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Elementary school bridging classroom technology gap


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When Melisa McCain’s fourth-grade students have a question she can’t immediately answer, a race begins between the teacher and her students’ iPod Touches.

If McCain is standing at the head of her classroom at Needham Elementary School, she has to walk to her computer at the other end of the room — and she doesn’t always win the race. Sometimes by the time McCain gets to her computer, several students already have logged online and answered whatever question was asked.

Franklin schools launched a program in the spring allowing students in all grades to bring their own devices to use at school, partly because the school district can’t afford to purchase tablets or laptops for all students the way Center Grove and Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools have. But school officials weren’t sure how well the new policy would work with elementary school students, who typically benefit from more direct instruction from their teachers.

This year, Franklin elementary school principals allowed students to bring their devices to school, but it’s up to teachers how often students can use smartphones, iPads or computers, according to technology director Matt Sprout and Needham Principal Kent Pettet.

Needham teachers aren’t expected to create online lessons for their students, but Pettet hopes teachers will become comfortable with students using their own devices in class. He said that Franklin’s elementary school science classes already use Internet-based lessons and that it’s likely similar lessons and methods will be used in other subjects.

“I feel like this is the world that our students know outside of school. It’s the world our parents know outside of school. Tablets, smartphones, iPod-type devices, so I feel like this is an opportunity to bridge the educational classroom with the social world that they know,” Pettet said.

About half of McCain’s 29 students bring devices to use in class each day. The most common are iPod Touches, which typically cost between $230 and $400. Students can use them to easily surf the web. When they’re outside school, they can follow their school’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, since social media websites are blocked inside the building.

McCain’s students use them for more than answering questions or looking up definitions. They also use them to create and update class blogs. Recently, for a language arts lesson, the fourth-

graders recorded and uploaded music videos online.

Students who don’t have a smartphone or tablet aren’t left out. McCain has about five classroom computers that students can use. If she is working on a project where every student needs simultaneous Internet access, she can borrow devices from elsewhere in the school.

If students are working on long-term projects that require research, McCain makes sure her students know how to get the information they need from the school district media centers or the Johnson County Public Library.

McCain said students who have the devices often are eager to share them with those who don’t.

“I always encourage the use of technology, because it’s definitely their world, but I never insist on technology. There’s always another way to do it,” she said.

By allowing students to bring their own devices to use in class, Franklin doesn’t have to pay for hundreds of computers or tablets. But one concern has been whether students using a variety of devices, which can range from laptops to smartphones, would pose challenges for teachers when planning lessons. But while different brands of laptops, tablets and smartphones have different capabilities, students who have the devices usually know what’s needed to access the Internet, and McCain said she hasn’t had any problems with any of the online assignments she’s created.

Not all of McCain’s assignments are based online, but she also wants to be sure students who don’t have a device to bring to school get experience accessing the Internet and uploading projects online. McCain spends time showing students how to use devices they don’t own, as well as how they can access the Internet from Franklin media centers or the public library, because eventually these are skills they’re going to need, she said.

“They may not have it now,” she said, “but they’re going to get it, and they’re going to need to know how to use it.”

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