No More Pencils, No More Books: Technology-Driven Education in NJ Schools

A few New Jersey school districts are building tomorrow's classrooms today, but for many, 20th century challenges are still the rule

This is the first in a two-part series exploring technology and education in New Jersey schools.

Credit: Andrew Howard
To the average adult whose middle school experience included filmstrips, mimeographs and chalk dust, the typical day for sixth graders at Lawrence Township Intermediate School may seem like something out of a science fiction movie.

In one class, students write and edit reports together on an Internet site that lets them collaborate from their individual netbooks. In another, they use push-button remotes to answer math questions. Their teacher immediately sees a chart of who got it right and who didn’t. In French class, students video chat with students in another school via the Internet and Skype.

In some classrooms, technology is transforming education into a process that actively engages students by using new tools and devices — replacing a teacher-centered model with a student-centered one.

But this 21st century vision is a far cry from reality for many New Jersey school districts: computers used one period a day, or a week, in a class where students learn keyboarding skills or how to make PowerPoint presentations.

Innovative Integration

That example helps highlight the difference between 20th century teaching and today’s technology in education movement. The goal of the former is to teach kids computer skills. The goal of the latter is to find innovative ways to integrate technology into the pedagogical process.

“I don’t think anyone has asked them to change,” said Will Richardson, a former New Jersey teacher who is an author and strong proponent of using technology in education. “Basically, the message schools are getting is you have to be doing what you’re doing better. Better is always measured by how well you are doing on the test.”

That’s a shame, say the pioneers of new tech-teaching methods, because the old-fashioned approach isn’t good enough anymore.

“We’re training kids for jobs that don’t exist yet, so how do we do that?” said Aaron Sams, a Colorado teacher who was the recipient of the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence for Math and Science Teaching. His “flipped classroom” take on teaching melds computer and video technologies: Students watch lectures at home and participate in workshops and discussions in class.

“I’m teaching them how to learn, how to be self-motivated, how to teach themselves,” Sam explained.

Transforming Education

This new kind of education is the focus of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2010 Technology Plan, entitled Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology. The plan calls for employing technologies that are used everyday at home and at work to improve the way students learn.

One key goal is to give every student round-the-clock access to a computer or similar device and the Internet. “Only with 24/7 access to the Internet via devices and technology-based software and resources can we achieve the kind of engagement, student-centered learning, and assessments that can improve” education, according to the report.

The New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) has set an eventual target of one-to-one availability for students. But this is a voluntary goal. The state is not requiring districts to provide a computer for every student because it could not afford to fund such a mandate, said Laurence Cocco, manager of the DOE’s office of educational technology.

The state’s core curriculum content standards, revised in 2009, seek to integrate technology into all areas of curriculum at all grade levels. Cocco said his office does more than 100 presentations a year about the standards and what districts can do to meet them.

A Wide Variety

Local districts vary widely in their use of technology, with some schools pointing to VCRs as state of the art and others boasting a computer for every student in a given grade. Little more than a third of New Jersey’s school districts have approved technology plans that describe their current resources and goals for implementing a 21st century classroom, because such plans are only required of those seeking federal funding for telecommunications and Internet access. Cocco said 198 districts have not told the state whether they have a technology plan.

The DOE’s detailed survey of school technology usage, which used to be required and posted on its website, is now voluntary. It found just 123 of the 2,000 schools that answered the survey – about 85 percent of all statewide – have a one-to-one computer initiative. Because of the structure of the survey, it is unknown whether those schools are seeking to give a computer to every child in the building, or every child in a grade or grades, Cocco said.

“The push right now is not to be burdensome to the districts if the data is not required,” he said.

The state has a better handle on simpler statistics, like the number of computers in schools. That data is collected for each year’s school report card. For 2009-2010, the median student-computer ratio was 3.4 students for each computer in a typical district.

But given that most students are using technology after school and on weekends, merely having computers available isn’t good enough anymore. More and more experts are saying teachers need to show students how to use computers to find information and how to use technology to collaborate and present information.

“The fact that students have access to the tools does not mean they are being integrated properly,” Cocco said. “Schools need to move toward student-centered learning.”

“It’s not that technology itself makes a difference,” agreed Beth McGrath, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. “It’s how it is used, how the teacher sculpts it.”

“The research does suggest that an integrated approach to technology impacts positively on student learning,” agreed Greer Richardson, a professor of education at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “Specifically, technology tools that foster higher-order thinking, problem solving and the like are considered to be a good practice. Conversely, tools that simply offer drill and practice or sheer entertainment are not considered good practice.”

