For the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. While working as a staff reporter for this New Hampshire community newspaper, I reported and photographed a three-part series on the role of technology in public, private and homeschool education. I visited Highbridge Hill Elementary School in New Ipswich and the Pine Hill Waldorf School in Wilton, and spoke with a homeschooling family in Peterborough.
The series took second place in education reporting at the 2012 New Hampshire Press Association Best Media Contest. Due to website changes at the Ledger-Transcript, these stories are no longer available via public archive. Below is the text from the third installment.
For the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, February 16, 2012
NEW IPSWICH — On a recent Thursday morning, student teacher Daniel Lessard leads a grammar lesson in Amy Hill’s fourth grade class at Highbridge Hill Elementary School. A copy of a newspaper article is enlarged on the wall and students are identifying linking verbs.
Instead of an overhead projector, Lessard is using an interactive digital screen called a Promethean Board, which he controls with a large plastic stylus. It looks and works much like a giant computer screen — and Lessard’s students can’t tear their eyes away.
If there’s a poster child for integrating technology into education, it’s Highbridge Hill. The brand new elementary school has Promethean Boards in every classroom. Every room also has its own surround sound system, which allows teachers to wear a lapel microphone and project their voices without shouting. Students pay weekly visits to two large computer labs, where they hone their Internet navigation and typing skills. And while the library has thousands of paper- based books, it also has a dozen computers.
“I think we’re on the cutting edge,” Principal Marion Saari says during a recent tour of the school. “We have schools who want to see what we’re doing that come through for tours. We recently hosted the Raymond School District. They were pretty in awe.”
As digital teaching tools improve and proliferate, many schools that can afford to upgrade are scrambling to do so. They’re entering into the digital fray with the blessing of their states and the federal government. In 2010, the White House released a National Education Technology Plan that called for a “revolutionary transformation” of schools by incorporating “state-of-the art technology into learning to enable, motivate and inspire all students,” and the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology offers resources and guidance for developing tech-based curricula. But if educators and experts are heralding technology’s capacity to improve education, debate about the plugged-in classroom still rages. And there’s no magic formula when it comes to education — each model has its own priorities.
Marion Saari’s priority is engaging 21st-century students. “They’re so into technology these days,” Saari says. “You have to keep up with them, otherwise you’ll lose them. It’s such a big part of their lives.”
“Big part” may be an understatement. According to a national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8-18 year olds spend almost eight hours per day consuming entertainment media. And because they spend that time multitasking, they actually consume nearly 11 hours of media per day — the majority of their waking hours.
If those habits are changing the way students learn, Saari doesn’t think technology necessarily changes what they learn. “It’s just another way of teaching,” she says.
Nevertheless, curricula at Highbridge Hill and in the Mascenic Regional District as a whole certainly look different than they used to. Maria Dreyer, Mascenic Regional School District Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Student and Curriculum Support Services, says educators are introducing skills like typing at increasingly early ages. “It used to be that you were getting keyboarding in the high school,” Dreyer says. It’s a lot younger now. You’re learning how to keyboard and use PowerPoint at the elementary school level.”
Saari passes by classroom after classroom, all of which hold an illuminated Promethean Board. Most boards, she says, stay on during the whole school day. Second graders follow along on worksheets while Amy Conrad uses her Promethean Board to lead a lesson in the cardinal directions. In the kindergarten classroom, meanwhile, a board has the word “play” written 20 times in its bottom third — students have been practicing their word of the day.
“It keeps their attention,” kindergarten teacher Jane Dwyer says. “They like to change colors [of the digital pen]. They know how to use it better than we do.”
Ellen Caravella, another kindergarten teacher, agrees. “It probably reminds them of their laptops and gadgets at home.”
According to Dreyer, technological literacy is a priority across the district. She says Promethean Boards are in use — albeit to a smaller degree — at Boynton Middle School and Mascenic Regional High School. And the district is ramping up for its transition to a new standardized assessment, the Common Core Standards, a test developed by the National Governors Association that will be administered on computers.
At Highbridge Hill, top-of-the-line equipment and software didn’t come cheap. According to district Information Technology Director Benjamin Kilar, Highbridge Hill’s bill for infrastructure and hardware was approximately $204,000, around $28,000 of which was funded by grants.
Kilar estimates that district-wide, the annual technology maintenance costs next year will be around $60,000. “It’s a fair amount of money, but it does what we need. And these are the skills kids need,” Kilar says.
But Tom Julius, Director of Academic Assessment at Antioch University New England’s Education Department, says investment in education technology shouldn’t take precedence over investment in educators themselves.
“The best technology in the world in the hands of an ill-equipped, ill-prepared teacher just isn’t effective,” says Julius, who cites educational models in Finland, where talented teachers are recruited and highly paid, as an example America might follow.
When it comes to exposing students to the tools of the future, however, Dreyer takes the long view.
“We’re starting to tell [students] that the things we’re doing not only make them competitive in the U.S., but also in a global marketplace,” Dreyer says.
In the Highbridge Hill computer lab, computer teacher Natasha Breen leads firstgraders in a computer navigation exercise that culminates with a math game that asks students to roll certain coins into a piggy bank. Rows of headphone-wearing, mouseclicking students play the game like transfixed gamblers at Las Vegas slot machines.
“Education should be fun,” Breen says. “They say, ‘Yes, we get to play games!’ but then I remind them that it takes so many different computer skills to actually get to the game.”
David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation, and professor of research and evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, says instead of turning the computer on and leaving it on, the most effective teachers will employ more sophisticated methods. “I think that if you use the technology as drill and kill, that’s what it will be for students,” Silvernail says. But he’s also observed that when excellent teachers use powerful technology, it’s hard to tell where the quality originates.
“It’s a question of cause and effect,” Silvernail says. “Is it because you have effective teachers that know how to use the technology wisely, or is it that technology makes the teachers wiser?”
For some parents in the district, the balance between the educational benefits of technology versus old-fashioned teaching methods is only beginning to come into focus. “I’m still not really sure about Promethean Boards,” says Jenn Sickala, a district parent who has children at Highbridge Hill, Boynton Middle School, and Mascenic High. Sickala says she doesn’t have a deep enough understanding of how the boards work to cast judgment. “I have my concerns as far as, is technology really reliable? What if it breaks down? But I have a trust in the teachers.”
“Technology is wonderful, but it can’t replace teaching,” Sickala says.
Despite elementary students’ almost constant contact with a glowing screen, Dreyer says there’s a balance in the schools’ curricula.
“My father used to say that every excess is a vice,” she says. “And in all fairness, we have the kids on a screen, but we don’t have them on a screen all day,” Dreyer says. “We’re doing more reading and more mathematics and more oral mathematics than probably any other district that I know of.”
In the Highbridge Hill library, Librarian Joan Blanchard pulls a book out of a newly built bookcase.
“The other night, during our Showcase of Learning, a family came in here with their kids,” Blanchard says. “The father got onto our computer data base with his two sons. And then the mother read them this book. It was so sweet.”
Saari takes the book in her hands. “I would hate to see all this replaced by screens,” she says, gesturing to the stacks. “You’ve got to have a balance.”