Learning technologically

June 21, 2013

Bluffton-Harrison schools complete first year with iPads

By CHET BAUMGARTNER
Bluffton High School math teacher Josh Clark stands in front of the SMARTboard, teaching another lesson on remedial math, when a student has a question.
But he doesn’t raise his hand.
He rewinds.
With a flick of a finger, he returns to the beginning of the lesson, while sitting in his living room, or perhaps at the kitchen table.
On another day, a student in English teacher Cathy Micklitsch’s class confronts a vocabulary word she doesn’t know while reading her textbook.
But she doesn’t reach for a dictionary; she clicks on a link, and several sentences that use the word appear nearby.
Throughout the 2012-2013 school year, teachers and students in Bluffton-Harrison’s three schools have used iPads to digitally redefine the classroom, redefine homework and even redefine learning, administrators say.
After finishing their first school year using the devices, they redefined administrators’ expectations.
“Teachers have exceeded the bar,” Superintendent Wayne Barker. “They very much blew me away.”
On Monday, March 20, 2012, members of the Bluffton-Harrison school board approved giving iPads to every student — 16-gigabyte units for students in kindergarten through fourth grade and 32-gigabyte units for students in high school.
At the time, officials with the Indiana Department of Education said they didn’t know of any other district that distributed them to every student.
“It was our hope (to) fully immerse everybody in our district in that technology because we think it’s better,” Barker said during the March 20 school board meeting. “I will tell you this: I think we’re ending up with the best student learning device possible.”
Ultimately, Barker said, he wanted staff and students to use iPads to create flexible curriculum with interactive content not necessarily tethered to textbooks, and he wanted students to take charge of their own learning and explore the Internet for resources outside the school building.
He and the principals, however, didn’t dictate how thoroughly teachers needed to infuse their lessons with their iPads.
He apparently didn’t need to.

