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High-tech clicks … but only for some schools


The Kansas City Star

A student in Kelly Finn's high-tech classroom at The Barstow School, 13 -year-old Ryan Olson used his convertable tablet computer as he led a recent discussion for a writers workshop class. The school puts new technologies to work in a big way.
[A student in Kelly Finn’s high-tech classroom at The Barstow School, 13 -year-old Ryan Olson used his convertable tablet computer as he led a recent discussion for a writers workshop class. The school puts new technologies to work in a big way.]

When even the most innovative classrooms lag behind what’s possible, it’s almost unfair asking the school tech guy: What’s next?

Thirteen-year-olds at The Barstow School in Kansas City had just shown off a blitz of Google Docs and Glogster creations on convertible laptop/tablets in eighth-grade writing class.

They’d popped out photos and posters depicting 1950s suburbia and the Cold War in their own multimedia introductions to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

And then it was back to their compositions, reacting to margin notes sent by their teacher, Kelly Finn, that would continue in the days ahead even though she was leaving for a conference in Chicago.

What’s next?

Barstow’s tech guy, Scott Daniel, has ideas. (Imagine students surfing academic social networks on tablets, working through instructional programs that react to each student’s unique pace and needs.)

But the truth is that the possibilities in education are bounding ahead daily.

And here’s the more alarming truth: American schools aren’t keeping up.

Finn’s high-tech classroom is more the exception than the rule. The costs of equipment and tech support on top of the many demands already monopolizing teachers’ time keep most classes behind the digital curve. And even Finn’s class is just wading in the ocean of technology.

“We’re living in an extraordinary time,” said Karen Cator, director of education technology with the U.S. Department of Education. Computer networks and keystroke-sensitive algorithms are capable of guiding students as if hooked to a GPS for learning, accessible to teachers, parents and the students themselves, she said.

“We can know where they are, and how to help them move forward,” she said.

Yet school systems remain mired in their past, said James Gee, professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University. They languish, beset by fears of technology, cyberbullying, distracted students and prohibitive costs.

Meanwhile, Gee said, the computer gaming industry is lapping the field, propelling children and teenagers on missions that are harder than the work they’re doing in school. Alone and in teams, children pursue ascending layers of performance marks with unrelenting zeal.

Why education hasn’t been quicker seizing this dynamic baffles him.

“What we can’t do in school, these dirty capitalists are doing in games and getting rich,” Gee said. “I’m not pushing games. I’m pushing a new way of learning.”

Consider the folly of a school year dominated by end-of-year exams, says Cathy Davidson, former vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University. It’s “outrageous,” she said, that teachers essentially stop teaching in March “and prepare for a test.”

Education technology, as in the gaming world, has the ability to assess performance every step of the way, comparing students to classmates across schools, districts, states and the world, with immediate feedback and direction. No final exam necessary.

• •

“The hardest thing is taking that first step,” said Linda Mohr, a Pembroke Hill School teacher in Kansas City whose personal foray into the new world involves creating her own YouTube videos for her sixth-grade math students.

With the help of Pembroke’s technology specialist — schools must have strong technology specialists backing their teachers, she said — Mohr is using the school’s secure YouTube site to create lessons. Sometimes students watch them at home and come to class ready to review and practice. Sometimes she uses them to split up her lessons, with some students watching the video while she teaches a different lesson to a separate group.

She doesn’t think of herself as a technology wizard, but she had support and she got started.

“I can be on YouTube,” she said. “I can create my own videos.”

National surveys by Project Tomorrow in Irvine, Calif., reveal the concerns and frustrations that make such technological leaps hard in so many classrooms.

More than 75 percent of the teachers surveyed fear that students wired in class through phones or laptops will be too distracted. More than 60 percent believe that inequity between who has access and who doesn’t also is a major problem.

A third of teachers fear they wouldn’t be able to control cheating. And nearly a quarter say they don’t have the training to use technology in instruction or have an appropriate curriculum.

Administrators worry about limited financial resources and keeping children safe from bullying inside a school’s network and from inappropriate contacts outside.

Add in the intense itinerary schools place on teachers to cover all the academic bases demanded under the test-heavy No Child Left Behind Act. And then consider that schools shoulder the additional pressure to transform without any authoritative data that show that reshaping classrooms into collaborative gaming shops actually improves academic performance.

Schools need to adopt the same bravado they want from their students, said Katie Salen, a DePaul University professor and executive director of the nonprofit Institute of Play.

Schools are losing time if they “want proof something works first … when we have tremendous proof that what’s going on now is failing,” Salen said.

Curriculum writers and technology specialists should be building school programs that will adapt and grow, she said, both inside and outside school.

“You don’t build it and say, ‘Ta-da! Here it is!’ ” Salen said. “You believe your product is going to change over time. The evidence (that a revolutionized classroom is working) comes in the daily transformations going on. We should not be blockading learning between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. only between these brick-and-mortar buildings.”

• • •

Ask Barstow student Sophia Mauro to list the benefit’s of Finn’s tech-savvy writing class and she starts by listing all the programs she’s learning to use:

“Photoshop, Illustrator, Glogster, Prezi…”

Ask her about the drawbacks and she slides into a mischievous smile.

“You know — the chatting, the games. Computers can be distracting.”

There seems to be no doubt in the students’ minds, however, that the balance of everyone having their own computer in class favors a more powerful education.

The Barstow families have bought in — figuratively and literally.

A $750 annual fee gets a student a convertible laptop/tablet computer plus all the necessary software and maintenance. It helps support teacher training and the school’s secure network. It funds a four-person support team, including an in-school help desk.

The school also trains parents and students, said Daniel, who was a physics teacher before his affinity for technology put him in charge of Barstow’s tech plan.

Parents have to be aware that students can use and abuse the academic social network, Daniel said. They may be chatting when they should be doing homework. And they need to know the impacts of the messages children send, kind and unkind.

“We tell them that whenever you post you are a publisher,” Daniel said. “It will not go away.”

Most schools can’t rely on fees on families to put computers at every desk. School systems have to get creative, seeking revenue sources and choosing programs and services to cut.

And recent occurrences in Missouri, where a teacher fostered an inappropriate relationship with a student through Facebook, heightened educators’ concerns over how to manage academic social networks online.

It’s imperative that schools find their way forward, Cator said.

“The question is not whether technology is good,” she said. “That’s like asking if libraries are good. We’re talking about the whole Internet. The question is how it’s used. It’s what is used.”

Finn watches her eighth-graders go, both in class and in cyberspace out of class.

“You’ve got 40 students with access to each other’s work,” she said. “They’re sharing and learning.”

As a teacher, she said, it thrills her to see them seeking out new sources and dreaming up new ways to show what they know. And she’s doing less lecturing and more one-on-one teaching.

“This puts so much of the learning on them,” she said. “It frees us up to individualize and do that moving around.”

Don’t ask her what’s next, either. She just knows she wants her students ready, whatever comes.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to

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