Schools test out tech programs


Many school districts this year will seek to modernize an aging educational system and improve the learning process by allowing students to use their personal tech gadgets as classroom tools.

The move is part of a growing trend to make devices like laptops, smartphones and tablets part of the curriculum.

“I think people are realizing that we have become a connected society,” East Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Victor Valeski said.

Some districts have implemented bringyour own-device (BYOD) programs as a way to augment lesson plans through the use of popular computer devices.

East Brunswick is one of many districts considering the practice. According to Valeski, students as young as 6 years old have an innate understanding of new devices, thanks to their low barrier to entry.

“There’s been a realization that as our newest students come into the district, they’re coming with a level of exposure to technology that’s unprecedented,” he said. “We’re going to have students in kindergarten who have experience with a tablet of some type.” Valeski told the Board of Education on Aug. 7 that he wants to incorporate a BYOD program in the schools.

“What I would like to see is the entire school become essentially a ‘learning laboratory,’” Valeski said. “There literally wouldn’t be anywhere a student or staff member couldn’t connect to the Internet. … It would promote learning as an ongoing activity that isn’t just confined to the classroom.”

One school district in Ocean County is already going into its third year with the program. Since the 2012-13 school year, high school students in the Jackson Township School District have been able to use their own devices as a learning tool in certain classes.

“The way it works here is the teachers decide whether or not they want to utilize the program … and then design their lessons for using BYOD,” Jackson Memorial High School Assistant Principal Heather Novak said.

From the start, teachers involved in the pilot program gathered in department meetings and held workshops to discuss what worked well with their use of BYOD and what was not effective.

In the program’s first year, Jackson students researched topics in real time and watched digital video content like “CNN Student News” to provide context to history lessons. In one lesson, Jackson Memorial High School math teacher Lisa Soltmann had her students use their devices to create children’s books that combined the fundamentals of geometry with an anti-bullying message.

“The more teachers are hearing about the ideas, the more it’s prompting them to use BYOD in their classrooms,” Novak said.

Meanwhile, some school districts have embraced students’ familiarity with technology while providing a more uniform experience.

In Edison, a new tech initiative called “One-to-One” will provide Google Chromebook computers to all students in third through fifth grade this year. The program will be expanded to kindergarten through eighth grade the following year.

Superintendent of Schools Richard O’Malley said the Chromebooks will be used for the first time this year to access a service called Engrade, which provides textbooks and third-party learning aids in a digital format.

“We got to a point where we’ve got some best teaching practices happening in the district, so now we are trying to digitize all of our curriculum,” he said.

O’Malley said the technical aspect of the program was secondary to what he called a necessary switch to digital materials.

“From our standpoint, the device that we chose was the last thing we did … and we tried to decide how we were going to build up our assessments and curriculum in the best way we can,” O’Malley said.

Despite the increasing popularity of BYOD programs, school officials must face the fact that not all students will have access to compatible electronic devices. Tablets can cost anywhere from $200 to upwards of $700, while laptops typically command a higher price. Smartphone prices vary, but often require a two-year plan with a wireless provider.

In East Brunswick, Valeski said the district may purchase its own cache of devices to ensure that “everyone would have access to a piece of equipment.”

In Jackson, Novak said one way teachers worked around the limitation was to create BYOD-enabled lesson plans in which students broke off into pairs or small groups to share devices.

“We just wanted to make sure that we hit on all relevant areas and that all students can be included,” Novak said.

The issue of funding modern technology for students has been a major sticking point in some districts.

O’Malley said the Edison Board of Education spent $1.1 million to purchase 3,500 Chromebooks for students. While less funding is spent on procuring devices in districts with BYOD programs, more resources are usually committed to upgrading existing network capabilities.

Though higher bandwidth and more efficient equipment were needed in all 10 of Jackson Township’s schools, district spokeswoman Allison Erwin said the main reason behind its recent upgrades was the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which uses technology for the majority of its testing.

Though many districts are using BYOD programs, officials at the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) described the practice as a double-edged sword.

“Done right, BYOD can open a number of different avenues for learning,” NJEA Director of Communication Steve Wollmer said. “Students with smartphones and tablets now have tools for creation, connectivity to expertise, collaboration and finding information. The devices open opportunities to learning that were impossible without them. But doing BYOD right requires a significant investment in time, resources and training.”

Wollmer said teachers will need to learn how to troubleshoot technical issues for a variety of devices and understand the basics of computer networking.

“The faculty needs the time to understand the opportunities created by these devices, and be given opportunities for professional development that actually employs the devices during any professional development training,” Wollmer said.

Another concern with the BYOD program is that the devices would be a distraction to students during class if they use them, for example, to play games or stream videos. However, O’Malley and Valeski said students would be required to sign in to the school district’s wireless Internet service, preventing students from accessing class-inappropriate content.

Still, Wollmer said districts using BYOD programs have to prepare for the potential for abuse and cyberbullying that could crop up through the use of personal devices.

“In districts that do not prepare properly, the device becomes a powerful distraction under the best of circumstances and a much more nefarious tool under the worst,” he said. “Bullying, intimidation, drug and gang activity can be covertly done more easily in an atmosphere of BYOD where the faculty lacks the right to discipline children for infractions — especially those infractions that occur in gray areas, like a picture snapped during the school day and then posted somewhere later on.”

Wollmer added that the BYOD program “will amplify the teaching practice, both good and bad.”

Regardless of any potential pitfalls, many believe the new programs will make for a more productive and educated student body.

“The ultimate benefit is that the students will be able to access information in a digital way for a more independent, individualized type of instruction,” O’ Malley said.