Technology in the classroom has come a long way since the days of playing “Oregon Trail” on the classroom Macintosh.
Electronic devices and access to the Internet are now fundamental tools in a 21st Century education. However, giving students access to the pros of connectivity while avoiding the cons is an expensive and difficult task.
Both Mobile and Baldwin county schools have ongoing technology initiatives, but the two are quite different.
Baldwin County’s “Digital Renaissance” is a one-to-one program, meaning one device for every student.
As of 2014, Kindergarten, first and second-grade students are each assigned an iPad, and third-sixth-grade students each receive a Macbook Air laptop.
Grant funding has helped lower the actual cost Baldwin County picks up, and amazingly the program only takes up around two percent of the system’s annual budget.
That equates to roughly $330 per student each year.
Mobile County is moving towards a BOYD system, or Bring Your Own Device.
More than 25 schools in Mobile County are actively participating in the BYOD program and over the last six years MCPSS has invested heavily in its digital network infrastructure.
“We’ve got about $120 million invested in our network throughout the entire district,” said David Akridge, executive manager of information technology for MCPSS. “We’ve placed our money where we felt it would be the most useful. This infrastructure is something that will last for decades as opposed to computers, which will only last three or four years.”
Mobile County has funded the majority of the infrastructure upgrade through e-rate funding, which is an program sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission that helps schools and libraries obtain affordable telecommunications and Internet access.
The e-rate funding must be applied for each year.
Of $120 million in infrastructure upgrades, MCPSS has only matched 10 percent, which is roughly $2 million for each school year.
“We have to do things the way we are able to, and because we qualify for this funding, this is our best bet,” Akridge said.
A majority of the 4,000 classrooms in Mobile County Schools have their own designated wireless access point, which is capable of getting connecting around 20 devices simultaneously.
Akridge said 1/6 of the students in the district are participating in BOYD classes and more than 10,000 devices have been registered.
Individual schools are using Title I funding to purchase devices for students who are unable to bring one from home.
According to Akridge, even elementary schools in highly impoverished areas have seen 72 percent participation in the program.
Students not only have access to the Internet for research, but can also use their devices for classroom activities through several applications parents can download.
The technologies haven’t just affected what the students use to learn, they’ve affected how they learn.
“If you look at technology in the classroom, it’s nothing more than a process to enhance teaching and curriculum,” said Homer Coffman, chief technology officer for Baldwin County Public Schools. “Our teachers have been working through professional development on the integration in the classroom, and it’s transformed not only the classroom, but the methods of teaching.”
Many BCPS teachers are using new technologies for project-based learning, which allows students to work together in groups using their devices to solve a problem or find an answer.
Coffman said the collaborative projects give students the ability to learn at their own pace and allow the teacher to spend more time with students who are struggling with a concept.
The biggest buzzword around digital learning is “engagement,” which means getting the students involved and excited about what they’re learning.
“When students can use these devices at school, it puts them back into their world,” Akridge said. “This is a faster way of doing things because they’re able to use these tools they’re familiar with.”
When used appropriately, technology has numerous benefits in the classroom, but it also has a shown a potential to distract and cause problems among students.
The Alabama State Department of Education use programs like Technology in Motion (TIM) to train teachers to integrate these devices effectively.
“We have a TIM trainer in every in-service center,” said Earlene Patton, coordinator of technology initiatives for ALSDE. “We work extensively with teachers and principals on how to integrate these various technologies into their curriculum.”
Both Baldwin and Mobile county schools, private and public, have recently had incidences involving student threats on social media, but most of those threats were made from students’ homes.
UMS-Wright and McGill-Toolen have recently banned the use of smartphones on their campuses because of social media apps like Facebook, Yik Yak and Snapchat.
Patten said schools are required to have filters on their networks that block all social media outlets, even if students are connecting via their own devices. He added that technology doesn’t change inappropriate behavior, but it can monitor it, and that’s exactly what school officials are doing.
Securus is a program used by both public school systems to monitor student activity on the web, and its sophisticated enough to track offline activity on devices synced to a school’s network.
Schools around the state have also worked proactively to teach students to use the Internet respectfully.
“We have seen some problems, but we’re working to train students each year,” Akridge said. “We’re trying to get them to be good digital citizens, which goes way (beyond) the classroom.”
Because of the number of various devices, Mobile County also uses the Cisco Identity Services Engine, which protects students’ devices from other students by isolating each machine so it can only see itself on the network.
The program can also be used to track stolen and misplaced devices within a school.
Technology in the classroom changes at a very quick rate, and both systems are preparing to expand on the programs they’ve already established. Baldwin County is already offering a plethora of professional development opportunities for its educators.
Mobile County is continuing to improve its networking infrastructure and to establish BOYD programs in additional schools.
Currently, none of the MCPSS high schools have BYOD programs.
“School participation is voluntary, but we have the ability at all of our schools now,” Akridge said. “When you start allowing students to bring devices, it’s a big change until you get it integrated. Some of the schools have wanted to sit back and see how well the program works at other schools.”
Akridge said both Mobile and Baldwin county schools have done a great job with the resources they have available.
“Hopefully both programs will continue to be successful,” he said. “We just want to do the best we can to educate the kids in this area.”