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Gadgets make learning more individualized

December 24, 2012
Kylie Saari , Fairmont Sentinel

FAIRMONT - A quick look into classrooms at Fairmont Elementary School reveals just how much technology has changed the way students learn.

Kids can be seen sitting cross-legged on the floor in front a Smart Board while their teacher moves animated shapes around; or students lie on their stomachs in small groups working on tablet computers; or they blog on Kindles about the novel they just read.

Teachers no longer teach in exactly the same way to every student. Regular testing and assessments have given educators better insight into each student's level of understanding on given topics. Teachers can correct misunderstandings quickly, or challenge students who firmly grasp the material.

Four major technologies are currently implemented at the elementary level, allowing teachers to further customize curriculum to students.

The newest addition is 30 iPads, divided into sets of five for teachers to use at stations during the day. "Stations" refers to a teaching time in which the students are broken up into small groups to rotate through a variety of activities.

Principal Jim Davison said the iPads, which teachers began using last month, are used for educational apps, taking Accelerated Reader Tests and for practicing spelling.

The iPads are only used in fifth-grade classrooms, but other grade levels are requesting them. The district cannot afford purchasing more classroom sets of the devices, but sharing among grade levels is a possibility.

Another portable device implemented in the fifth-grade classroom is Kindle, the electronic book reader. The district purchased two classroom sets of the e-readers. They are rotated through classrooms when students are reading specific novels. Davison said the devices are cheaper to use than ordering a book for each student, since downloading a book costs less, and the Kindles don't get torn or worn out.

In addition, adjustable font size and other options make it easier for some students.

"We are also teaching the kids current technology," Davison said, "Although, I gotta be honest, sometimes they are teaching us."

One of the benefits of using e-readers, according to Davison, is the ability to download the same non-fiction content at different reading levels. Students studying the Constitution, for example, can read independently on the subject at a level sufficient to understand the critical information, while being challenged to improve their reading.

Technology has been a focus of the district in recent years, as each freshmen class is given computers to use during its time at Fairmont Area Schools. All the new devices at the high school, and now the elementary school, revealed the district had some upgrading to do to its systems, which is now mostly complete.

"The Wi-Fi has had some growing pains," said technology coordinator Bill Vader. "The problems weren't noticeable with incidental use."

Vader said the Kindles are more challenging to implement districtwide than for just personal use, because there are many accounts to manage. In addition, each iPad and Kindle had to be programmed for safe use by children, as they have access to the Internet.

Davison said they want students to be able to use the Internet connection on the devices for blogging about the books they are reading. Teachers may ask a series of questions about a book. The student blogs in response. This is similar to how computers at the high school are being used - teachers and students assign and return assignments without a single paper printed out.

Using Kindles and iPads at the fifth-grade level is a strategic move by administrators, who believe training an entire grade level of teachers at once is best practice.

Two other technologies are being used more broadly at the school, one a fixture in most classrooms and the other a resource for students both struggling and advanced.

Smart Boards look like white boards, and are written on with markers in much the same way. But these boards are connected to the teacher's computer and are essentially large touch screens, allowing students to physically manipulate images on them.

"It is invaluable to that kid who maybe is looking away to get up there and move things around on the board," Vader said.

All classrooms in kindergarten through sixth grade are equipped with the boards, along with the intervention rooms and the Early Childhood Special Education room.

The fourth technology, being used in the elementary, is a website called "Khan Academy." It is described as a not-for-profit entity with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Essentially, Khan Academy offers videos of people explaining topics in subjects as varied as math and science, to humanities and computers. Along with the videos, which students can watch again and again until they understand, the site offers problems that students can work through to determine if they truly understand the concepts.

Fairmont has two advanced math students who spend their math class time working on pre-algebra through Khan Academy. The teacher assigns them work and assesses them.

Another use is for students struggling with a topic. The teacher can assign a Khan Academy video, which may explain things in a slightly different way in order to help the student.

"It is a wonderful tool," Davison said.

It may seem like a lot more work for teachers to prepare to educate students in such an individual and technological way. At first, it is, according to Davison.

"Just like anything new," he said, "It is work at the beginning. But as time progresses and they get more familiar with it, it will get easier."

One reason it is easier is because students are so familiar with the technology already.

Vader noted that given all the technology offered, it may seem like students have their faces to a screen most of the day, but that really isn't the case.

"They are looking at screens much of the day," he said, "but it isn't the majority of the day."



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