The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 9, 2012

Technology will generate benefits and challenges for schools

With 20 percent of American school children attending rural schools, access to computers and high speed Internet at home is becoming a necessity for students out-of-reach of public libraries and public computer labs.

Many state school departments currently offer tutoring or other support services for students online.

The West Virginia Department of Education, for instance, offers West Virginia Virtual School, allowing students to take online courses that are not offered at their home school. Learn21 allows students to use interactive games, virtual field trips and video lessons for core subjects.

By Fall 2013, however, technology will far exceed additional courses and practice lessons; students will begin to learn via downloadable, electronic textbooks.

The state has mandated a downloadable textbook adoption for social studies students during the 2013-14 school year.

This mandate comes on the heels of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Education Efficiency Audit in which Public Works recommended West Virginia public schools provide students more online access and improve technology integration in the classroom.

Many educators see this as the next major step in integrating technology into the classroom.

But others are concerned about students from all socio-economic backgrounds having equal access.

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, has concerns about implementing this next step.

“In my opinion, it is too early to make this move across the entire state. If we don’t address the broadband problems many of our rural communities have, how can we expect students to have equal access?” he asked.

He also raised concerns about students who do not have a reliable or portable computer in their household.

In February, McDowell County Schools announced a new initiative called “Reinventing McDowell” to help build infrastructure and bring high speed Internet to the county.

Then-superintendent of McDowell County Schools James Brown said the school board had invested $2 million in giving their schools the capacity to support technology; however, the county-wide network would not support the system.

During a Digital Learning Day podcast in February, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan indicated Internet availability and affordability is a major concern as technology and education are integrated.

Duncan added that while digital learning is becoming more and more necessary, “we don’t want to increase the economic divide.”

Joey Wiseman, social studies coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education, stated that counties will have a variety of option as they adopt new materials and a totally digital curriculum will be one of several options.

“With electronic resources and an increasing number of computers in the classroom, many teachers across the state already use digital resources in their classroom instead of a traditional textbook,” he said.

Mary Ann Foster, technology specialist for Raleigh County Schools said that while the county will move to some downloadable social studies books, they will provide some sort of print option for students, but their integration plan for the county is not yet set.

If students, for instance, only have a desktop at home, there may be print books to check out at the school location. But these are all things that have to be figured out after the district receives review copies of state curriculum, she said.

Foster said there are also issues of how schools will fund technology integration specialists for each school and what kind of support service employees will be needed, not to mention the need to maintain equipment and up-to-date technologies.

While it’s too early to work out the kinks in the technology integration awaiting schools across the state, Wiseman points out this move is necessary. The wide variety of digital materials available to teachers and students “should help our students be prepared for college, careers, and citizenship,” he said.

“Social studies lends itself perfectly to supporting a totally digital curriculum,” he added. “There are an abundance of primary and secondary sources that are perfect to use in teaching social studies and inquiry based instruction. Students can locate true accounts of various events in history in addition to the availability of pictures, video clips, and a wide variety of artifacts. Global Information Systems are perfect in teaching the use maps, graphs, charts, location, and other various data.”

Alma Simpson, coordinator of instruction resources with the state office of instruction, added that with new interactive digital resources, content can be updated as events happen. In other words, the information students have at their fingertips will be current, and outdated textbooks will be a thing of the past.

“And electronic resources can personalize learning, motivate even the most reluctant student, and increase student engagement,” she added.

Coming Friday: How schools are fighting the obesity epidemic.

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