Thirteen thousand students in Guilford County will receive tablets computers when they begin school this fall. Last year the county was awarded a federal “Race to the Top” grant for 30 million dollars. Now one of the largest classroom technology initiatives in US history is underway.
Students are working in small groups on a recent Friday morning at a middle school in High Point. Most are engaged, some grow restless and the stomachs of a few begin to growl with lunch approaching. The students are all full grown. And the spiral binders, dull pencils and heavy text books they might remember from junior high have been replaced with touch screens, interactive lessons and dozens of books that weigh only a few ounces.Amplify, a private company that designed the Android based tablets and is helping to train teachers and administrators to use the devices efficiently. This training session has been spent exploring the tablet, writing e-notes, and creating videos. "Remember that the microphone is located on top of the tablet. In environments like this where we’ve got a lot of ambient noise, that is something that your children want to be mindful of; that they may have to get up close and personal with it," Gagnon says.
Amplify is one of several for-profit companies working on helping to implement tablets in the classroom. They’ve done more than a dozen pilot programs. Each tablet includes pre-loaded content, embedded textbooks, and safety measures to lock the device if stolen. Amplify has heard from teachers and students in pilot programs about what works and what doesn’t. Justin Hamilton has worked on some of those trial runs.
"Many teachers were terrified of the idea of introducing technology in the classroom because they thought of them as distraction devices. Teachers were worried that they would completely lose control of the classroom because they had no idea whether or not a student was paying attention or playing angry birds," Hamilton said.
Teachers can monitor students to see if they’re working on the assignment or logged into something else. They also have the "Eyes on teacher” feature, which momentarily locks the device, and prompts students with a message to look-up at the instructor. One of the training goals is to get teachers comfortable enough to challenge students individually among a group setting.
"I can give challenging material to my high-flying students I can make sure that students in the middle are progressing and being challenged and then I can dedicated a lot of my time and attention o students who are struggling; And so that differentiated and personalized experience is something that technology allows you to do almost seamlessly," Hamilton added.
It’s not all smooth. One challenge is getting good connectivity throughout buildings that are half a century old. Another anticipated hurdle is getting teachers - and some students – confident with the tablets. "Just like out teachers I think our kids are going to be at various ends of the spectrum. We’re going to have kids that are going to pick this up and run with it and are going to love it. And then I think we’re going to have kids that are more apprehensive that have less experience. And we’ve even seen as we’ve gone into some pilot schools that there have been points where the kids have said ‘I’d rather write on a piece of paper," said Jake Henry, a former principal turned Executive Director for Instructional Technology and Innovation.
Henry read about the federal grant proposal years ago and wanted in. He feels this program can revolutionize teaching. "We’re taking baby steps here, there will be bumps in the road come August. But we’re willing to embrace that because we really believe that some of the bumps and that little discomfort that we might feel at the beginning, long-term what our kids are going to get out of this project is well worth it," Henry said<
The first wave of training concludes Friday and then those teachers and facilitators will fan out and prepare another group of educators. All told, 900 teachers will get a summer course in digital education.