A 2009 high school graduate returning for her 10-year reunion might not recognize her old classrooms, which probably looked the same as when her parents sat there.
“I would say that in the last six years, there’s been more change in education than has been historically,” said Glen VanDerwater, executive director for instructional technology for the Rochester City School District. “The biggest changes prior to that may have been being able to project with overhead projectors or moving from dittoes to the inception of copiers.”
In the last few years, the influx of technology into everyday life has exerted physical and philosophical changes in classrooms.
Technology is letting students collaborate in new ways and getting them ready for jobs that may not yet exist. With the ability to look up any fact in an instant, lessons aren’t shaped around memorization but around critical thinking and how those facts are used.
“We’re preparing kids to be successful in what we don’t even know the world is going to be like,” said Annmarie Lehner, chief information officer for the Rochester City School District. “We’re teaching our kids now how to be lifelong learners.”
From the appearance and placement of desks to the way teachers provide instruction, the current classroom looks and feels like nothing before it. The thing is, the 2029 classroom may be equally foreign to the 2019 graduate as today’s is to older alumni.
“You and I may be looking at youth and saying, ‘Why can’t they make change, why can’t they do basic math?’” said Tom Mariano, executive director of technology, communications and strategic initiatives for the Greece Central School District. “Years from now, they’re going to be, ‘Why didn’t these kids learn how to separate truth from fiction online? How come these kids don’t know how to look up good information? How come these kids aren’t creating positive messages online, only negative messages?’ That would reflect a failure of parents and schools and communities in the area of technology because technology is everywhere.”
Over the past few years as technology has gone from a toy to an indispensable tool, classrooms morphed into dynamic places.
“Back in our day, the teacher might turn on the television if there was a news report of something happening at that moment,” Mariano said. “You’d be watching. You wouldn’t be contributing. Now we have the ability to connect both ways.”
Melanie Ward, assistant superintendent for instruction for the Pittsford Central School District, was first a building principal in the late 1990s. “Technology was very different at that point,” she said. “I’ve always been of the belief if we want to put technology in the hands of our students, it needs to be very purposeful, and it needs to be there to really enhance the learning experience, not just because it’s a shiny new toy or it’s a fancy version of a pencil and paper. … What does it mean to enhance the learning in a way that can’t be done without the technology there?”
Enhanced learning can mean several things.
For one, it leads to greater collaboration. Inside the classroom, portable furniture and smart wall and desk surfaces that are being installed in city schools let students group themselves according to project and write wherever they need to share their message.
In a sense, the tech-laden classroom doesn’t have any walls.
Students at Pittsford Sutherland and Pittsford Mendon collaborate in a virtual environment. Groups of three or four, who for the most part are in different classes and sometimes in different schools, build a website. “They work just as you would in the real world,” Ward said. “That’s a nice example of how we’re striving to use technology not just to motivate kids … but to raise the rigor and authenticity of the learning experience for our kids.”
In Greece, students use technology to go straight to a source. High schoolers at Athena performed a musical work for the composer who was in another state. Students at English Village Elementary School read a book, then contacted the author via Twitter and arranged a conversation.
The Rochester City School District is a Google district, which allows students more interaction at all stages of their assignments.
“When you or myself sat down and wrote a paper, we sat down at a typewriter or with pen and paper and wrote it out,” VanDerwater said. “Students now … instead of writing a report, maybe they write a blog and there’s threaded conversations within that blog, going back and forth with the teacher. We had some elementary school students write a blog and they went back and forth with their parents, and their parents participated in the lesson. Now students are having more of an interactive type experience as opposed to … just between the student and the teacher.”
Students have more opportunity to participate, said Lynn Girolamo, instructional technology teacher in the Greece district. In the old days, students had to raise their hands to participate, and some may have been shy or intimidated. With technology, students can submit comments, and the teacher may or may not use the student’s name when responding.
Enhanced learning also means individualized instruction. Everyone gets the same assignment, but they work at their pace and the teacher moves around the room to help students who are stuck.
“That’s something one single teacher physically can’t do while standing in front of the classroom,” he said.
Technology creates a challenge for teachers, many of whom did not grow up with this technology. Teachers in the Rochester City School District have to complete the first in a series of online professional development courses in order to receive Chromebooks for their class.
Greece also is working with instructors. “We’re spending time helping teachers reflect on changes,” said Mariano. “Some people believe that you’re going to walk into class, see 25 kids or maybe more, sitting with their eyes glazed over in front of a screen (and) there’s no need for a teacher. It’s actually the teacher making the decisions … and knowing how to respond in this new environment. The teacher is more important than ever.”
Gone are the days of the computer lab, where students shared hardware. That may be the case now only in lower elementary grades, where classrooms have banks of iPads or other devices. Many districts now supply each student in the upper grades with a device, likely a Chromebook. As a result, districts spend more on technology, with a big increase for software.
For example, in the 2007-08 academic year Pittsford spent $410,000 on hardware and the network and $8,000 on software for the public and private schools it supports. In 2017-18, the district spent $468,000 on hardware and infrastructure and $85,000 on software. The district does not supply a device for every student.
Ward said the district is guided by Tech Quest 8, a three-year plan that covers integrating technology and has budget projections.
The Rochester City School District received $47 million from a state bond, and so far has submitted plans for $27 million that includes upgrades to hardware and upgrades to the infrastructure.
While districts may give students more devices than in previous years, Chromebooks are less expensive than the desktop or laptop computers they replaced. Still, the cost can add up. Greece, for instance, spends about $700,000 a year on hardware. The district is training students to do repairs, and about a dozen Athena students fix about 20 Chromebooks a week.
Responsible use of technology is more than taking care of the equipment. District leaders said they teach digital citizenship so that students understand just how much power rests in their hands.
Many districts include some type of stewardship lessons, whether it’s a course or the message is delivered throughout the curriculum in a way appropriate to each grade.
“It’s our obligation as educators to teach kids, to work with them about healthy habits,” Mariano said. “When to put the technology away and when to pick it up. Help them develop ownership of that.”
Patti Singer is a freelance writer in Rochester. Contact her at [email protected]