CRYSTAL LAKE – The kids were supposed to be examining and debating a book on an online discussion board, but they were just throwing their thoughts out without responding or building on posts by other students.
The use of technology – in this case, an app called Edmodo that offers school-safe social networks for teachers and students to use – wasn’t improving the learning experience, said Anastasia Gruper, Glacier Ridge Elementary School Assistant Principal.
“If you don’t have collaboration, and you throw kids on Edmodo, and they don’t know how to respond to each other and build off of one another’s ideas, then it doesn’t enhance it,” she said. “Actually, I think it impedes it. I think it makes it a worse learning environment.”
Gruper was discussing the balance teachers need to find to make sure their students are getting the technology skills, content knowledge and soft skills like collaboration and critical thinking that they need with a handful of other administrators, teachers and education technology specialists called iCoaches, at an in-district conference hosted this week at Hannah Beardsley Middle School.
“Sometimes I wonder can technology increase alienation if they prefer to work through a technological means, would they then not be able to handle group collaboration face to face?” North Elementary School Principal Steve Scarfe said. “I think teachers have a lot of responsibility to try to work both sides of that.”
The transliteracy conference is in its second year at Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47, an experiment that had built off the literacy conferences the district had offered its educators for years as continuing education opportunities, said Corey Holmer, a former District 47 science teacher who was one of the first to bring iPads into his classroom and ultimately ended up as one of the district’s first iCoaches. He is now an educational technologist at Lake Forest High School 115.
About 160 educators attended, mostly from District 47 but a few from Immanuel Lutheran School, St. Thomas the Apostle School and the Crystal Lake Public Library, spokeswoman Denise Barr said.
The district has been cautious in its rollout of technology, starting with a pilot program in 2010 and then building on it each year, said Dave Jenkins, the district’s assistant superintendent of technology services.
Each middle school has about one device for every two students, some of those are shared and 41 middle school classrooms have an iPad for every student, he said.
They wanted to build a collection of trailblazers or “technology champions” that could try out the programs and then serve as trainers for other teachers, Jenkins said.
Jenkins has proposed going one-to-one at the district’s three middle schools for the past two years, but with the district in the middle of updating its curriculum to align it with Common Core and the uncertainty that hovers over school districts as state lawmakers propose pension cost shifts or changes to the education funding formula, the school board has decided to hold off, he said.
“But what I would always say is curriculum has to drive our purchasing of technology,” he said. “It can’t be just technology for technology’s sake. Districts around us that have done that, good or bad, when you do a one-to-one implementation, which we’re not at yet, there’s going to be issues. There’s a lot of things that go into that.”
Huntley Community School District 158 went one-to-one primarily because of its reading curriculum, said Jenkins, who had worked at that district before moving over to District 47.
The workshop that Jenkins and Holmer hosted with iCoach Jamie Michelau focused on how technology fits into the classroom and while sometimes it can substitute some analog technologies, it may not always be the right choice.
Technology should really be used to enhance or redefine a lesson, perhaps by bringing in an author to discuss their book via Skype, Michelau said.
“The more you use the technology and the more the teachers are getting comfortable with it, the more outside the box they start to think,” she said. “They start thinking about how else could I use a GoogleDoc, what else can I do with it. A conference like this gives them some of those out-of-the-box ideas.”