Technology in school has advantages, challenges
Educators and administrators in Mitchell County schools work in an environment where technology is omnipresent and finding ways to maximize technology as a teaching tool is a constant theme.
In a time when textbooks have been replaced with laptops and cellphones are no longer shunned in the classroom and instead incorporated in the learning process, leveraging technology to benefit students is a major task.
Mitchell County Schools Technology Director Casey Johnson, along with her team of two technicians and a network engineer, are responsible for making technology work effectively and efficiently for students and teachers.
“I always tell everyone that technology can never replace, in my opinion, that connection with teachers,” Johnson said.
Instead, she helps teachers find new software and apps to use in the classroom.
Johnson touched on how technology has changed education since 2005 when she began teaching English at Mitchell High and was using transparencies and an overhead projector. Students’ homework now includes watching videos of teachers’ lessons on their school-issued laptops; the next day in class they do problems based on those lessons as teachers work one-on-one with students.
Johnson said this method is called “flipped” because students get lessons at home and do homework in class.
“(Students) have access to the content 24 hours a day,” Johnson said.
And with each student and teacher having a school-issued email account, communication doesn’t end when students go home.
“High school is a completely different environment” today compared to when she started teaching, Johnson said. How much technology is incorporated in the classroom varies from teacher to teacher at the high school, she said, but they all use it in some fashion.
Laptops are issued to every student and teacher at Mitchell High and the middle schools while elementary students share tablets in class.
Johnson became the high school’s technology facilitator in 2011 when the 1:1 laptop program started.
“At that point, I started doing professional development for teachers; incorporating technology into their curriculum,” she said.
The middle schools went 1:1 in 2013. Superintendent Chad Calhoun asked Johnson to oversee technology for the district after he took over in 2016.
At the elementary schools, students enhance their reading and writing skills by using tablet-based apps.
Johnson described a program at Deyton Elementary where fifth-graders make video book reviews. After a student finishes a book, he or she can produce a video of themselves talking about the book. Other students, specifically younger ones, can watch those videos before deciding which book to read.
Seeing older kids talk about books encourages younger ones to read, Johnson said.
Not long ago, students caught using their cellphones faced possible punishment. Now, smartphones are often part of the learning process.
During lunchtime at Bowman Middle School this past week, media specialist Shana Cook was leading several students on a virtual tour of ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Students wore modified goggles using smartphones for display as Cook read facts about the ruins from her iPad. The devices were linked through an app called Google Expeditions.
With a swipe of Cook’s finger, a 3-D image of a human lung appeared on students’ screens. A moment later, they were hovering above the Great Wall of China. It’s like “The Magic School Bus” for the 21st century.
“They’re learning and they don’t even know it,” Cook said.
Today’s students are “digital natives,” Johnson said, meaning they grew up immersed in technology.
“They know how to use social media, but they don’t necessary know how to use technology to benefit them intellectually and academically for future jobs,” she said. “That’s what our job is.”
Educators are also tasked with teaching young people how to use technology and social media appropriately, Johnson said.
It’s not just limited to teachers working with students, Johnson said. Teachers in Mitchell’s schools have access to an online forum where they can share and discuss new ideas and tools for teaching. It allows educators to receive instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t, Johnson said.
A survey during the 2015-2016 school year found 87 percent of students in the county have access to internet at home. Those that don’t have access can download lesson materials on their device while at school to use later.
Johnson said classrooms at the high school and middle schools all have access to Wi-Fi and they are working to make it that way at the elementary schools.
Her goal is to have the entire district 1:1 within five years. She presented four options to the school board in March for updating current devices and providing tablets for all elementary students. The cost is not cheap, ranging from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $1.7 million depending on the plan.
Tablets currently used in the elementary schools were paid for with grants from the Phillips Family Foundation.
“One of my main goals is to get us on a rotation system; that we’re making sure that we’re looking years in advance that we’re on a good rotation system for devices,” Johnson said. “We have to work together with our community to make sure that happens.”
It’s a difficult task, she said, as funding is short and budgets stretched.
“Public education, by nature, does not receive the money that it needs to receive to make it work the way we would like it to,” Johnson said.