Studies of students in Massachusetts, Georgia and Oklahoma have found that those using technology and software programs outperformed their peers who did not on standardized tests in writing or math.

Perhaps the most compelling study involves elementary students in Missouri participating in the Enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies (eMINTS) program. eMINTS fourth graders scored an average of 5.5 points higher on the state’s communications arts test and 3.55 points higher on math than students not in the program. eMINTS classrooms included computers for the teacher, a scanner, a color printer, a digital camera, an interactive white board, a digital projector and one computer for every two students.

Sams, a science teacher at Woodland Park High School in Colorado, has seen positive results since he and fellow teacher Jonathan Bergmann began using their flipped classroom teaching technique.

Sams and Bergmann create video lessons, or vodcasts, lasting between 10 and 15 minutes that include photos and highlighted notes as they lecture — with a small video of them speaking in the lower corner of the screen. Students watch the vodcasts at home, pausing and rewinding as necessary. The next day, in class, they use what they learned the previous night.

“All of the D’s have become C’s, the C’s have become B’s and the B’s have become A’s,” said Sams, who co-chaired the Colorado State Science Standards Revision Committee.

While the method has not stopped kids from failing — Sams said the same percentage of students are getting an F today as did before he flipped his classroom — it nonetheless has affected them. “The unmotivated kid gets way more attention from me than he would have sitting in the back of the room while I lectured,” Sams said. “That’s gotta be worth something.”

“My job has dramatically changed,” said Sams. “I really see myself as a tutor, a coach. This really is a student-centered class. I’m no longer there to deliver content. I’m there to make sure the kids get it.”

Learner in Chief

“The new role of the teacher is learner-in-chief,” Richardson said. “The teacher is not the smartest person in the room anymore if you have an Internet connection.”

Newer high-tech teaching fundamentally changes the role of the teacher — not a bad thing, although it can frazzle longtime educators (a topic that will be further explored in the second half of this special report).

“It’s overwhelming to them,” said Don Ginty, the interim technology director at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Raritan Township. “Teachers have to get past the feeling of ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ ”

Teachers worry about technology breaking down during a lesson, about not having the same kind of control over the class, about trying a new type of lesson and having it fail to teach the students a concept or skill as anticipated. Some just feel comfortable their current methods are working well and see no need to change, he said

One of the first districts in the state to embrace new technologies in 2004, Hunterdon Central High School (HCHS) does extensive teacher training both on an in-service basis and over the summer.

“Teachers need to become learners,” said Ginty. “They need to start embracing these new tools. The landscape is changing.”

It certainly is at HCHS.

Spanish classes are connecting with Spanish-speaking students using ePals and Skype. English students are blogging their reactions to literature. African Studies students are using RSS feeds to collect news articles to identify political biases. Wikis, Facebook, YouTube and other tools are being used in several different classes.

In this second year of a pilot program that puts netbooks in the hands of all students in a number of classes, 42 teachers are trying out new teaching methods, with a total of 1,200 students getting at least some netbook-based instruction during the year.

The school is working on creating a system that would turn a student’s personal laptop into a virtual HCHS machine, including software and filters, when it is on campus. That would enable the school to provide more technology-infused instruction to more students faster because HCHS would not have to find the funds to buy a machine for every student.

The Lawrence Program

Lawrence Township was able to start a similar program in its middle school because it got a $1.4 million education technology grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to put in place a technology-infused education program in its intermediate school. Beginning last August, each sixth grader received a netbook that is used in every class throughout the day that he or she can take home. The district also hired several technology specialists and trained some 70 teachers in how to integrate the computers into their lessons.

Next year, the students will keep using their computers in seventh grade and the incoming sixth graders will receive their own netbooks.

Lawrence officials are so pleased with the results they are working both backward and forward on plans to extend the program into the elementary grades and up into the high school. They said starting with the middle school has several advantages.

“Sixth grade is a great age, you can teach them to be responsible,” said Jennifer Polakowski, the district’s grants manager.

While most schools forbid students from using smartphones or other devices in school, in part because of fears about cheating, Polakowski said teachers are instructing the children in the proper and ethical use of technology.

Jonathan Dauber, the principal of Lawrence Intermediate School who has his own blog to keep the community informed, said lessons also have become more relevant to the students.

For instance, he said that in a recent language arts class, students read and evaluated articles on the TweenTribune website to determine which facts were important, and which were not, in various pieces of writing.

“Every article there is of interest to students their age,” he said. “Twenty years ago, the teacher would have given them a ditto sheet with a story about little Johnny and his puppy. This made it much more relevant.”

Student blog posts are graded as language arts assignments They are Skyping with language students in other schools.

Said Dauber: “Now the world is open to them.”