Board discusses future of technology in classroom

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Ellington - posted Fri., Sep. 30, 2011
Dr. Michael Young facilitates the discussion on technology and education. Photos by Steve Smith.
Dr. Michael Young facilitates the discussion on technology and education. Photos by Steve Smith.

After a tour of Crystal Lake School – the district’s oldest school building, and one that hasn’t seen any significant renovation in decades – on Sept. 29, the Ellington Board of Education held a brainstorming session, along with administrators of Ellington schools, at the school’s media center. Specifically, the topic was the future use of technology in the classroom.

The discussion was led by board member Dr. Michael Young, an education professor at the University of Connecticut, and revealed some complexities about the changing world of information technology and how it meshes with the educational system.

Young asked what the members thought were the biggest issues facing boards of education regarding technology and education. Among the concerns were the cost of devices, keeping up with technology use elsewhere, maintaining relevance, security, equity and professional development.

Much of the focus was on how to use handheld devices, such as smart phones and reading devices, like Nook and Kindle, within the curricula. Keeping teachers in step with the increased knowledge that children have about computers and smart phones was a topic that got a large amount of the discussion time.

“You have kids already who are much more knowledgeable, with regards to technology, than staff is,” said Superintendent Stephen Cullinan. Teachers’ professional development, it seems, would also have to be in lock-step with technology.

“I don’t think the teacher necessarily has to know what the kid knows,” Young said. “I think they just have to be comfortable enough with it to let it happen, depending on how young the kids are.”

“I think for a lot of the teachers, they’re quite intimidated themselves,” said Board of Education Chair Dan Keune. “If you’re that teacher who is five years away from retirement, do you really want to put yourself through the learning curve?”

Interface between technology and the physical space it is in, such as a school building, was another topic. “If you’re bringing in devices that need power,” Young said, “is there power in the spaces that you provide? If you are bringing in wireless devices, is there enough wireless signal? That interface between technology and infrastructure is quite rich, and is something that may come up as the board moves toward a building project. The space kind of has to conform to what you imagine the technology will be. We have to foresee the future when you’re building for the next 20 to 25 years. It’s hard.”

“The building’s got to be designed to be flexible,” said Ellington High School Principal Neil Rinaldi. “It can’t have very permanent structures, because it’s going to be moved and changed. Things need to be designed so that you’re not stuck with it in five years, because you know it’s going to change.”

There is also the issue of what boundaries are, or should be set, by schools on how electronic devices can or should be used. “Maybe you want kids, sometimes, to be able to look stuff up,” Young said, “and sometimes you don’t. You want to know what they know in their heads. It’s a matter of managing policies in the schools."

Because cheating becomes easier with handheld devices, Young added that there are ways to test students that can differentiate between what a student knows and what they can look up. “The solution, if there is one, is the way you assess,” he said.

“When you look at the safe integration of technology,” Keune said, “there’s almost a moral lesson, that hasn’t been taught by the parents, that probably does fall back here [to schools], because we’re more on the day-to-day of dealing with these kids. It’s a complicated area, because it’s not like there are road maps. But, there are some new definitions of right and wrong that you can’t necessarily just regulate with policy.”

It seems some technological uses will have to be trial-and-error. Rinaldi said that a recent distance-learning project among Ellington and three other high schools in Connecticut seemed like a good idea, but ultimately failed, because it was nearly impossible to find the same instruction time for all of the students involved, since each school has a different daily schedule.

“Teaming up with whomever you need to team up with is the biggest thing to try and coordinate,” Rinaldi said.

“It’s unfortunate, but it’s probably a good example,” Keune said. “We’re going to have occasional misfires as the technology changes and we are, or are not, keeping up.”

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