains work and if we try to teach in a traditional way, we’re missing our kids.”
According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report entitled “Generation M2,” kids do just what Netznik describes – and they do it a lot. On average, children ages eight to 18 spend about 7.5 recreational hours every day wired in to some type of media, whether staring at a screen, listening to music or, for just 40 minutes each day, reading text on an actual printed page. Of those 7.5 hours, more than three hours are spent doing two or more of those activities at one time.
What exactly digital multi-tasking means for brain development and students’ attention spans is still a matter of debate, but the idea that students respond better to the one-click-away approach rings true for Lincoln Magnet. In 2009, 98 percent of Lincoln eighth-graders met or exceeded expectations in reading and 91 percent did so in math on their ISATs [Illinois Standards Achievement Tests]. A look at all Dist. 186 eighth-grade students shows only 68 and 70 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in those areas in 2009.
That same year, 36.5 percent of Lincoln Magnet’s 326 students were classified as low-income. Of such students, only 2.9 percent of Lincoln Magnet’s low-income eighth-graders failed to meet standards in reading, compared to 41.8 percent of low-income eighth-graders district-wide. In math, 38.8 percent of low-income eighth-graders failed to meet standards district-wide. At Lincoln Magnet, only 14.7 percent of students in the same subgroup failed to meet standards in math.
“When you look at all of our test scores, there’s not a huge achievement gap because all of our students have access and it breaks the digital divide. All of the students have access, so it’s not separating those who have and those who do not,” says Principal Nichole Heyen. While not all Lincoln Magnet students have access to the Internet at home – a 2009 U.S. Census Bureau survey shows that about 26 percent of U.S. children aged three to 17 do not – they are still able to use their computers for other interactive programs and to access stored research files.
Heyen credits technology as the most significant factor in her students’ test scores, but it’s just one of the elements playing a role in Lincoln Magnet students’ education.
Lincoln Magnet is a “choice” school, meaning parents must fill out an application in order for their children’s names to be put in a lottery drawing for the limited seats available in each sixth-grade class.
“I think it’s a dual thing,” says Sue Ruff, the district’s director of technology. “You see a lot of student engagement because of the technology, but also at Lincoln Magnet you have the piece where … families took on the responsibility to get their children there. So you have a lot of parental support.”
Former Lincoln Magnet student Matt Medley, now a freshman at Springfield’s Southeast High School, agrees family involvement played a role in his and his fellow students’ success. “Parental encouragement – there’s no substitute for it,” he says. But he adds that technology played just as important of a role.
Ball Charter, like Lincoln, is a choice school and had a low-income rate of about 40 percent in 2009, compared to Lincoln’s 36.5 percent. It fared better on standardized testing than the other district middle schools, and that year’s eighth-graders outpaced Lincoln’s by 3 percent in math. However, Ball Charter had a smaller proportion of eighth-grade students meeting and exceeding standards in both reading, 77 percent compared to Lincoln’s 98 percent, and writing, 66 percent compared to Lincoln’s 84 percent.
“I’m not saying that [technology] is the only reason their test scores are higher, but that’s got to be one of the reasons,” Wise says, adding that the smaller population at Lincoln Magnet might help foster better faculty-student relationships. “Test scores aren’t determined by one factor. There are a whole lot of factors that go into how well a student performs.”
Medley says his move to Southeast High School, without the one-to-one computer access, was a bit of a culture shock, but he’s still making the grade. “It’s kind of a difficult switch. A lot of it fell on me personally to adapt, which I did. So, for me personally, it hasn’t been a horrible change. And the teachers at Lincoln didn’t try to eliminate paper and pencil completely because there would be that kind of lapse no matter what high school you went to,” he says.
Medley says about Southeast: “On a comparative basis this school is technologically deprived.” Ruff, Heyen and Netznik say Medley’s response parallels what they hear from most former Lincoln Magnet students, but they add that most are able to adjust and that their new teachers are usually flexible in allowing them to use their advanced technological skills when creating projects.
Principal Heyen adds that the absence of one-to-one doesn’t mean technology can’t be effectively integrated into the classroom. “Our school started with not a one-to-one. So you can still provide all of these opportunities with one computer, one projector,” she says.
While Lincoln Magnet enjoys its one-to-one student-computer ratio, the rest of the district has about a four-to-one ratio, Ruff says. If all of those computers were working, the school would be about on par with the rest of the nation, according to 2006 U.S. Census Bureau figures. But so many of the computers are old enough that teachers, when developing their lesson plans, can’t count on the machines to be working when they pull them out during class. The new computers purchased through the recent Apple contract should solve that problem, Ruff says.
Many teachers at Medley’s high school already manage to incorporate technology into their lessons on a regular basis. While their students don’t have daily access to laptops, shared computer carts allow students temporary one-to-one experiences and projectors hooked up to teachers’ computers still allow educators to bring the world to the classroom.
But just having the equipment isn’t enough. According to a series of reports on one-to-one classrooms published in the January edition of the Journal of Technology, Learning and Assessment, technology’s impact on education outcomes is not a matter of just having computers in the classroom, it’s a matter of how comfortable teachers and administrators are with using technology and how they actually use it.
Zimmers taught at Grant Middle School before she came to Lincoln Magnet. She says there was a definite difference in culture between the two schools. “Not every teacher has the background in technology, not that they don’t want to use it in any of the other middle schools, they just don’t have that foundation to expand. They’re still learning all of the applications, how to integrate it, so I think that’s a spot to grow upon.”
Ruff hopes the 450-plus hours of training Apple will provide teachers as part of the new equipment contract will also encourage them to use the technology as a tool for engaging students as they share their subject expertise.
“It’s never technology for the sake of technology. It’s to enhance the curriculum,” Netznik says. “It’s not about learning the applications, it’s about learning that higher level thinking. … Technology is just one of those tools to do that.”
The district also already employs seven technology instructional leaders (TILs), educators who make sure teachers know what’s possible when it comes to integrating technology into the classroom. Like the number of computers in the schools, seven TILs aren’t as many as Ruff would like the district to have, but the current number is an improvement over the one TIL left after a referendum failed in 2001 and the district cut back. The district also employs six technicians charged with managing the district’s networks.
Ruff says one-to-one computers for the whole district, which seeks to educate more than 14,000 students, isn’t financially feasible. She adds that more technology would be great, but she thinks the district as a whole is doing relatively well with integrating computers right now. “If you look at our other schools, they’re doing equally great things. … Is it happening in every single room? No, because the computers are not available.”
Wise says she doesn’t know whether even more technology would benefit the district but adds that “more use of it is needed” if the district wants Lincoln Magnet’s success mirrored at other schools.
Heyen says the success Lincoln Magnet is having is more than just high test scores. It’s getting students to take responsibility for their own educations and encouraging their curiosity.
“Our students don’t know what it’s like not to have information,” Heyen says of her Lincoln Magnet learners. “If they don’t know what a word is, they’re looking it up on their widget, answering it and moving on. Before, they would have been stuck waiting for support. Now, they’re supporting themselves; they’re really taking charge and taking on a lot more responsibility. They’re just on it all the time. They’re always learning.”
Contact Rachel Wells at email@example.com.