How Technology at Private Schools Enhances Learning

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Many educators believe that private schools are leading the way when it comes to technology in the classroom. Part of that is a direct result of the fact that private schools are not constrained by mandated educational systems and teachers unions, which means schools have considerable flexibility to spread their wings when it comes to out of the box thinking and unique, leading-edge ways of embracing technology.

From SmartBoards in the classrooms, to 1:1 device programs (including BYOD - Bring Your Own Device - programs), private schools are barreling down the tracks at top speed when it comes to technology.

Online Schools

Online learning wasn't always embraced by the educational world or the businesses that hired graduates of online schools. As is often the case, higher education ventures into new technological advances before high schools, and paves the way for others to follow. Online schools, including high schools, starting popping up in the 90s, some in the early 90s, but accreditation wasn't always attached. When Colleges first ventured into the online learning realm, online degrees began making their debuts in the mid-1990s.

But the online learning trend wasn't embraced. Students weren't keen to jump on the bandwagon and many employers looked down on the online programs, deeming them money-making scams rather than reputable learning institutions.

An added challenge was the unreliability of the web back then, which didn't help. Households were dealing with dial-up internet that was slow and not always effective.

Many educators believe the popularity of the online learning movement for high schools and middle schools can be attributed to Khan Academy.

Most of us know the history of Khan Academy, which started in 2004 when its founder, Sal Khan, was tutoring a cousin online using something called Yahoo Doodle Images. Some of Khan's other family members starting using his tutoring services, and he eventually decided to publish his videos online via YouTube. The popularity of his tutorials took off, and a new format for learning was launched. Many schools, especially private schools, quickly embraced the online learning platform and implemented the lessons from Khan Academy into their classrooms and curriculums, assigning tutorials as homework and even summer work to help students prepare for the coming year of study.

That concept of online learning and making education more accessible has grown into more robust online learning programs, and online private schools have been popping up across the web with greater frequency, allowing students the flexibility to study when and where they need. Students with special circumstances, such as performers and athletes who need to fit school in around an extremely busy schedule, often find this option to be one of the best solutions to completing high school while pursuing a passion or career path that requires school it fit into a non-traditional schedule.

Online schools, which are often more affordable than a traditional brick and mortar private school, serve students of all ages, starting with kindergarten and serving the needs of students straight up through the twelfth grade. Some online schools, like Laurel Springs, a fully accredited K-12 online school, boast not only stellar academics, but impressive college placement. Laurel Springs offers more than 150 courses included Advanced Placement (AP) courses and a gifted and talented program for students. Even more impressive is Laurel Springs reputation for having more than 90% of their graduates accepted into the colleges of their choice. 

The 1:1 Device Program

Many schools have moved to the 1:1 Device model for students, ensuring that technology serves to enhance the learning experience. This hasn't always been easy, though.

Laptops were expensive, netbooks were tiny and often difficult to use, and certain devices seemed too trendy. When iPods first came out, some schools tried to use them in the classroom, but not many were successful. So when tablets, like iPads, first hit the market, some schools shied away from the technology. Administrators and teachers worried that these trendy touch pads would just be a fad that phased out quickly. Investing significant time and money in a program that not everyone felt had long-term potential kept some folks away, especially if budgets were tight. But other schools jumped in head first. I spoke to three schools about how they implemented 1:1 device programs into their schools, and how those programs have, and will continue, to evolve over time.  

St. Augustine Preparatory School

At St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey - an all boys school for students in grades nine through twelve - finding the best forms of technology to advance its curriculum and also make learning more affordable for families are both a priority. 

The school's iPad program was started about four years ago, but they first began to embrace tablet technology a decade ago, offering students an optional tablet program in place of traditional textbooks. At the time, textbook companies were touting savings, though the school admits that initially, those savings were minimal. But, when Apple announced a partnership with a top textbook company to offer more affordable eBooks, the school was ready to take advantage. 

"We weren't trying to jump too far," said Dean of Academics Kevin Burke, who noted that the school needed to be aware of the comfort levels of its users, both students and faculty. The move to replacing textbooks with iPads was driven by the cost savings, which were huge for students.

The school has gone from the tablet as a textbook replacement, to slowly integrating technology at a greater level. "The educator is still the most valuable tool in the room, and the level of innovation among faculty when it comes to the iPads is widespread," said Burke, who noted that having students and faculty all on the same device is a goal in order to better manage support for the community.

 

St. Augustine will continue to look at ways to improve the role of technology in the classroom according to Burke. "We're getting together a team to look at the Chromebook, and if a 1:1 program could be a possible addition," he added. Why Chromebooks? "We think their capabilities have exceeded the iPad, and they are more affordable," said Burke. Some of the apps and tools they are using aren't limited to just the iPad, either. "We've used Facetime to work with students who were out of school due to medical reasons," said Burke, noting that the school wanted to support its students as much as possible, and virtual attendance to class or meetings with teachers was just one of those ways. The school also has required online courses for its students that aren't limited to the iPad, and can be taken on multiple devices. 

South Kent School

At South Kent School - a residential all boys school in South Kent, Connecticut for grades nine through twelve - the school has implemented a robust 1:1 iPad program. Gonzalo Garcia-Pedroso, Chief Information Officer and Director of Retention at South Kent, noted that when it came choosing iPads, the school's plan was to "integrate a multi-purpose digital reader. Replacing physical books was the first goal and we also wanted a device that could create content. Apple also has a support network and at the time you were not getting anyone on the phone from Amazon or Google etc."

