Technology boosts learning, but CPS behind curve

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At North Lawndale College Prep Charter, students watch educational
videos on YouTube. They upload their own work, which has included
mini-documentaries on gun violence and bullying.  Instead of raising
their hand to answer a question, they might pull out cell phones to text
answers to their teacher. 

At North Lawndale College Prep Charter, students watch educational videos on YouTube. They upload their own work, which has included mini-documentaries on gun violence and bullying.  Instead of raising their hand to answer a question, they might pull out cell phones to text answers to their teacher.  

At most other schools, YouTube is blocked and cell phones are only used covertly, since many teachers view them as distractions.

There are small pockets of cutting-edge technology use in Chicago Public Schools, but the district as a whole is inconsistent in its integration of technology in the classroom.  District officials say they are currently working on a “vision” for modern technology use, but Chicago is already lagging behind many other large cities that have released comprehensive tech plans.  

“It’s kind of a la carte when you look at the district,” says CPS education technology director John Connolly.  “Certain schools work with different technologies.”

Many urban school districts post far-reaching plans on their websites for easy access.  In cities like Milwaukee and Los Angeles, those plans include goals and standards by which the district can measure its progress. For example, Milwaukee’s tech plan contains provisions to increase the number of schools that have a student-to-computer ratio of 3 to 1 to 90 percent of all schools, as well as to improve access to online curriculum by 10 percent annually.  

The tech plan “helps us provide a focus,” says Themy Sparangis, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s director of educational technology services and customer support.  “It helps clearly define the direction where we as a district want to go with the use of technology in our instructional program. It removes the guesswork.”

CPS officials say they produced a plan when they applied for state technology money, but it is not something that they use on a regular basis to guide what happens in schools. Teachers and school-level technology specialists did not seem to be aware of the plan and  

Connolly says his staff is guided by their own mission statement, not an overarching plan.

But the new “vision” will include a set of recommendations and will be part of CPS’ general education plan, Connolly says.  

Students with Mikva Challenge, a group that promotes civic engagement among CPS students, say they hope the district’s plan embraces social media and other technology rather than shunning it.

Mikva students spent much of this year researching technology in Chicago classrooms. In March, the group presented a list of recommended changes at a School Board meeting.  

The current CPS network filter prevents users from accessing sites like YouTube (North Lawndale can access the site because is a charter and doesn’t use the same filter).  

To young learners, that’s not smart.

“As a student myself, I would be more interested in watching a video than just listening to my teacher lecture from the book,” says Mikva member Victor Liu, a sophomore at Whitney Young.  

“We are technology natives,” adds Laurise Johnson, a junior at Sullivan High School.  “Any aspect of technology in the classroom, I know for a fact, would get us engaged and make us want to learn more.”

In Spanish teacher Katie Bordner’s classroom at North Lawndale College Prep, computers line the back wall. The machines get plenty of use: Besides uploading videos, Bordner’s students keep blogs and wikis.

Teachers elsewhere have taken notice, and North Lawndale’s videos currently boast over 20,000 views. Even students at Bordner’s alma mater in Jefferson City, Missouri watch them.

Bordner says these results have helped boost her students’ confidence. “They start to believe in the types of things they can accomplish,” Bordner says

In an increasingly digital world, sites like YouTube have become staples of young peoples’ lives. Experts say they can be powerful classroom tools as well, helping bridge cultural, economic and even geographic gaps to aid learning.

“What the medium can do is create an astounding level of connectedness, from one student to another,” says Patricia Wallace, who studies teen technology use at Johns Hopkins University.

But having access to technology is not the same as knowing how to use it. Professional development and ongoing support on how to use new technology in the classroom can be hard to come by in CPS.

At some schools, tech-savvy staff members like Bordner try to fill the training gap.  Less than a third of CPS schools have even one technology specialist. Ideally, every school should have two.

“The lack of training is an issue when technology is not used properly,” says CPS technology integration specialist Margaret Murphy. She gives an example: Teachers cannot just teach students to use word-processing programs instead of writing with pencil and paper. “That’s not innovative,” Murphy says.

Teacher support is important, experts say, because successful technology integration requires a commitment from school administrators.  

“What we know is if leaders don’t get it, it doesn’t happen because they control everything,” says Scott McLeod, the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education at Iowa State University.

Last year, a federal grant paid for iPads in 23 CPS schools. Ongoing training is part of the program. Every other month, teachers spend a day getting instruction from experts and sharing their knowledge with each other. During the off months, experts from Apple Inc. or CPS come to schools to coach teachers.

 

“When most people hear about the iPad program, its device, devices, devices,” Connolly says.  “But when you talk to me or the teachers it’s about the [professional development].”  

Connolly says that a new $3 million state grant will go towards more iPads, and that the program should soon grow to include 35 schools.

Teachers and the technology specialists who work with the iPad program say the devices are especially useful because of their slick, intuitive operating system, quick boot-up times and the availability of many applications. The iPads are portable, too, which makes them easily accessible for both students and teachers.

“I think for sure the most significant piece is the mobility of it,” says Kristin Ziemke Fastabend, a 1st-grade teacher at Burley, one of the schools in the program.  “They can take it out into the hall and show something they’re working on.”

In Amy Bergeson’s 3rd-grade classroom at Burr Elementary, students use the devices to post responses to questions about Charlotte’s Web and then summarize what they’ve read by crafting a digital picture book using one of the applications.

“They’re different kids when we have the iPads out,” Bergeson says.  “You wouldn’t think that we have children who sometimes have behavior issues.  You wouldn’t think we have children who might be enrolled in a special education program.  It levels the playing field for them.”