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Springfield, MO

Digital devices spark changes in SPS education

The district leaders say internet-capable devices better prepare students for careers

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Springfield Public Schools has placed an internet-capable device within reach of every student, and it’s changing the way the district operates and how children learn.

SPS began deploying 20,000 HP Chromebook laptops and 3,000 touch-screen iPads in the fall of 2015 to a third of the district’s 51 schools at a time. By Sept. 1 of this year, all students third grade through high school had been handed a Chromebook to use in class and take home. Kindergarten through second grade classrooms each have eight iPads, with at least one cart of 30 laptops to share between classes.

Allison Pilley, SPS director of learning support – whose department is charged with developing and implementing curriculums within the district – said her office formerly used its $2.9 million annual budget to puchase textbooks every six or seven years for all content areas.

Today, SPS is doing things differently.

“We might be purchasing a resource that is similar to a textbook but it is digital  interactive,” Pilley said. “Students can highlight in the programs, they can take notes in the programs, they can submit things to their teachers.”

The district now purchases one- to six-year licenses for resources that are stored online and updated routinely, Pilley said, as well as some traditional teaching resources such as textbooks and workbooks.

Long-standing classroom resource publishers such as McGraw-Hill Education and Pearson Education have lost a lot of ground, Pilley said, as many digital-focused competitors have disrupted the market.

“I actually talk with them on an annual basis about what our needs are,” she said. “And for a while, they weren’t really keeping up with what we were wanting. So we were going out to some of these other spin-off vendors that were creating what we wanted.”

The traditional publishers used to steer the district into buying all-inclusive resource bundles, Pilley said. But now, her office is writing more curriculum in-house and buying lots of smaller chunks from multiple vendors. Free online resources, such as YouTube videos are also vetted and used in classrooms.

Students that once worked with paper textbooks and worksheets, Pilley said, are now learning math online with DreamBox and reading digital text with Lexia, which is owned by Rosetta Stone Ltd. Instead of volumes of encyclopedias, young children are researching within the PebbleGo database, which includes audio that can read along with students, automatically highlighting each word as it goes.

McGraw-Hill Education has shown signs of getting on the digital bandwagon, Pilley said, pointing to the acquisition of several tech-based learning services, including ALEKS Corp.

Re-imagining education
Digital changes are not just because of a fascination with technology, Pilley said. Rather, it fits with changes in teaching styles – and it’s a better use of funding.

Additionally, the digital resources are often adaptive, she said, meaning that each assesses individual student needs and customizes the content and learning pace.

The district is reimagining education, Pilley said, moving toward more project-based learning that integrates multiple subject areas – using real-world scenarios as the basis for assignments. For example, students in fifth grade research, design and build solar ovens to bake healthy foods – mixing science and health studies. Funds formerly used for textbooks, Pilley said, are now being used to buy the supplies for these projects.

“You’ll see them working on what we hope are authentic projects they’ll do beyond high school,” said Nichole Lemmon, SPS director of blended learning.

Sixth grade English and social studies teacher Michael Dlouhy has had a student-device ratio of 1:1 in his classroom since last fall and said the laptops have allowed him to make more engaging assignments.

“We were reading the book ‘Hatchet,’ so I had the kids make a movie trailer for the book – to kind of summarize their learning, to see if they got the idea,” he said.

Lemmon’s team of nine blended-learning specialists work with teachers to integrate traditional teaching resources, such as books and pencils, along with technology when working with students.

Paper quizes have been replaced by Quizlet Inc games, Dlouhy said, and there are other activities students prefer to do in their Chromebooks, such as typing papers with the assiastance of spellcheck and a digital thesaurus.

“We want to prepare them to be able to be lifelong online learners,” she said. “I think that’s important for not only college, but for careers. Just about every field requires you to look online to learn a skill or to learn to do something new.”

New possibilities
The district also offers its own online classes, led by SPS teachers, Lemmon said. About 4,000 high school students take at least one of their classes via Chromebooks – most often logging in between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m., after they come home from sports or work.

“We are one of the few districts in the United States that provides internet access at home,” said Bruce Douglas, SPS director of information technology.

Last year, in an effort to help students do their homework even if they couldn’t afford internet access, SPS purchased and loaned out 850 Kajeet hot spots – devices that deliver a mobile internet connection through the Verizon Wireless network. This year, the inventory increased to 1,500.

Douglas’ department wields its own $1.9 million annual budget to purchase, manage and repair all 24,000 staff and student devices.

The newer technology utilized in Chromebooks makes the process of dealing with computers and users much easier, compared with what was available in the past.

“They come preconfigured,” Douglas said. “When they hit the doorstep of SPS, we can hand it to a student and they can log in.”

Students do nearly all their work in cloud-based programs, such as Google’s suite of products that can be used to produce text documents, spreadsheets and slide presentations online, Douglas said. If one Chromebook fails, he said it can be traded in for any other Chromebook in the district – and since the files are all stored online, nothing is lost.

The devices are also simple to reset.

“You can ‘powerwash’ it, which resets it to the factory defaults,” Douglas said. “It reconfigures itself in about two minutes, and then it’s back to base.”

The district works with a third party to offer parents a warranty that covers damage or loss for $10 to $25, based on family income.

Internet-capable devices empower students to explore many learning opportunities, Douglas said, but also comes with risks. The district employs multiple software programs to block inappropriate content and monitor cyberbullying. Parents can also install Chrome browser extensions to further filter the internet.

“If a student is looking for something inappropriate, we try to base the conversation around ‘Why were you searching that in the first place?’” Douglas said. “And turning it back to the base behavior.”

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