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The Changing Classroom in Utah: The Importance of Tracking Technology in Our Schools

Today, we wrap this special series of reports with a look at why tracking technology used by Utah’s students, teachers, and administrators can improve learning.

Salt Lake City, UT (December 3, 2019) – For the last two months, Utah school administrators, technology directors, teachers, and other key staff members have been taking part in an effort to inventory technology in both charter and public schools across the state.

It may sound like a routine part of what school districts must do, but the data gleaned from this work can impact teaching and learning in classrooms for years to come. “Last year, following our second statewide inventory, we learned the number of classrooms connected through digital teaching and learning had risen thanks to increased distribution of computer devices and newer wireless gear,” said Ray Timothy, CEO, Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN). “However, we also found that more work was needed to connect every student to key technologies that will prepare them for an increasingly digital world. This inventory can help us identify gaps and point to areas where we’re seeing improvements—providing opportunities to learn from our successes.”

UETN, in partnership with Connected Nation (CN), is overseeing the technology inventory. The first—completed in 2015—provided initial details on how technology is used in Utah classrooms and the access teachers and students have to digital materials, devices, and platforms.

“Technology now plays such a vital and important role in the world, so we need to teach students how to use tech while being aware that education is about more than just tech,” said Blaine Edman, Administrator of Technology Services, Alpine School District. “We do see there are big differences between kids who have access to technology and those who don’t. But it’s even more complex than that. It’s not just a question of do they have internet and devices at home, but also what kind of environment are they in and what are they doing with the technology? All of these are things we can now track and monitor.”

The process to do so is only getting better. In 2018, UETN and CN were able to capture data from more than 1,000 schools that serve more than 665,000 students across the state during the inventory.

The resulting data set contained more than 100,000 new points of data on the use of technology in Utah K-12 schools—including digital curricula materials, platforms used, and the number and nature of devices used in classrooms. School districts can leverage that information to make impactful changes in the classroom.

The Digital Classroom
Lynn Raymond is Weber County School District’s Director of Technology. The district offices are located in Ogden, where Raymond oversees work to expand technology in the schools—and the approach for how it’s used.

“When I came into the district, the computers were basically centered around the teacher having the tech and then using that technology to engage students in terms of PowerPoints, presentations, those types of things,” he said. “That’s now changed dramatically. The tech is now integrated within student learning. Students are also able to use it to individualize their instruction. They can work from home and access resources to continue their education even after school hours.”

Raymond says there can be a learning curve as technology is integrated into classrooms and new technology emerges—knowing what has worked elsewhere can help. “We have looked at other districts that were having success or failure,” he said. “We quickly learned that you can’t just give the students Chromebooks, but you have to also provide teachers support. So six months before we started distributing Chromebooks, tech services worked with the curriculum department to prepare and train teachers.”

Alyssa Boydston is a sixth-grader at Lomond View Elementary School in Weber County School District where Raymond works. She has never known school without technology in the classroom.

“It’s always been there, but this year we each got our own Chromebooks, so that’s a new thing,” she said. “It’s easier than writing everything down on paper. We can also learn in different ways, multiple choice, short answer, or even draw out different problems and work them out together as a class. Usually we’re just trying to get the best answer and excel at a subject rather than it being like a race to win. We work together and, if we have spare time, we get to go to Nearpod. I like to work on new math problems.”

Nearpod is a student-engagement platform that schools can leverage. It provides ready-to-run, interactive lessons for grades K-12. Compare this experience to that of her teacher, Alan Rhees, and it’s clear Utah’s schools must stay ahead of technology.

“I attended the same school 34 years ago, when we did everything with paper and a pencil, and our teachers used chalk and chalkboards,” said Rhees. “Now, we don’t even have chalkboards in our classrooms at Lomond View. We use smart boards or smart monitors and my class is even able to take VR [virtual reality] field trips. It all makes learning more interactive and more effective.”

Reagan Williams agrees. The third-grade math teacher at Belknap Elementary School in Beaver County teaches around 75 to 80 students every year. Virtually all third-graders finish math lessons before the school year ends, and another 30 to 40 percent are able to move on to even more complicated math programs—that’s where Chromebooks can help. “With these devices, I can move them onto fourth-grade studies; others go even further,” Williams said. “At the same time, it allows me to immediately, in real time, see who is struggling and give them the extra support they need—so every student is truly learning at his or her own level.”

Ryan Fisher teaches both social studies and Career and Technical Education (CTE) Classes, such as welding and woodshop, at Milford High School in Beaver County. He says leveraging the internet and computers makes it possible for teachers to better meet the needs of all students.

