It's been a little more than a semester since the Jefferson City Public Schools and Blair Oaks R-2 districts greatly expanded students' digital access by providing Google Chromebooks, and the technology initiatives have fundamentally changed some aspects of education.
Chromebooks are thin laptops designed primarily as gateways to the internet — light on physical features and loaded with software meant to be used while connected to the internet.
Elementary and middle school students use their devices during the school day, while high school students can take theirs home. The device expansion in each district was rolled out in different ways.
High school students in Jefferson City already had devices of their own before this school year, and the district's classroom technology initiative put a Chromebook at the fingertips of every middle-schooler and for every two elementary students.
Blair Oaks already had Apple iPads for kindergartners and some first-graders to use. A ratio of one Chromebook per student was achieved this year on the middle and high school levels. Superintendent Jim Jones said about 50 Chromebooks were purchased for the elementary grades, and the student-to-device ratio on the middle school level had already been about 2-to-1.
"I don't think we thought it would go this smoothly," Blair Oaks High School Principal Melinda Aholt said at the Board of Education meeting in December. "Now, we're here saying this is really enhancing education — again, not to take away from our teachers, because they are the ones creating the great activities and lessons," Aholt added.
The educational enhancement has happened in key areas including how students engage with information, how teachers and parents can be more efficient or involved with that engagement and testing.
"They're able to collaborate a lot more," Simonsen 9th Grade Center Principal Ben Meldrum said Wednesday of students' abilities with Chromebooks. All Simonsen students had iPads last year, but they were issued Chromebooks this year.
JCPS Director of Technology Joe Martin told the district's Board of Education over the summer that while some older high school students still have iPads, in the 2018-19 school year they would switch from iPads to Chromebooks to provide a consistent platform across the school.
Martin said Wednesday that Simonsen was used this year as a test site to make sure there weren't any major technical issues with the switch from iPads to Chromebooks, before other high school students and teachers get them.
"You can produce and show your learning easier" on a Chromebook, compared to simply consuming information on an iPad, Meldrum said.
Martin said the Chromebooks have proven to be more user-friendly for English students when it comes to typing papers; students previously had to check out laptops to do that.
"In August, you ran to the library so that you could block out the weeks that you wanted to go and do your research paper and have your students type their paper for their big project that would be in the second semester," Blair Oaks Middle School Principal Don Jeffries said in December.
Now, students can do their research in class on their devices and produce a short or long research piece "within the hour or within the week," Jeffries told the board.
"I know that doesn't seem like a whole lot, but it was moving mountains to do that kind of thing a decade ago," he said.
Jefferson City Academic Center Principal Deanne Fisher said another benefit is teachers can provide immediate and detailed feedback to students on their work.
Technology has opened new opportunities for teachers in how to present students with information, too.
Jeffries talked about a free app called Newsela.
"Basically, you take a news article. There's five versions of it, and now you can talk about the same topic with your class, and at that reading level of every student in that class. You can shoot that out at your students, and everyone has no idea which version the other students are reading. And now they're able to talk about a world topic — something maybe from history — and it's at a level at which they can comprehend it."
Blair Oaks Elementary School Principal Kim Rodriguez told the board in December how another free app, Seesaw, is digitally involving students' parents and guardians in their children's classroom experiences.
"It's almost like Facebook for kids, but it's blocked so just the parents have access in that class. Kiddos can post videos, things that they're learning, or post pictures," Rodriguez said.
"As a parent, on the outside, you're really part of what's going on in the classroom," she said.
Teachers have to approve all posts and any comments that come back from parents before anything is visible, she added.
Content filtering is something both districts have said they're conscious of.
"We're able to get a lot more granular" with what students can and can't see on the Chromebooks, given a combination of a content filter and the Google Admin console app, Martin said.
"The filter is not about trying to stop kids from looking at certain things, even though there is some inappropriate material they may be able to get to if it wasn't filtered," Jones said in December. He explained a lot of the filtering Blair Oaks does has to do with being mindful of the district's limited overall wireless network capacity — particularly when it comes to streaming video or music. "That's taking bandwidth," he said.
Meldrum said it's easier to monitor students' testing now, too.
"The issues we've had with testing is night and day" different, in a good way, Martin said.
"What used to take sometimes up to a month, maybe six weeks of testing, we're going to get it done in just a few days for all of our buildings," Aholt said of administering standardized testing.
"To be able to have all (students) test at one time is a game-changer," given the previous limitations of only so many computer labs to handle students' testing schedules, Jeffries said.
These are only some of the ways local education has quickly evolved through expanded classroom technology.
Fisher also cited using "considerably less" paper — two orders a year now compared to four to six previously.
Jeffries mentioned fifth-graders have a new online social studies text they can use at home.
Aholt talked about a choir teacher giving students recordings of their vocal parts to practice at home.
"I really wasn't sure what one-to-one looked like," Aholt said, but having experienced it, she added, "this one-to-one has been transformational, and I have been in education for 22 years. This is something that I'm like 'OK, I have bought in.'"
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