BREAKING DOWN CLASSROOM WALLS
In previous years, the teachers used classroom time for instruction, videos, demonstrations and similar activities; students would then recall and try to apply what they learned through homework.
Starting this year, though, they essentially recreated their class activities — particularly instruction time — through narrated lessons on videos complemented with digital notes and examples, like what teachers would write on chalkboards.
Meanwhile, when students enter the physical classroom during the school day, they do their homework while the teachers provide specific assistance.
Five teachers this past year used their iPads to create these “flipped classrooms.”
Students in the flipped classes who struggled with one concept couldn’t advance to the next lesson until they adequately passed a test, but students who could continue didn’t need to wait on their peers.
“A kid is not bored because he’s not waiting for another student,” Bluffton High School Principal Steve Baker said. “It’s all individualized.”
“This allowed every kid to go at their own pace but reach the same end,” said Bluffton Middle School Assistant Principal Rick Mettler.
Elementary teachers also use iPad apps, or downloadable programs, to refine their lessons and goals and tailor them to students’ abilities.
Even when students miss school, they don’t need to fall behind.
Bluffton High School English teacher Jackie Chaney worked with students from home through the app iMessage. Journalism and English teacher Erin Schantz used an app called Facetime to digitally connect her classroom and students with a student temporarily bedridden.
“With her iPad, (the student) was right there in the class,” Baker said.
PUTTING AWAY
THE WORKSHEETS
Martin Luther was just about to nail his 95 theses inside high school social studies teacher Brent Kunkel’s classroom when Tony Bennett, the state’s former superintendent of public instruction, walked through his door.
He didn’t come, though, to learn about Luther or the Catholic church. He wanted to see how teachers and students used the iPads.
As Bennett navigated to the back and stood next to a map of Europe, Kunkel asked his students to stop taking notes on their iPads and instead use them to critique the high school handbook’s policies and post their own suggestions — or theses — on a Twitter account.
Bennett later talked to then-senior Gina Eisenhut, who told Bennett that she had recorded her vocabulary words into her device. She then activated an application that tested her on those words.
If she spelled it incorrectly, the iPad would say “Sorry.”
If she spelled it correctly, the device cheered.
Through iPads, Mettler said, students can now “touch” and “feel” their assignments — interacting with their lessons through links, multimedia and apps.
Students who learn best by listening can use apps similar to Eisenhut’s; the visual learners can watch videos to complement a section in their textbooks, such as in Micklitsch’s class.
“It was a full-built unit within the chapter,” Mettler said.
Elementary students who learn by doing can activate the “Magnetic Letters” app, and then they can use their fingers to select letters on the iPad screen and drag and drop them onto a digital chalkboard until they form complete words.
“It was much easier to get students to participate this year,” Baker said. “It was fun.”
Baker said one student reading the novel “Beowulf” even created a 10-minute movie as part of her homework, while the middle school digital productions class has taught students how to use multimedia to complete their assignments, Mettler said.
“Their creativity has blown up,” he said.
READING, WRITING,
’RITHMETIC AND MORE
When Baker taught math, he taught according to the chapter in front of him.
Teachers now teach according to standards — both statewide and nationwide — and the iPads take the World Wide Web’s resources, as well as traditional textbook pages, and combine them to help students achieve those standards, Baker said.
“(Teachers) say this is the standard we’re working on, not the chapter we’re working on,” he said.
“When we’re testing for ISTEP, we’re not testing for what’s in the McGraw-Hill textbook,” Barker said at the March 20 meeting. “What we need to do is create curriculum that aligns with those standards ... and then assess throughout the year where we’re doing a good job and where we’re not.”
High school math teacher Kevin Leising, for instance, created videos chronicling each remediation skill for the end-of-course assessments, which measure students based on standards.
REDEFINING
THE FUTURE
Bluffton-Harrison school board members in May approved spending about $14,000 for technology that can block websites on students’ iPads anywhere and allow teachers to collaborate with one another virtually anywhere.
By contracting with the California-based Lightspeed Systems, Bluffton-Harrison can now incorporate the company’s more extensive filters and its “My Big Campus” software, an online “reservoir” where teachers can share and modify curriculum, lesson handouts and similar documents, District Technology Director Scott Ribich said.
Lightspeed’s filters will also start blocking websites beyond the school walls at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year — an upgrade its current system cannot do, Ribich said.
He said the district’s filters will not extend to other household devices, just students’ iPads, and should not noticeably decrease download speeds.
He also said the district can adjust the filters to block inappropriate sites all the time but block other sites — such as Twitter or Facebook — only during the school day.
The technology staff can also block certain apps and functions — even the iPad’s camera — on individual student’s devices if that student abuses it.
“As long as we keep an open line of communication with parents (and) work together ... we’re able to do different things to help,” Mettler said.
Along with the filters, Ribich said teachers can use My Big Campus to sort lessons by the number of downloads, and they can also rank the lessons by peer-based ratings, said Brad Yates, the district’s business manager and transportation director.
“I can modify it, make it better and put it back out there,” Yates said. “Instead of just passing around that worksheet that you found, that worksheet is now inside the Internet. It’s just in a different medium.”
With My Big Campus, teachers will not need to grade documents and enter the scores into grade books separately; instead, they can use the software to do both instantaneously.
Students, meanwhile, can instantly upload their homework to teachers instead of e-mailing them and take tests directly through My Big Campus, and Yates said he thinks parents can more intuitively navigate its aesthetics to find lessons, classroom agendas and similar documents.
Yates said the district’s current connectivity platform, Moodle, only allows teachers to unite digitally within the district. About 60 percent of Indiana schools use My Big Campus, and Ribich said teachers could connect with other campus users anywhere.
About 26 schools have visited Bluffton schools during the 2012-2013 school year to learn from Bluffton’s teachers.
Bluffton administrators, however, hope to reach even more this summer and beyond.
Bluffton teachers attended two days of professional training to learn My Big Campus, as part of a $100,000 Indiana Department of Education grant the district received earlier this year.
But Bluffton-Harrison will also use grant revenue to pay teachers to create digital curriculum, train other teachers from other districts to create digital curriculum, or both for the 2013-2014 school year.
Ultimately, the administrators agreed, the iPads are only as strong as the teachers and students who use them. υ

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