“One of the biggest challenges for every teacher is how to help advanced learners, because there are not enough resources available for them,” Fisher said. “Technology has made it possible to go deeper with their education and access programs and resources to allow them to continue learning. On the other end of the spectrum, you can intervene with a student struggling faster than ever before. We use Canvas, and I can look at the grades as they pop up and help a student immediately understand what went wrong and adjust my instruction.”

That ability for personalization is something teachers and administrators emphasize in the Juab School District.

“We’re giving each student a voice and choice in their own learning,” said Ken Rowley, Principal, Juab Junior High School. “Each student sets his or her own personal goals at the start of the year. Because of that approach, they’re incredibly engaged as they try to reach their goals. When we do that it becomes personal and they own it.”

Juab School District recently went one-to-one on iPads for fifth through 12th grades—meaning every student has a device they can take home to do homework and other school projects. There are also hundreds of Chromebooks available for elementary students, and most classrooms have smart boards or Apple TVs and sound systems to assist teachers with instruction.

“We provide all the items to teachers and take time to train them on the technology so they can be even more effective in the classroom,” said Tony Sperry, Technology Director, Juab School District. “This technology can be life-changing for our students. Imagine if they did not have access to it. It impacts everything from applying for colleges to being able to find work. Kids need to develop their technology and computer skills just to take part and compete.”

So what’s next for technology in Utah’s schools? That depends on how school districts address some of the challenges teachers and administrators say they’re seeing.

We’re Only Limited by Our Imagination….and Student Access
A big challenge is lack of internet access once students take devices home. According to Rowley, the Juab Junior High School Principal, about one-third of his students don’t have access to the internet once they leave school.

“It would be nice if we could find more ways to get Wi-Fi into all homes,” he said. “Right now, I see a lot of students in the Wendy’s parking lot just to get access.”

Connecting all people to broadband (high-speed internet) is part of Connected Nation’s mission and why the nonprofit continues to partner with UETN to help track technology in Utah’s schools.

“As a nonprofit, we have worked for nearly two decades to find and implement innovative solutions to expand access to broadband and its related technologies to more families and communities,” said Tom Ferree, Chairman and CEO, CN. “Connecting our schools and, ultimately, more students is a critical part of our mission. Children must have the opportunity to learn how to leverage technology for careers, education, healthcare, and more.”

The technology inventory is a proactive step to identify ways to help students and teachers. “We understand it’s important to continue to track our progress,” said Ray Timothy of UETN. “Connected Nation has shown us it can help facilitate this research and support our teachers and administrators. We have had 100 percent participation in the past two statewide technology inventories—proving that Utah’s school leaders understand how important it is for us to identify where we are doing well and what we must do to better serve our students.”

David Long, Superintendent for the Beaver County School District, agrees the inventory is critical and adds that school districts must look beyond local resources and start trying to connect education globally.

“I think learning is not just on the campus anymore, but it’s everywhere the student goes. So I’ve been very interested in projects that will allow support for off-campus use of these devices,” said Long. “That includes working with the Federal Communications Commission to change some rules. The No. 1 thing myself and other administrators can do right now is petition for Erate funds to be used for more than getting bandwidth to the classroom. We need to have funding that supports mobile learning.”

Rowley says he would also like to see a shift in how technology is viewed when it comes to student learning.

“Tech is changing so fast, so I’m not married to one device. Different kids may learn better with different devices,” he said. “I think it should be internet-based rather than simply device-based, but no matter what we as educators do, I’d never send a student to go learn without technology involved—to do so limits and hinders their progress.”

It’s a statement that teachers across Utah are echoing: Without technology, our students will fall behind.

“I think tech is going to change even more than we realize,” said Rhees. “Right now, we still have some limitations on access or how we can use the devices. I think augmented reality—where students can actually see a place through headsets—are going to enter our classrooms more and more. We’ll still have textbooks and interact with students one-on-one because it will always be important to engage in that way, but there will eventually be a new balance between technology and traditional teaching.”

“If we didn’t have the ability to offer them tech, their opportunities would be much more limited, especially in rural areas,” said Williams. “You know, we don’t have AP classes, but we can offer it through colleges using the technology.”

“We live in the 21st century. We live in a digital environment,” Fisher added. “We’re trying to give the students real-world skills, and if we couldn’t give them the skill of technology, it would hamper their progress.”

The technology inventory is scheduled to be completed on Friday, Nov. 22. A public report is set to be issued in late December 2019.

You can read each article in our November series on technology in Utah classrooms called “The Changing Classroom in Utah” by clicking on the links below.

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