Beardmore Public School, in a small community east of Ontario’s Lake Nipigon, may be geographically remote, but thanks to new technology, it’s far from isolated. Students at our regional schools use iPads, Internet-powered apps and other tech tools to connect with faraway peers and learn in new ways.
Step into Mrs. Terri Harings’ fourth-grade classroom at Lake Superior Elementary in Superior, Wisconsin, and you’ll see rows of pint-sized desks, stacks of art supplies, colorful bulletin boards and bookshelves and chattering children – the hallmarks of an elementary school class.
Take a seat, off to the side, and you’ll witness something less familiar.
At the front of the classroom, Terri poses a question, which is then projected onto a screen. Not a hand is raised. Instead, the kids grab cellphone-sized devices, orange and white with a small screen and keyboard. Their heads bow, and the only sound is the click-clacking of buttons.
Terri doesn’t seem concerned, and in a few moments she has not one answer but a dozen on the computer beside her.
It’s no surprise that new technology is showing up inside classrooms from universities down to elementary schools. In the Lake Superior region, teachers use these advances to take students beyond the classroom, connecting to the region and to the world as never before.
The small electronic devices clutched in the kids’ hands in Terri’s classroom are part of what’s called the ActivExpression student response system. It’s just one of the new tools in our region’s modern-day classrooms.
For the teacher, this system gives real-time feedback on the students: Who’s struggling, who’s breezing through and which kids might be having difficulty.
“And it’s a tech device, so it’s engaging,” Terri says. Every parent whose gadgets have been co-opted and quickly mastered by a child can attest to the fascination.
“Clickers” like those in Terri’s class are standard equipment in college lecture halls; professors use them for quizzes, feedback and attendance.
That and other technology has trickled down to the earliest grade levels, where students swipe, tap, type and tweet with an easy familiarity. These children, after all, never knew a world without smartphones, laptops or the Internet.
In Terri’s class, one final question pops up on the screen: “If you could tell Mr. Bencomo something about learning with technology at school, what would you say?”
Terri brings up some of the answers:
“I learned how to code.”
“Helps me concentrate.”
“Helps me learn.”
“Lets me go at my own pace.”
All good answers, plus, it’s clearly a fun way to participate. In part, that’s why school districts across the region are investing in technology and creating new positions like Terri’s. One day a week, she leaves her class in a capable substitute’s hands while she works as Lake Superior Elementary’s tech coach.
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Phil Bencomo / Lake Superior Magazine
Texting in class? Sort of. Students now utilize handheld devices during class – verboten not so many years ago – to answer questions and reinforce their learning. Says Terri Harings, a fourth-grade teacher and the building tech coach at Lake Superior Elementary in Superior, “You’re actually deepening the lesson ... in a way that I can’t just do with pen and paper.”
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Phil Bencomo / Lake Superior Magazine
Terri and her students say they adore the ActivExpression question-and-answer system. It’s engaging for the kids, and Terri can analyze the classwide results in real time and adjust lessons accordingly.
Terri’s own interest in tech grew out of keeping tabs on her teenage daughters’ social media activities “and I just fell in love with Twitter,” she admits.
Her fourth-grade class now has its own “@MrsHaringsClass” account, where the students share photos with other classes in the region and learn to condense lessons into concise messages. (Each “tweet” can be no longer than 140 characters.) It’s also a good way to teach digital safety and “netiquette.”
“I tried to think content areas,” Terri says of adapting assignments for the 21st century. “Like, what will work for kids with writing? So we blog. What will work with kids for … higher-order thinking, like summarizing my learning? Well, that’s Twitter. … And then all along the way you’re kind of building in those tech skills to support the learning.”
Keeping up with the tech-savvy kids – whether her daughters or her students – can be daunting. “But learning is messy. … So if you have somebody willing to take a risk…”
In northwestern Ontario, one of those risk-taking teachers was Stacey Wallwin, a former classroom teacher from Terrace Bay. She was hired three years ago as the Superior-Greenstone district e-learning contact – someone who facilitates tech integration and initiatives. Like Terri, Stacey didn’t have a technical background, but was willing to embrace the new tools and career opportunity.
For small Ontario communities like Marathon, Nipigon and Terrace Bay, technology and access to the Internet means much more than new ways to learn.
“We’re very remote,” Stacey says. “We have very unique learning needs in terms of our geographic locations and our inability to sort of have conversations and have those excursions and have those opportunities that students in larger centers have.”
A field trip to Ottawa might be simple for students in southern Ontario, but Terrace Bay is 1,300 kilometres from the Canadian capital. With each passing year, though, that distance means less and less.
“When you put technology into the hands of these students, those physical barriers begin to break down very quickly,” Stacey says.
