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Sanford schools on verge of new tech revolution

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Posted: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 3:36 pm | Updated: 4:04 pm, Tue Jan 4, 2011.

SANFORD – New technology has stepped front and center in the minds of educators aiming to take advantage of the new digital revolution to further students’ grasp of everything from history to home economics.

Throughout the region, schools are utilizing laptops, netbooks and e-readers to break down the boundaries of education, further students’ breadth and depth of knowledge and maybe even put a little more fun into the process of learning key essentials of a 21st-century education.

These efforts are a glimpse of education’s future, which state educators believe will be free of textbooks and where laptops, e-readers and tablet computers like Apple’s iPad render traditional textbooks obsolete. And that future, which just a few years ago seemed like science fiction, is coming quicker than expected with advances in technology.

In Sanford schools, textbooks are still in the classrooms, but students pick them up less often as technology takes over. Assistant Superintendent David Theoharides said in many cases, students have been using computers as a supplement to their textbooks. For additional help with their algebra homework, for instance, students may be able to visit an algebra website sponsored by the textbook companies. Some of these websites even have an online chalkboard with a teacher’s voice for guidance.

Though technology hasn’t replaced textbooks yet, these online resources may one day help schools save on pricey textbooks that can cost as much as $30 to $40 each.

“I’ve seen a trend around the schools where we send textbooks home less and less,” said Theoharides. “If it’s a way to save some funds and still give students these resources that would be great.”

For help with reading, Sanford schools have yet to turn to e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle, and may not for a while. Because of the lack of funding last year, Sanford schools weren’t able to expand on their technology budgets.

“It got cut quite severely last year as well as federal funding for technology,” said Theoharides.

Joan Wright, technology director for the Sanford School Department, said that the elementary schools are looking at e-readers as a possible budget item for next year, but they hadn’t come to any conclusion about which reader would be most beneficial or if they should just continue to use the “text-to-speech” software available on school computers for students who need reading assistance. At the junior high level, students are assigned a laptop each, which they can also use to access text-to-speech features.

In addition, Wright said, Sanford teachers and administrators have also put themselves back in the classroom so that they can be knowledgeable about the technologies that are out there and decide which ones can best benefit their students.

“A lot of us, including myself, have taken a class called Universal Design for Learning and what that has done has been to provide a wealth of resources that are online for adaptive reading tools,” said Wright.

Going national

Maine’s efforts in modernizing the classroom were recently heralded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who singled out Maine’s technology initiatives at a national conference held in Washington, D.C., in early November.

While announcing the release of a national education technology plan entitled “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology,” Duncan called for “applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement.”

In his remarks, Duncan highlighted Maine as an example of how technology is being used successfully in a way that leverages the power of technology to support continuous and lifelong learning.

Jeff Mao, learning technology director at the Maine Department of Education, is vice chairman of the State Educational Technology Directors Association board of directors, which hosted the November conference. Mao envisions a future where technology plays an even bigger role in the school day.

“I think the idea of digital media replacing traditional textbooks is definitely part of the future,” Mao said last week. “There’s definitely movement in that direction.”

Mao said there are times when books are better, but with the outpouring of new e-readers which realistically mimic the pages of a book and more powerful handheld devices like netbooks, Mao acknowledged a “shift” toward more fully utilizing digital devices that students already have access to through former Gov. Angus King’s laptop initiative begun in 2001. So far, laptop computers have been distributed to all seventh- and eighth-graders and half of Maine’s high-schoolers. Specifically, Mao sees the digital textbooks as a logical next step, one that’s made more feasible by the introduction of new devices such as the iPad and Kindle.

“A few years ago, maybe it wouldn’t have worked so easily, but there is new technology that makes you go, ‘wow, this can really work,’” Mao said.

An avid user of his own new iPad, on which he has already read several books, especially on long business-related flights, Mao sees that once seemed far off is possible now and that the laptop or Kindle can help deliver engaging content in a way educators have only dreamed about.

Mao uses the example of the Battle of Gettysburg to illustrate the difference between traditional and digital textbooks. A paper textbook, he says, is limited in its presentation. There may be a few pictures, a few charts, a few perspectives on the battle. But a digital device could offer that plus embedded links offering curious students an endless supply of Internet sites addressing facets of the battle. It would be the teacher’s or curriculum coordinator’s job to corral the infinite segues into a package presentable on the laptop.

“Here in Maine, we would want to have a special focus on Joshua Chamberlain’s role in the battle,” Mao said. “A textbook might give you a paragraph if you’re lucky, but online content would offer much more, perhaps a map of where Chamberlain was positioned with elevation, where the guns were, where the soldiers were arrayed, perhaps re-creations of the battle in audio, video, interactive live data, blogs. The content could be endless.”

Free content

And all that content could be free, Mao says, which in a cash-strapped budgeting environment could ease the transition for traditionalists. Textbooks, Mao said, can cost $100 or more, and their content can quickly become outdated with new discoveries and advances, not to mention the abuse they can suffer from students. But online educational content, he said, is available sometimes for free. And even if the online content comes with a price, that cost would be primarily for access privileges to content that would grow and conform to mirror new advances, he said.

“It’s funny we’re talking about this because later today in fact, I’m involved in a conference call discussing this concept of open education resources,” Mao said, referring to a nationwide group with which he is involved that for the last year and a half has been scouring the Internet for digital media. He has discovered in that process that schools such as Rice University have a repository of open educational content available mostly for free.

“Yes, you can tap into free content and Maine is the most well-positioned of all the states because of MLTI (Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative) since our students already have the devices. It’s a just a matter of tapping into it,” Mao said.

In addition to the cost savings, Mao also touted the benefits of a single laptop or e-reader that could replace a cumbersome and downright heavy pile of books. One thin laptop or e-reader could replace pounds of paper in other words, which would not only be advantageous for the environment but for students’ backs, as well.

“The benefits of digital media can’t be overstated,” Mao said. “Right now, we’re buying textbooks, right, but what we are really buying is, yes, the intellectual property and the paper and the binding materials used to make that textbook.”

Digital textbooks is something the state is pursuing, not because it wants the latest gadgets, but also because it wants Maine students to succeed, Mao said.

“We are absolutely pursuing digital delivery of content,” Mao said. “Converting to digital content is something that could not only save money but have learning benefits, as well.”

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