Technology-Driven Education in New Jersey: More than Child’s Play

Colleen O'Dea | June 2, 2011 | Education, Video
Time and money, two decidedly low-tech challenges, could well be the biggest obstacles facing technology-enabled education in New Jersey

When school starts in the fall, all kindergarteners in Auburn, Maine, will greet their new teachers, sit in their small chairs and start playing and working with their iPad2s.

The school committee in this city of about 23,000 near Lewiston voted in early April to provide about 285 children who are attending school for the first time with their own tablet computers.

“It can close the gap for many students; it can also accelerate the learning for many others,” said Thomas Morrill, the district superintendent, explaining that he believes moving to this technology will boost the district’s literacy rate from about 60 percent to 90 percent in the next three years. “It will change the way we do business in classrooms.”

As news about the iPads spread first across the city, then the state and then the nation, a debate began to rage over this decision to give children who can’t read or write, and who sometimes throw things, the latest in portable computing.

“Not every school system has the foresight and also the tenacity to make sure our kids are going to successful,” Morrill told the school committee in introducing his proposal. “There will be obstacles. We must persevere.”

And one of the obstacles cited by citizens who were asked about the proposal by the local newspaper, the Lewiston Sun Journal, is the expense. The cost is estimated to be around $200,000.

Financial Challenges

Money to pay both for technology and to train teachers, some of whom feel uncomfortable with new methods, is also one of the biggest challenges New Jersey district officials say they face in trying to turn today’s classrooms into 21st century learning labs.

Finding the time for training is also hampering districts’ efforts at upgrading.

“We only have a finite amount of resources,” said Don Ginty, the interim technology director at Hunterdon Central Regional High School (HCHS) in Raritan Township.

About 1,200 high school students at the school get at least some instruction that integrates the use of netbooks into their studies during the year. While school officials would like to expand that netbook program to the entire student body, finding the money to buy 3,000 machines, particularly in the current economic and political climate in New Jersey, would be virtually impossible, says Ginty.

Students bringing their own laptops into school is “really what is going to enable us to go to one-to-one instruction,” Ginty said.

The Lawrence Township School District is traveling a similar path as it continues its own technology pilot program.

“We are looking forward to the day when the kids come in with their own [mobile] devices,” said Crystal Lovell, assistant superintendent of schools in Lawrence.

Each sixth grader in Lawrence received a netbook this year, and next year’s sixth graders will get their own laptops, too, thanks to a federal technology grant. But there is no way the Lawrence could afford to replicate the program district-wide using tax dollars.

State Aid to Schools

Last year, Gov. Chris Christie cut $820 million in state aid to schools, prompting many districts across the state to reduce staff and non-mandated programs, including, in at least a few cases, technology coordinators.

Christie’s budget proposal seeks to increase school aid by $220 million next year but many local school officials have said they are planning only to restore necessary staff and program cuts.

There is not a lot of other money available today. Most has come through special programs: the state distributed about $12.5 million in federal funds to eight schools last year through the Talent 21 program, which provides money to prep kids for the digital age and to enhance curricula with technology.

Another 11 districts got money from the INCLUDE program, which also provides funds to use technology to improve curricula. Schools also have picked up thousands of dollars through the federal E-Rate program and No Child Left Behind.

But even those sources are drying up, said Laurence Cocco, manager of the state Department of Education’s office of education technology. He said New Jersey got $15 million for technology through NCLB in 2003, $1.8 million this year and stands to get nothing next year as the federal government has cut that funding.

“How does the federal government expect technology integration to continue?” said Cocco. “It’s completely counterintuitive to the reality that students need to be taught modern technology.”

Distance Learning

The state used to provide distance-learning network aid through the former state aid formula, the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Financing Act. The amount totaled $44 per student in 2001, but in 2002, districts no longer had to use that money for technology, Cocco said. New Jersey currently has no state aid dedicated to technology and no plans to provide such funding.

“The state is facing serious economic challenges,” said Alan Guenther, a DOE spokesman. “It would be difficult to provide money at this time.”

Ginty said the cost does not have to be overly prohibitive: HCHS is using funds it would have spent to replace older desktop computers to instead turn them into virtual machines.

School officials said they also are seeking grants from corporations and other private sources.

Optimum Lightpath, for instance, last fall awarded a $10,000 Transforming Education With Technology grant to each of 10 New Jersey school districts to launch technology initiatives in their schools. The competition was stiff — more than 160 schools applied for grants.
“Technology has the power to transform the way students learn and prepare them for a world of opportunity,” said Julia McGrath, senior vice president of marketing and business development for Optimum Lightpath, which provides Ethernet-based data, Internet and voice packages throughout the New York metropolitan area. “Each of the schools selected as a grant recipient plans to roll out innovative projects that will truly advance teaching and learning for students.”