“We can go and engage with somebody through Skype who can take us on a tour, or we can use the Google Maps to take a virtual tour of the Parliament buildings. We can’t get to Ottawa, but we can have a fairly similar experience where we gain just as much knowledge.”
Students in Stacey’s district have talked with the captain of a Great Lakes freighter – a connection they made on Twitter – and they’ve practiced math with kids from New Zealand over the Internet.
“And so now you’re bringing the world to your doorstep, to your classroom,” she says.
Because many of the new learning opportunities depend on the Internet, some communities’ lack of broadband connectivity has been a barrier. Though progress has been made, much work still remains on both the U.S. and Canadian shores.
Terri works with the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s Broadband and E-Commerce Center to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas via grants and public-private partnerships.
“I always feel like I have this, yes, I’m an educator, but I have this civic responsibility to fight for broadband,” she says, and not just in schools. “As we’re using technology more and more, we want it to be cheap enough for parents so kids can extend the learning.”
2010’s Broadband Initiatives Program provided U.S. federal grants and low-interest loans for the development of broadband networks in, among other places, rural counties in the Lake Superior region. (Minnesota’s Lake County received one of the largest packages.)
In rural areas, access to broadband means access to a fully modern education, one of streaming video and speedy downloads. Stacey says she’s seen too many engaging lessons hamstrung by a balky connection.
“We’re trying to budget for it, but it’s extremely expensive, given our remote location and the physical terrain,” says Stacey of broadband efforts in northwestern Ontario, where some areas still have spotty cellphone service. “We’re going to have to work on building partnerships.”
That hasn’t been the only hurdle. Even with tech coaches and continuing education programs, classroom teachers and library professionals have, at times, struggled to adapt to the rapid changes. Budgets also limit how swiftly new tech can be adopted.
“But we have grown leaps and bounds in terms of having our fellow educators embrace it and try new things,” says Stacey. “And what they’re doing is they’re modeling the lifelong learning that we want for our students.”
Both Terri and Stacey are quick to point out that technology – like iPads, laptops and social media – is not pedagogy.
“It’s not going to replace our teachers,” Stacey says. “It just supports your teaching skills, and it certainly enhances the experience for the students themselves.”
That kind of integration is a significant change from even just a decade ago, when technology was merely tangential to everyday classroom life, encountered once a day in computer class or the library. Terri’s fourth-graders are just as likely to pin something on a Pinterest board as on a physical bulletin board.
“When you take kids out to a computer lab,” Stacey says, “you are making a very specific acknowledgement that, OK, now we’re using technology. But you don’t take kids out to the pencil lab. You just pick up your pencil and away you go. And that’s what we want to achieve with the use of technology. That it’s as mundane as picking up a pencil.”
Valerie Clark / College of St. Scholastica
Sophie Zwak, guided by College of St. Scholastica Professor Jennifer Rosato, uses software called App Inventor to build an application. She has twice attended the tech camp for girls at the Duluth school.
For a 21st-century student, even computer science is shedding its impenetrability. Students at Lake Superior Elementary learn the basics of coding as early as fourth grade.
Jennifer Rosato, an assistant professor of computer information systems at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, organizes summer coding camps at St. Scholastica for girls ages 10 to 14. Through a CS4HS (Computer Science for High School) grant from Google, she trains local educators in the basics of app development, using kid-friendly tools that they can bring into the classroom, like App Inventor and Scratch.
The College Board, an organization that helps students prepare for college through programs such as the SAT, is developing a new advanced placement course, Computer Science Principles, which should better prepare high school students for university courses and careers in the tech industry. Jennifer trains teachers for that offering, too.
“Kids love creating apps,” Jennifer says, but too few are introduced to it at a formative young age, even as demand for tech workers grows. Kids know what a doctor does, for example, but careers like software engineering remain opaque to many.
“So having it at a K-12 level really helps. It’s just as important as math and the other sciences.”
Not all kids are tech interested, of course. “My lovely daughter, who’s 14, has been to these tech camps for years and years and is sick of it,” Jennifer says. “My boyfriend’s daughter loves it and makes apps on her own. If they’re at least exposed to it, I’ve done my job.”
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, jobs in high-tech industries like web and app development, information security, environmental engineering and medical technology will see significant growth in coming years. Providing access to and fostering an interest in tech in local youngsters will benefit the entire region later, educators hope, as the kids grow into the industry leaders of tomorrow.
Before you leave Terri’s classroom, members of the fourth-grade Geek Squad club dash over, wearing blue Geek Squad shirts that bear their techie nicknames.
If you look closely as Digital Dylan and Hashtag Hannah and the others eagerly tell you about the websites they’ve built and apps they’ve coded, you’ll catch a glimpse of our region’s future.