New tools support, enhance learning in Centre County schools

Schools all over Centre County are embracing technology in new ways and to different degrees.

About 25 years ago, “technology in schools” meant having a scientific calculator for trigonometry class and publishing a book report on a dot-matrix printer in the library lab with its three computers. Ten years ago, schools had tech policies in place, but most were about limiting access to devices such as pagers and cellphones. Today, technology is supporting, augmenting and, in some cases, driving education in ways that are ever-changing.

“So much of what we do was ‘ooooh’ five or 10 years ago, and now it’s old hat,” said Kathy Bechdel, principal at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in State College, where the students use iPads in elementary school and MacBooks in middle school. “Our philosophy really is that the technology is there to support the curriculum. It’s not about ‘wow’ factor.”

Philipsburg-Osceola’s now-closed junior high was barely built with electricity in mind. The middle school that replaced it has been constructed with tech integration everywhere you look. Classrooms are built around Smart Boards, a kind of jumbo-sized flat-screen monitor. Overhead projectors are replaced with document scanners. Digital microscopes take the place of old opticals in the science labs.

“We spent a lot of money on tech,” said Superintendent Gregg Paladina. The middle school and both elementary schools now have the boards in every class. The high school is about a third of the way there.

What they don’t have is an official policy on smaller technology. A bring-your-own device policy was in the works last school year, but changes in administration put it on the back-burner until the middle school was completed. Instead, students are neither encouraged to bring their own laptops and tablets nor prevented from doing so. Paladina says his team will be looking at a direction for that soon.

“We allow students to bring in their own device,” said Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith, who says his district had wireless freely available to students and others even before Penn State did. But they aren’t relying on everyone having that kind of equipment. Instead, they are pursuing a one-to-one laptop initiative, which would make sure that all kids had the same opportunity, with “the same device, the same software, regardless of income level.”

So far, the district is working top-down, getting the computers to the secondary students.

“We’re working on getting there with the elementary,” he said.

Young Scholars of Central Pennsylvania Charter School started a pilot iPad program last year, with the idea of growing it to put the tablets in every student’s hands within a few years. But CEO Levant Kaya said the test drive ended up pushing them in a different direction.

Instead of the app-centric iPads, which are very flexible in some ways, the school is gravitating toward Chromebooks. Cheaper than the Apple tablets, the Chromebooks are laptops with minimal storage capacity because all of the work is warehoused in the “cloud,” specifically in Google Drive. The keyboards have made them more accessible for middle-schoolers working on writing projects.

At State College, administrators are appreciating tech as more than just hardware.

“Our No. 1 tech is definitely Google Apps,” said Director of Instructional Technology Andrew Cunningham. The students can use the software to write papers and work on research and lessons, and since the saved documents are accessible to the teacher, they can get direction and input more quickly, and in a more collaborative, constructive format.

“Teachers can keep a hand on the heartbeat of student learning,” said Cunningham, who is passionate and enthusiastic about his job. “I think you see a higher degree of investment. It breaks down barriers. Students are more inclined to put themselves out there a little bit more. They gain confidence.”

But tech isn’t just about students. It doesn’t work as an educational tool without being embraced on both sides.

“I think it makes more sense to the students when they see it modeled by the teachers,” said State College Superintendent Bob O’Donnell. His teachers not only use the same technology as the students to collaborate with each other and get information from the district, but technology also is used for professional development.

Cunningham said tech also facilitates more cooperation between faculty.

“It allows more team teaching,” he said. One project can be reviewed in the cloud by multiple teachers. A paper about energy can have the research graded by a physics teacher, the math checked by the calculus teacher, and the writing assessed by an English teacher.

However, it can be important to keep it from being threatening.

“We’re not saying they have to use a PowerPoint or anything. We’re getting them to move forward with 21st century skills,” said Griffith. “What we’ve found is that since we’ve put laptops in the kids’ hands, it has pushed teachers to incorporate technology in the classroom. It’s about creativity. It’s a work in progress.”

It can also be used to augment services for special needs students. IPads have been a boon for students with some learning disabilities. P-O is purchasing Kindles for some special-needs students since the devices can read text to students who can’t read for themselves.

The downside can be the expense.

“The equipment becomes obsolete in three to five years,” said Paladina. New software can come out even faster. Many districts, like P-O have a schedule to replace computers on a three-year rotation. Other schools, like OLV, lease instead to keep the newest tech possible.

The relationship between schools and tech will only grow as the state embraces it more and more. Most schools aren’t doing standardized testing on computers yet, but all acknowledge it will happen sooner rather than later.

“Obviously, (technology) is just going to continue to grow. Our reliance on tech and education can’t be separated,” said Paladina.