E-books to Chromebooks: Tech is key in Madison County schools’ classrooms
Madison County Schools are rising to the challenge of teaching in a technology-driven society by aiming to produce digitally-proficient and well-rounded students.
“Our goal is to make them digitally-proficient of how to use it and how to make it work for them, not against,” said Superintendent Ronnie McGehee. “Technology is integral to what we do here, not just an add-on.”
For the past five years, the school district has provided Macbooks for students in grades ninth through 12th, and Chromebooks for students in sixth to eighth grade. Students, faculty and staff also have immediate Internet access for their devices as soon as they step foot onto campus.
“We implemented a one-to-one, or what we call one-to-many, approach in our ninth through 12th setting five years ago,” he said. “We’ve supplied Apple laptops to our ninth through 12th grade. After much discussion and debate and research and bringing in stakeholders, we decided to go with the Apple platform as opposed to Microsoft, which is an interesting debate.”
McGehee said this allows students to be exposed to various types of products throughout their years in the school district.
“We want to prepare them for their future, not our past,” he said. “We want them to walk into any institution, any employment and be familiar with any platform.”
He said this is why they do not focus on a particular brand, but on the appropriate activities and instruction.
“We decided that it is more about the activities, not just one product,” he added. “We use technology in the digital world of our young people. We check it each year by having committee meetings with our students and ask the students how we could possibly use it better.”
This allows students, who have grown up in a more technology-focused world, to provide feedback about how teachers could better use technology to engage with them in the classroom.
“It was interesting how it evolved the first year,” McGehee said of the first year the laptops were introduced, and students offered feedback. “The students’ comments were that teachers need to get up to date, the teachers need to be more proactive. It was all about the teacher, teacher, teacher.”
He said the next year it was more about web usage and what the students had access to.
These meetings open a dialogue to find out how to better meet each student’s individual needs. This is especially important for a diverse school district, with students from all backgrounds and up to 26 different languages spoken.
Modern technology allows the district to figure out how to accommodate them all.
“We will use the tech to translate for us, and we have the availability on our website to translate to any language you need,” he said. “That preparation is extremely important.”
“We also ask questions like, ‘When you read, would you rather look at a screen or hold a book?’” he said. “The students’ comments were enlightening.”
McGehee said students preferred a book for personal consumption, but to read for studying and repeating information they found that an electronic option was more appropriate.
“So, what we found is that the technology world that they’re in needs to be developed for their future,” he said. “So, to do that, we talk to them every day about appropriate use of technology.”
Much time is devoted to discerning between research and quality research.
“We show them how to find reliable sources for that online,” he said. “We also spend some time on social media review and to not believe everything that you read.”
He said they show the difference between use of social media and proper use of social media.
“That’s another goal we try to talk to our students about,” he said. “It can be very good or very bad. It can be used for excellent purposes or detrimental purposes.”
It is also important for the district to not only inform the students on proper Internet use and how to determine if a website is credible, but also parents and the community.
McGehee said the district gets calls on occasion about news stories that have surfaced about something going on in the school district, only to find out it was not from their website at all.
“We have to educate our communities to trust our website and not some other website,” he said. “That’s that great balance you have to have on communication.”
As technology use in the classroom becomes more prevalent, some have begun to question if teachers would ever be replaced by computers in the future.
McGehee is adamant that this is not so. He says that technology simply serves as a tool for teachers to greater enhance their lessons and provide hands on opportunities for students. It does not serve as a replacement for teachers’ instruction.
“No, teachers will not be replaced,” he said. “This is a tool to be used by the teacher for instruction for in depth instruction. It allows them to visit places that we could never imagine visiting and create projects that we could never imagine creating in the nontechnology world.”
He said teachers are an integral part of the assessment of the child.
“Is artificial intelligence coming? Yes,” he added. “And every day it gets faster. We feel like you use technology for success and preparation for the future, not the past. As you use it as a tool, it’s more than just research. It’s about creating a project. It’s about creating animation. It’s about creating something that’s doable, adaptable. We create movies. We create commercials. We have a digital media class now that we have evolved into.”
With technology in the school system, anything is possible. McGehee said in Madison County Schools, students are using 3D printing, competing in robotics competitions, doing sales promotions and creating graphics, among so many other things.
“So, we’ve used it in many facets, not just inside the classroom,” he said.
The introduction of new technology has changed how teachers give assignments and how students turn them in.
Of course, direct instruction is the typical way.
However, Canvas - a website that allows teachers to post work and lesson plans – gives students another option for completing and turning in assignments.
“Teachers use Canvas to post work and lesson plans,” he said. “We post our activities for the day, week, month.”
That way, students who are absent are then able to log on to Canvas and complete those assignments.
“I do feel like we’ve generated greater work from the absentee standpoint,” he said. “You don’t miss as much because you’re able to do it remotely.”
Teachers have also taken advantage of Skype to allow students who have had car accidents or long-term illnesses and need to be out of school for some time to be present for lectures and not end up behind.
The district also provides online classes in the summer in the place of summer school.
Some of the work is online, and some of the time is spent one-on-one with the teacher if needed.
“This has been very successful in addressing students’ skills in the summer time,” he said.
While the district provides laptops for students, they only require a $50 fee for insurance in case they are lost, stolen or broken. Assistance is available for those who need it.
“There is a little bit of a charge, but that’s the only charge for everyone to be able to have one,” McGehee said.
Since state testing has now moved online, McGehee said the preparation of using these tools throughout the school year allows students to be better prepared when test time comes.
“We do general overview of typing for better practice for communication,” he said. “The preparation that we do throughout the year is impactful on our performances, because we know how to navigate the mouse, and we know how to click. We go through all of those techniques. We don’t assume that somebody knows how to do that. Using the devices during the year, puts us in the position to successfully use them in assessment times.”
Technology is used throughout the district not only in the classroom, but for the business side of things and connecting with parents.
Considering Internet access and devices, the district spends a little over $2 million a year on technology.
McGehee says the school receives funding in three different ways. The State of Mississippi funds 49 percent of the budget, which includes teacher pay. Madison County citizens fund 50 percent, which is where the technology money comes from. The government funds 1 percent of the budget.
Sometimes it can be difficult to provide high-speed Internet to handle all of these devices going at once. Especially during test time.
However, McGehee said the district is doing everything it can to increase students’ access to Internet.
From the time a student steps onto campus, they have wifi access even from the outside of the buildings. The library and media centers are open first thing each day to allow students who may not have Internet access at home some time to work on assignments.
McGehee said they also keep the library and media centers open for some time after the school day has ended for the same reason.
“Let’s just say, our tech department has grown tremendously in recent years,” he said.