Nan Austin

August 13, 2014

Nan Austin: Schools are taking the digital plunge while learning keystrokes

The cutting edge comes with a learning curve in educational technology. But ready or not, here we go into a world where the whiz-bang device isn’t the point. It’s what kids can do with them that matters.

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With the shift to Digital Davis, where every Davis High student has a laptop to use for the year, it seems like a good time to take stock of how well we’re doing overall on the technology curve.

Here are a few thoughts on technology – the learning curve of the cutting edge, if you will.

While many folks think of computers and get a reflexive twitch in their fists, this younger generation never has known floppy disks that opened only until they didn’t or the bone-chilling scream of someone who hit one wrong button and watched hours of work flash and disappear forever.

Take a walk with me through the virtual world the Davis teens will inhabit.

• JOINT PROJECTS: Working together on Google docs is an eerily easy thing. Anyone can create a report, a math table or list and share it with classmates and the teacher. A dozen kids can be writing on the same report or chart at the same time. A little flag with the contributor’s name pops up as the letters type in on everyone’s screen.
• SAVING WORK: Saving is not a separate function, it happens with every keystroke on these. Also, it saves to a virtual “cloud,” which sounds so much more trustworthy than a distant server. The end result is the same, however: Sign on from any device and there it is. If a computer is lost or damaged, the work is still available and untouched.
• ORGANIZING: Remember those homework assignments your child conveniently forgot to copy from the board? No problem. The Davis High teachers have their assignments on a master calendar. Your child should have his teachers’ calendars on his personal list. Bingo, that report is due tomorrow, hotshot – video games go off.
• INSTANT IN: Kids can turn assignments in, literally, at the last minute. Emailed to or shared with the teacher via the cloud, it’s all done in a click, not a car ride. Teachers report an advantage in that the rough draft of reports or the start of math homework already exists, so even late assignments can get partial credit. “There’s not nothing. There’s something there,” was how one teacher put it.
• RESEARCH: If anyone out there has not done a Google search, you owe it to yourself to try. There is an amazing amount of information, especially from universities, museums and government agencies. Also, Google “Google” and get a wealth of search tips. One key thing to know: The top items can be ads, so look at the actual address to get the general drift of where the click will take you.

Now, here are some areas where some improvements could be made.

• TEXTBOOKS: There are some online resources where a blue underline means there’s a link to an in-depth article, or a graph that makes the point more clearly, or a map. Davis students will be clicking on pdf files; that means those are just like the paper books, no helpful links. Hopefully, they will be able to add highlights and bookmarks. Also, some programs allow instant translation or definitions. It would be nice if kids recognized every word, but if not, they can check it out and learn it instantly – no embarrassment or delay necessary.
• DIGITAL LIBRARIES: The Stanislaus Union School District has the best resources I’ve seen so far. Its well-thought-out program gives kids instant access and loops in teachers in selecting new books. Paper is still available. Most districts, including Modesto City Schools, are just exploring the concept. Eventually, county offices of education might help districts share resources.
• STICKING POINTS: Some things are “device agnostic,” which means any computer or phone or tablet can use them. More things across tech industries will hopefully go this way as districts insist on the economies and competitive advantages that gives. Also needing universal application are policies to keep kids’ information private and anti-bullying strategies. Also of concern are keyboarding skills in younger grades, but my money’s on the kids here. I’ve watched tiny fingers speed-text by phone. They’ll be fine.
• PAPER PUNCHING: Here’s a sticking point. Some of the repetitive tasks for school staff remain stuck in the ink-and-dead-trees stage. Reports and files need to be kept on paper, I’m told, which seems counterproductive for a state tracking 6 million students. Also, the Williams Settlement, a landmark decision that mandated at least a basic level of equity for poor schools, needs an update. Davis High had to buy classroom sets in paper of every electronic textbook to satisfy Williams requirements. One day, not all books will even be available in paper.

To sum up, education is rounding the corner from looking at computers as a special topic to learn about, to viewing them as a tool in hand to learn with. There will be glitches and twitches aplenty, and purchases need to be made with reflection and care.

It reminds me of the switch from slide rules to calculators. I felt so cool being one of the few nerdy high schoolers who could use a slide rule with ease, then came calculators and it all became so ordinary. Anyone could do it.

Now I use Excel and am learning pivot tables – nerd to the end.

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