District Fundraising

In districts like the Chathams, with a local education foundation, the parents’ fundraising group is called on to meet needs like upgraded technology that the district can’t budget for.

During the past school year, the Chatham Education Foundation (CEF) awarded more than $70,000 in grants to teachers and schools. Not all of that was for computers or other technology. But over the last decade, the CEF has given out dozens of grants for various tech-related projects.

For instance, one special education teacher requested, and received, several iPod Touch devices for disabled students ages four to nine, after trying it out with one autistic student.

“One of the main reasons I began to use the iTouch was because of its portability, size and unlimited opportunities to increase motivation and engage students in learning,” said Jennifer Friedrich, a special education teacher in Washington Avenue Elementary School’s K-3 AIMS program in Chatham.

The iTouch provides students with a visual schedule of the day, lets teachers keep track of their behavior, enhances instruction and increases motivation.

“It’s an ideal motivational tool for our students,” Friedrich said. “They are able to access rewards such as short video clips, audiobooks and e-math facts. It has increased their confidence level and provides an immediate reward when they have met their goals. The behavior-tracking software allows the teacher to take data directly from the iTouch and later analyze, graph and adjust plans as necessary.”

Friedrich said she can incorporate the lessons she teaches on a SmartBoard onto the iTouch, so the student can get additional practice.

Abigail Maddi, CEF president, said district staff counts on the foundation to help fund new programs and technology and, despite the economic downturn, the community has been willing to help pay for these programs.

“They (the schools) are definitely turning to the Chatham Education Foundation and to the PTOs,” Maddi said. “I think they are counting on us now.”

Time is of the Essence

As mentioned, however, time can be an even scarcer resource than money.

“For us, finding the time, even more than the expense, is a challenge,” Ginty said.

Hunterdon Central now has a core of 40 teachers who can train their peers both in how to use the technology and how to integrate it into their lesson plans. Much of that training happens over the summer, because teachers don’t have the time during the school year.

Will Richardson, a former New Jersey teacher who is an author and proponent of using technology in education, said old-fashioned beliefs are another major roadblock to change.

“There is still a lack of understanding,” he said. “We have to be able to look at learning in much different ways. I don’t get a sense many educators have wrapped their brains around that yet.”

Beth McGrath, executive director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, said technological advances keep changing so rapidly that it’s hard for educators to keep track of new trends and “how they could be meaningfully integrated into education.”

Nearly every school in the nation has computers and an internet connection, but these are not always used to maximum capacity.

“There are cases where schools have the technology, but it is collecting dust because they haven’t had the chance to try to figure out how to integrate it,” said McGrath.

She said another roadblock to schools increasing the use of technology in teaching is the NCLB law itself. Some schools are so wrapped up in ensuring that their students pass standardized tests to meet NCLB requirements that they are afraid to let teachers try new methods and instead push teaching to the test.

To those who say students already spend too much time with technology, and too little interacting personally with others, supporters of tech-integrated teaching say it’s crucial to use what kids know.

“Most kids have a computer in their pocket that is much more powerful than what I took to college 15 years ago, yet there are still schools out there that are not letting kids use their cell phone as a tool,” said Aaron Sams, a Colorado teacher who was recipient of the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence for Math and Science Teaching. “As long as they are using it for learning, why not?”

“I think we have a bigger liability if we don’t prepare kids to be responsible consumers of information,” Ginty added.

Richardson said the change is going to have to be grassroots, coming from parents: “Parents are going to have to say, ‘This is ridiculous. What’s happening in the schools is not relevant to my kids anymore.'”

Former Maine Gov. Angus King put that in perspective for parents and school committee members in Auburn, Maine, during the April 6 meeting at which the district adopted the iPad initiative. King was the force behind the statewide effort that gave all Maine seventh and eighth graders laptops in 2002-2003, a program that has since been discontinued.

“We are all struggling to figure out how to do education better — it’s urgent,” King said. “I think what you’re doing is really cool.”

King addressed the naysayers: “Imagine if when the pencil was invented we came to you and said, ‘Now, we’ve got this great device and it can write, it can draw, it can do math, and what we are going to do is have a pencil lab in our school and each kid can go for 42 minutes a week and use pencils and maybe we’ll put three in each classroom and the kids can share them.’

“This is the pencil of the 21st century.”