District 281 going high-tech

By Brian Rosemeyer

Sun Sailor Newspapers

Latest initiatives work to integrate Internet into learning

Digital technology has steadily infiltrated nearly every aspect of modern life over the past decade. Education is no exception, and Robbinsdale Area Schools are moving forward with plans to further integrate Internet-based tools in the learning process.

Representatives of District 281’s Personalized Learning Initiative presented a list of changes to the School Board at a meeting Feb. 19.

The work to utilize several new instructional technologies is part of the district’s overall strategic plan.

Dennis Beekman, Executive Director of Technology at Robbinsdale Area Schools, prefaced the conversation with this mantra: “technology is an important tool to inspire and educate all learners.”

In line with that is the goal set for 2013 to achieve a 1:1 student-to-device ratio. This means working toward giving every student access to online and digital learning tools through an electronic tablet, smartphone, laptop or desktop computer.

The district will take a big step forward in this regard beginning at the 5th grade level, where each student will receive a Google Chromebook.

A task force comprised of educators, administrators and tech specialists was assembled to test multiple devices, review research and visit other schools around the metro area October 2012 to this February.

The Personalized Learning task force unanimously agreed and announced that the Chromebook was the best-suited device for District 281 for a number of reasons including integration with Google Apps, inclusion of full keyboard for writing, low total cost of ownership and integration with other desired software.

Beekman noted that the plan to provide Chromebooks for students would involve budget implications past initial hardware cost such as hiring new instructional and tech support positions.

Beekman said the capital one-time cost for the Chromebooks themselves would be roughly $640,000. Training 281 staff to use the new technology would cost around $60,000, and the added tech support positions are budgeted to total $160,000 in annual salary.

Resources for the Personalized Learning Initiative are included in the 2013-14 budget, which is under consideration by the School Board.

“We look at this budget and see that, yes, it is additional resources. But one of the objectives for this project in year one is to work towards a model that’s sustainable within our normal operation budget,” Beekman said. “We’ll continue to explore more ways to do that as we move forward.”

For example, 281 is considering the option to lease the Chromebooks. Potential benefits include paying for the resource over the life of the equipment and retaining the option to replace hardware as it becomes obsolete.

Beekman also noted that as Chromebooks and other new technology initiatives become part of the learning experience, budget impacts from items such as conventional textbooks and traditional computer labs will decrease.

The project moving forward involves 5th grade use of Chromebooks in 2013-14. In 2015, the Chromebooks would follow those students to 6th grade while new units will be distributed to incoming 5th graders, as well as beginning use of the devices at the 9th grade level that same year.

The Feb. 19 presentation also included a number of other technology-based initiatives in the pipeline at Robbinsdale Area Schools.

District 281 introduced Google Apps for Education in the fall of 2011, and has since created more than 30,000 documents within the program in the learning environment.

Google Apps allows students to draft dynamic documents that can be accessed online for enhanced student-teacher participation.

Grades 3-5 are also utilizing a CompassLearning software called Odyssey for mathematics both in school and at home. The Odyssey program is an interactive suite of lessons and activities completed by students and reported to teachers who can adjust and monitor progress of students individually.

In the last year, Robbinsdale also adopted Minnesota-based MackinVia as its eBook platform. With eBooks, students can access textbooks digitally via the Internet and download the information directly to devices.

Cooper High School recently won a $45,000 grant through the Library Services and Technology Act to improve reading through self-selected eBooks provided by the library media center.

A group of students from Cooper was able to select the eBooks they saw appropriate.

“Many of the books are actually multi-user as well, so many students can be reading them at the same time,” Gayle Walkowiak, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning, said about the advantages of eBooks. “They can take notes, highlight passages and preserve those notes as they move along in their educational career.”

Teachers at Robbinsdale Area Schools will also begin using the learning management system Schoology to create and share academic content through a social network-like platform.

Schoology provides an online realm for teachers and students to interact with academic content. Students can collaborate online, hold discussion groups, turn in assignments and directly communicate with their teacher from any device with Internet access.

“One of the things that our research has shown us is the importance of a learning management system,” said Jacob Givand, Online Learning Facilitator at Robbinsdale Area Schools. “So teachers in all levels in the district next year will be using Schoology. It really gives teachers the tools they need to manage their online classroom.”

In light of all these new devices and tools that require Internet access, District 281 has introduced wireless networks in all classrooms throughout its 14 schools.

Beekman said the system can handle 30 students per classroom connected to the Internet simultaneously.

Boardmember Linda Johnson raised a question about how the new weight placed on online academics will affect students with limited or no Internet access outside of the classroom.

Givand responded in noting that the district’s registration guide includes a checklist asking students if they have Internet access at home and that he is working to monitor how that will impact the new initiatives.

Beekman added that the district is exploring various options in overcoming the inevitable dilemma. For instance, students could potentially be able to check out a mobile hot spot device to bring home for schoolwork connectivity. He said equity is a top priority in moving forward with the new systems.

The School Board recognized that these steps were only initial movements towards a radically changing system of public education and how it interacts with modern ideas and technologies.

“This technology has the potential to really change education, and fairly soon,” said Boardmember Tom Walsh. “The way education is structured now, kids are organized by grades and by age, but with this kind of tech, students can vastly surpass what the tests are testing at a certain time. And we have the potential to do things very differently.”

“With today’s technology, we’re just beginning to see how students can work at their own pace and move ahead,” Walkowiak added. “It won’t be too long, where the [technology] is much more individualized. And it will completely disrupt the system we know today.”


Contact Brian Rosemeyer at [email protected]