For a class assignment on ancient Greece on Friday, Daniel Sills, 15, used his iPhone to Google art and architecture of the time. When he was ready to turn in his work, he clicked open Safari, logged into TodaysMeet.com and typed the answers into an online interface Darden could visit later to grade.
“I like this better than flipping through the book,” said Sills, a student at Richmond County Technical Career Magnet School. “Plus they say you learn better when you’re having fun.”
Three schools in Richmond County are piloting a Bring Your Own Technology, or BYOT, initiative that allows students to use personal smartphones, laptops and other devices in class. The program will expand to all schools next year if the district can meet its goal to be completely wireless on all campuses by August.
The initiative is part of a larger effort to grow technology in the classrooms, from incorporating more devices into the learning experience to offering more online courses.
“Technology is integrated in education,” said Kim Stripling, the director of media and instructional technology. “It’s not going away, it’s here to stay, it’s how our kids learn. To allow students to use what’s easy for them really helps them learn.”
Not all teachers at the three BYOT schools have embraced the use of technology as much as Darden, but Stripling said teachers must be able to integrate devices into their lessons at their own pace.
Darden allows students to do research on their devices, and most class assignments are turned in online. Homework assignments are due every Friday via e-mail. She hopes by next school year, her entire class will be paperless.
Bound to the rules of a usage agreement, students at the magnet school are even allowed to use their devices to talk or text before the bell rings and during lunch – a freedom that Darden says helps cut down abuses during classtime.
“Technology is the way to go, and we’re embracing it,” she said. “It’s not removing the teacher from the classroom, but it’s enhancing what we do.”
Richmond County applied for about $1 million of federal Race to the Top funds to install wireless capabilities in the high and middle schools, according to Rob Jankus, the director of information technology. Additional federal E-rate funding the district has applied for would cover the elementary schools.
All users have to connect to the school system’s Internet network, and that allows all activity to be filtered and certain Web sites and social media sites to be blocked. Jankus said the district will receive an answer on the RTT funding by the end of this month, which would begin a long process of expanding wireless.
All schools have wireless hotspots in some parts of their buildings but only the three BYOT schools – TCM, Hephzibah High and Dorothy Hains Elementary – are 100 percent wireless.
“It’s going to put more tools in the hands of students as opposed to what they had before,” he said.
Students who don’t have their own devices will continue to be able to use desktop computers, laptops, netbooks and other technology provided by the schools.
The district has about one computer for every two students, but most of those are housed in labs rather than classrooms. Many teachers also have iPads and netbooks for student use, but they are mostly used for group work or intervention purposes and there are no iPads assigned to individual students.
However, Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Mabray said the extent of technology used in the classrooms is still controlled by the teachers. Not all educators are comfortable bringing cell phones or laptops into the classroom. “It has to be what they’re ready to do,” Mabray said.
Online learning is also expanding in the district after the state passed a law in 2012 requiring districts to offer online courses to students in traditional schools.
High school students who wish to complete a class online can enroll in the Georgia Virtual School through their guidance counselors and take the class during the day at their zone schools.
Online credit recovery classes are also built into classes for students who fall behind. The Performance Learning Center, which is offered to students who don’t excel in traditional schools, offers online credit recovery courses through the provider Edgenuity. The Alternative Education Center, which has students coming from different grades at all points during the year, also operates blended learning with online courses and a teacher facilitator under Edgenuity.
Mabray said between technology in schools and online courses, education is definitely changing. But the face-to-face experience is not going anywhere yet.
“I don’t think I’ll see a time when the living, breathing teacher ever goes away,” she said. “I think what he or she has to do is going to be fundamentally different in how they engage kids, but there’s still going to be some kids that no matter how well you give it to them, that full interface on the computer is not going to be enough. And there’s going kids that...sitting in the class and listening to the teacher talk, that’s just not what they want. We’ve got to kind of change how we do business to help them all.”