One of the largest classroom technology initiatives in U.S. history is underway in Guilford County. This week middle school students can begin picking up their tablet computers and get comfortable with the devices prior to the start of classes.
Teachers have been learning the ins and outs of these Android-based tablets all summer.
"There is also an encyclopedia on here, all kinds of different things that come preloaded," said Eric Loveday, 8th grade science teacher at Southwest Middle School.
In addition to the resources, teachers are becoming familiar with the features. They can momentarily lock the device and all students will be told to look up. Instant assessment is also an option. Teachers can give one or two question quizzes to find out if the students understand.
"Immediately we can look on here and find out are students getting what they’re supposed to be getting; what are their questions; what can we do to help them get it before its too late. We don’t want to move on before they’ve mastered the material," said Melissa Tatum, one of more than 900 teachers who received training on the tablets this summer.
Guilford County won a $30 million federal grant to provide tablets to every middle school student in the district. 13,000 students get them this month and another 4,000 get them next year.
All of the tablets were programmed by Amplify, a private company that has done more than a dozen pilot tablet programs throughout the country. Loveday, Tatum and other teachers seem enthusiastic and comfortable with the resources and features on the tablets. But are they ready?
"How I’m going to use that in my classroom on an everyday basis is going to take some feeling around," Tatum said.
"I still have a lot to learn. I definitely don’t have all of the answers right now. It’s going to be a learning process," Loveday added.
"So we see this as a long-term project," said Jake Henry, a former French teacher and principal who is now the Executive Director for Instructional Technology and Innovation. "We fully recognize that what our teachers are able to do today is not what they’re going to be able to a month, three months, even four years into this project."
Nationally there has been a debate in the educational community about technology. Ulrich Boser is an Educational Fellow at the Center for American Progress and has researched how schools are using technology.
"The way that many schools and districts are using computers are not taking advantage of those applications and more broadly it’s not preparing students for the future," Boser says.
Boser says teacher training needs to be more comprehensive, and assessment of students and educators using the devices should happen more regularly. Both Boser and Jake Henry – who is leading the Guilford County initiative – say that there is simply no one right way of using technology in the classroom.
"This generation of students is different. They learn differently than the way we did because they have access to a lot more than what we had access to. So it’s our role, I believe, as educators to continuously try to figure out ways to connect best with the kids we are teaching."
Henry says facilitators will remain in middle schools throughout the year to help teachers as problems come up. One of the first assignments for students will be to make a video explaining how the tablet works, and naturally, it will be recorded on the tablet.