To get started, South Kent first gave the devices to its faculty and "had them use it for their daily work and personal life. As they grew accustomed to it we then deployed the integration plan. Giving the faculty a head start was necessary," according to Garcia-Pedroso. Teacher training was a challenge, as not much had been written yet. "So we came up with our own curriculum," he said, noting that since Apple offered free iPad tutorials, the school opted to use their products. "We could get our faculty off campus and to their store for onsite training," he added.

South Kent had already begun changing the way their classrooms functioned even before the iPad hit the classrooms. According to Garcia-Pedroso, "We were already in the process of evaluating a better, engaging approach to the classroom." The school wanted to get away from "sage on the stage" mentality in order to embrace more of a "guide on the side model. "The benefits were equal access to information and the ability to both consume and create from one device," he said.

The iPad served to enhance the classroom experience at South Kent. "It has allowed us to add another level to the teaching toolbox. The goal is never to eliminate, but to add. This gives us the opportunity to tackle tech literacy, digital citizenship and responsible usage. Plus it gives our students unlimited access to information," said Garcia-Pedroso. A unique aspect of the program at South Kent is that, "although the device and perception was an iPad program, it was more of a pedagogical move for us," he said. "Studying where other tech implementations failed allowed us to create a culture of excellence."

Garcia-Pedroso isn't about to let the program at South Kent get stale, saying that It continues to adapt and grow annually. "The ability to always customize the experience via apps and web gives each teacher the ability to make it their own. From start there have been many changes, like the addition of iTunesU and Google Classroom for class management." 

Not every school has been successful in implementing tablet programs, but the secret to success at South Kent was creating a culture of change and looking elsewhere for other successful models. "The success came by following Dr Ruben Puentedura's SAMR model. Allowing everyone to take the first step of substitution gave us the familiarity without a drastic change. We could then move along the SAMR model getting everyone comfortable with the program," said Garcia-Pedroso.

Believe it or not, the iPad has brought about benefits for South Kent that extended beyond just the classroom. Accessibility, equality, opportunity were the key words for Garcia-Pedroso when descibing how the program has impacted the overall student experience. "We have also been able to work on distance learning scenarios by utilizing the tech. Our athletic program has been able to take advantage by taking their work on the road and staying in touch with the faculty. We have also been able to apply this and other great things to our Center for Innovation program. 

Garcia-Pedroso envisions the program working to evolve and grow over time. "I see it continuing to add to our offerings. Allowing everyone the opportunity to gain tech fluency only helps the program grow. I don't see a move away from the iPad as it continues to be the best tool for the job. Creation, consumption, and ability to continue to evolve." 

GEMS World Academy-Chicago

GEMS World Academy-Chicago in Illinois, an international preschool through grade twelve academy embracing the International Baccalaureate program (boasting the label of an IB World School) embraced the iPad as part of a 1:1 program for all students more than three years ago, calling it "an essential visionary element in concept planning for the school."

"There was always a goal in mind of constructing an environment where learning and dynamic digital creations could be made anywhere in the building and beyond by all students," said Delphine Lenoir, Director of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications at GEMS World Academy-Chicago. According to Lenoir, "The iPad was chosen for its ability to make creativity mobile. We wanted a way for students to document field experiences and create in every setting. Whether we are using temperature sensor apps, recording audio, taking pictures on a field study, or creating movies, the iPad's a major tool we use are how we are document learning."

GEMS World Academy provides faculty with a month of professional development at the beginning of the year, as part of that experience, "teachers explore and use iPads in Chicago to plan our Field Study experiences," Lenoir shared. "Our teachers receive embedded support from our Technology and Innovation Leader who hosts small groups sessions and co-teaches classes. The Curriculum Coordinator and Research and Innovation Lead support in planning technology integration throughout the units of inquiry weekly. Throughout the year, our [professional development] team identifies areas of curiosity in our staff and plan lessons based on feedback."

The benefits of learning with an iPad are varied, and GEMS World Academy sees those benefits at all ages of students. "iPads allow students at a very young age to create and share meaningful digital creations [with] ease. Using digital portfolio and learning management tools, teachers can quickly monitor all progress of students and adapt their lessons. It allows educators to watch and listen to student creations over time and provides a variety of ways that students can express themselves through technology."

To further enhance the classroom experience, the school partners with local app developers, which has allowed them to customize apps to allow for greater flexibility. This custom app development serves to "allow personal and highly engaged learning experiences for our students," Lenoir pointed out. "Our 1:1 program has allowed our language teachers to differentiate student lessons and monitor their progress. Students experience a freedom in being able to independently work towards learning goals and projects through the use of this tool."

As an IB World School, GEMS is unique in its curriculum, and the iPad program is a great match for the program. "Our international baccalaureate units of inquiry take our iPads on field experiences all over the city of Chicago. Beyond the walls of the classroom, our iPad program allows students to parents and students to experience the city through the eyes of their child. iPads are our primary tool of investigation and an essential element in allowing our students to express themselves."

The overall student experience has been greatly enhanced by GEM World Academy's iPad program. "With an iPad in each student’s hands, we can differentiate learning experiences and allow freedom to use a variety of apps to create. Students have access to a wealth of resources all curated for their specific grade level, interest, or need. With this level of customization available, students can engage and immerse themselves in learning."

Is your school using technology, ranging from online learning to 1:1 device programs, to enhance the student experience? If so, I want to hear about it. Tell me about it on Twitter, Facebook