Barrington schools aim to balance technology and teaching
Barrington Superintendent of Schools Michael Messore had a notepad on the table in front of him.
Next to it was his smart phone and his brand new tablet, and on the wall across from his desk was 40-something-inch flatscreen television that was linked directly with the district’s computer network.
Mr. Messore uses his tablet during school committee meetings and in the office and regularly checks the buzzes and beeps streaming from his smart phone.
He still uses his notepad, but not as much as he used to.
The superintendent has recognized not only his own increased reliance on technology, but that of local students as well.
“The younger people are growing up with it,” Mr. Messore said, referring to high-tech devices. “The question is now ‘How do you use the technology?’”
Across Barrington and the rest of the country, school officials are working to strike a balance with technology and teaching — how much technology to use in the classrooms, how much online access to grant students, and how much to spend on new computers, tablets and laptops each year.
Technology and students
Barrington High School is doing something different this year.
Barrington has implemented a program called BYOD — Bring Your Own Device — which allows students to bring their own computers to class each day. It moves the high school one step closer to reaching a 1-to-1 status, where each student has a computer device, whether that be a laptop, tablet or desktop.
The soft launch of Barrington High School’s BYOD has been successful, said Katie Miller, the director of technology for the district. The district has also adopted a new “responsible use” policy that governs how computers should be used by teachers, students and guests. The policy focuses on areas such as “respect for others,” “ethical conduct for users,” and “internet safety and security.”
Included in the policy are statements like: “Users are prohibited from downloading illegal material or inappropriate content while using personal devices on BPS networks or using BPS resources, regardless of who owns the computer or device used by student or how it is connected.”
The day-to-day administration of the use of technology, however, falls directly to the classroom teachers.
Mr. Messore said high school educators establish the rules for their classes and police those rules. He said some teachers incorporate a heavy dose of technology when it comes to classroom instruction, while others may rely upon it a bit more sparingly.
Ms. Miller said she has seen some of the work students have produced with computers and has been very impressed. She specifically mentioned students who helped produce some recent videos: “What they were able to do was incredible.”
The push to go 1-to-1 — Barrington’s plan would include students from grades 4 through 12 each having a device — has met some resistance in other parts of the country. Ms. Miller recently Tweeted out an entry from the Education Week blog titled “A Big and Rocky Year for 1-to-1 Computing.” That entry reported on a rough roll-out for the public schools in Los Angeles with their 1-to-1 initiative. “The initiative’s first phase began in Fall 2013. Within days, some students bypassed the devices’ security filters, and questions emerged about liability and responsibility.”
Ms. Miller said she has seen that students at Barrington High School are not misusing their devices, although she has experienced a different problem altogether with the district’s BYOD program. Ms. Miller said there is an equity issue at the high school, as some students have better equipment than others. She said a district-funded program would allow for all students to have the same device, leveling the playing field inside the classrooms.
Mr. Messore said he has spoken with Barrington High School Principal Joe Hurley and received positive reports about BYOD. He added that fighting against the use of high-tech devices by students in local classes would only lead to frustrations by educators and administrators.
He said a better approach is one where students are instructed on what is an appropriate use and what is not, as well as educating the young people on how to correctly use sources found on the internet.
Technology and parents
“Technology is a learning tool. You don’t replace the teachers.”
That is the message Mr. Messore has for parents of local students who may have concerns about the increased use of technology in Barrington schools. He said that while teachers may use computers in their instruction, the focus for local schools will continue to be the interaction between educators and students.
At the elementary level, many teachers use online resources to supplement their students’ classroom assignments. For example, the website TenMarks offers math work online for students — after a student finishes an assignment, he or she can earn points for the rewards center which has puzzles and games.
At higher levels, there are numerous online resources for students in varying areas. There is also the added component of online or network-accessible progress reports and assignment sources.
Mr. Messore said computers will also reduce the need to buy new textbooks each year.
Paula Dillon, the district’s director of curriculum, said the use of technology is a crucial component for today’s students. More and more, jobs and higher education require a certain level of understanding and command of technology, she said. It is important, she added, to give local students every opportunity to excel in the digital world.
But Ms. Dillon also emphasized the continued importance of teaching with technology, and that computers alone are not the answer.
“The technology is a supplement to the teaching,” she said. “It is definitely a balance.”
Ms. Dillon said the computer device — laptop, desktop, tablet or smart phone — becomes a tool for the student, not a replacement for the educator.
Technology and taxpayers
The cost of those “tools” may be one of the biggest sticking points for the district.
In Barrington, the district spent $275,000 this year to purchase new tablets for all the teachers in the public schools. That move freed up a number of desktop computers the teachers had been using in their classrooms. Those desktops were moved (or will be soon) to computer labs for students.
Part of the expenditure was geared toward helping Barrington schools prepare for the 2015 online assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Another part of the expenditure was based on a desire to keep up with the digital world.
The $275,000 still left the district 225 computer devices short of its intended goal.
“We’re way short of where we need to be,” Ms. Miller said.
Last spring during the budget process, a group of residents pleaded with the district to establish a full-day kindergarten program which would have reportedly cost taxpayers about $600,000. Some of those same people questioned the district’s decision to spend nearly $300,000 on computers, but not the $600,000 for the full-day K.
Mr. Messore recommended to the school committee that officials hold off on starting the full-day K program; he also strongly recommended the district spend the $275,000 on technology. He said the district needed to be ready for the upcoming online PARCC assessments.
District officials said technology needs will likely result in regular expenditures, especially considering how quickly computer software and hardware becomes “old” or outdated.
Taxpayers could face a tall fiscal challenge this spring, as the district plans to implement a full-day kindergarten program, pay contracted raises to teachers, and purchase the required number of computers to allow for the online assessments in 2015.