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Tech in the Classroom

How Technology Is Helping Kids Learn

By Pamela Briggs

The pencil was the latest invention 450 years ago. Now we have devices that know our schedules, robots that learn and self-driving vehicles are coming down the road. It’s become increasingly important to ask ourselves: How do we choose good tech tools, and then use them carefully and wisely to do the job well?Technology has moved into the classroom as well, transforming the educational process for both students and teachers. Across the country, the majority of schools have adopted a “blended learning” model, in which at least part of the curriculum is presented through online methods. As “ed tech” becomes standard, parents need to be prepared to ask new questions and learn new things as they assess how it’s being used as an integral part of their children’s education.

One of the major benefits of a blended learning approach is that students can have more control over the scheduling, location and pace of their learning: students who need more time with a concept can watch Web-based content as many times as necessary, while those who are ready can find additional resources for more research. This capability has given rise to the adoption of a “flipped classroom,” in which students are introduced to concepts through instructional content that is usually delivered online outside of class.

Class time is then spent applying the concepts through discussion by the class or collaboration on projects and experiments. Project-based learning, which itself frequently uses technology such as digital cameras and 3D printers, is a revolution in education made possible by technology: instead of merely being consumers of information, students are getting away from screens to become creators, applying their knowledge to innovation in the real world. It also allows students to practice soft skills such as collaboration and leadership.

The Children’s School, an independent school for children age 3 to eighth grade in Atlanta, uses project-based learning at the core of its teaching style. In a recent project, third-grade students partnered with engineering students from Georgia Tech to build machine prototypes as part of their studies in weather and the forces of motion. Together with their partners, the youngsters designed blueprints for machines that could move relief supplies between two points in the aftermath of a hurricane. They then constructed their plans using everyday re cyclable items such as paper towel rolls and plastic bottles. They completed the project by writing papers outlining how their machines operated using different forces of motion.

Tech is also now the preferred method for handling the business of learning, and parents will need to know how to use the tools their children use to access their schoolwork as well as how to connect with their teachers. Students in Atlanta Public Schools and many area independent schools use myBackpack, a single-sign on portal that keeps track of passwords and enables students to conveniently sign on to school-related sites and applications across devices at any time. Parents of Atlanta public school students have access to class schedules, grades, attendance records and more through the Campus Parent Portal.

We’re all tempted to add the latest tech to our lives, but for schools as well as individuals, it’s wiser to take time to review new options to ensure a genuine benefit. Schools should have a clear technology implantation plan that measures a number of factors: Is the device (application, program) easy to access? Does it adapt to existing routine? Does it support the curriculum and connect to relevant content? Does it promote interactive use and collaboration? What kind of learning curve is required for instructors? The content should drive the tech, not the other way around: There may be times when simple text conveys a message more efficiently than a video or PowerPoint presentation.

When it comes down to it, technology is a tool, and its ultimate value is dependent on the vision and proficiency of those in charge of implementing it.

Kids may be using tablets in class, but if they’re only being used to complete online worksheets or read text, it’s a missed opportunity. At Atlanta Public Schools, Ed Tech specialists work with teachers to introduce new technology tools and help them best integrate these tools into the learning experience in a way that promotes “The Four Cs:” Critical Thinking, Creativity, Communication and Collaboration. Teacher training is vital, and parents should find out how their child’s teachers are trained in new technology and what professional development resources are available to them.

With the increased reliance on online learning have come concerns about the responsible use of computers, children’s privacy and cyberbullying. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mandates that any external website requiring the establishment of an account by a student under the age of 13 requires parental consent. Parents should expect to provide this consent before their child is allowed to participate in programs requiring these accounts. Many area schools and districts participate in a digital citizenship curriculum designed by Common Sense Education to teach kids about the safe and responsible use of technology, including issues of privacy and bullying. Parents will want to know how their child’s school addresses these issues.

Of course, the reliance on tech means that a school’s technical capabilities have become of primary importance, and it’s important to find out what a school’s technical resources are. For example, are devices such as tablets shared in a media lab, provided individually to each student in what is known as 1:1 technology, or used on a “BYOD” basis? What hardware and software options are available? Does the school offer reliable and secure high-speed WiFi? Does it have a dedicated and trained IT staff to maintain its infrastructure?

Whatever the tools used, the job is learning, not only about school subjects, but also about the world and how to interact with it. Using technology in the classroom helps make it easy and fun for young people to discover new things, revving up their enthusiasm for knowledge and inspiring them to find new ways to apply it in their lives.

Questions to Ask

1. What access will my child have to technology at school? Is it accessed through a shared learning lab, through a 1:1 model, or BYOD? If shared, how much time per week will he/she have to use it?

2. How are new technologies assessed before adoption?

3. How is the technology integrated into learning goals?

4. How are teachers trained to use this technology?

5. What type of tech support is available?

6. How reliable is the WiFi connection at the school?

7. Do teachers use online systems–email, dedicated portals and social media –to communicate with parents?

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