Nan Austin

On Campus: Google me this, Batman – the tech transformation

The key to the technology revolution in schools is for students – such as fifth-graders Juliana Jaramillo, left, and Ximena Paredes of Salida Elementary School in Salida – to learn how to use the digital resources at their fingertips.
The key to the technology revolution in schools is for students – such as fifth-graders Juliana Jaramillo, left, and Ximena Paredes of Salida Elementary School in Salida – to learn how to use the digital resources at their fingertips.

My last column dug into classrooms’ shift to using computers. This one tackles what technology changes about how students work and what they learn.

The change is not as fundamental as moving from problems on chalkboards to everyone having textbooks, but there are parallels. First, there is a fairness in everyone having access to the same educational resources. Not every school has a top-notch library or even up-to-date textbooks, but a great many reference materials are available online for free.

Not every teacher has expertise in everything, but what they can find and share online grows exponentially every year. California has been cataloging and evaluating online resources since 1999 through the Modesto-based California Learning Resource Network. Its funding ended in June, but the Stanislaus County Office of Education hosts its website to keep its archive of materials available.

With Common Core, national services do much of the same work. The nonprofit CK-12 provides a wealth of free teaching materials for sciences and math.

Even traditional textbooks increasingly have digital editions and enhanced study materials online for those using paper books.

Home Internet connections are an issue for schools longing to put their heads in the cloud. Schools need to factor in teaching students what is called digital citizenship, training teachers to use technology well, building in industrial-strength bandwidth and putting all manner of safeguards in place.

But once past the roadblocks, the detours and the budget crunching, here is a taste of what lies beyond:

First, Google has earned its place in history as a verb. Most know it as a simple search engine, but here are some other things to try. Type in a word of which you are not sure of the spelling or exact meaning, and a basic dictionary-style entry will pop up.

Type “synonyms: (word)” to mimic a cheap thesaurus or what you remember of a phrase to pull up quotations. Use an asterisk for a missing word and suggestions will appear. Type “convert 70 cm to inches” and the answer will pop up. Calculate basic math functions. Get state capitals. Google “Google tips and tricks” and it will tell you so many more.

Improve your searches with pluses such as the minus sign: “Jaguar -car” brings up the animal and the Jacksonville football team, not the high-end roadster. Search for “jaguar” and only sites with domain .edu names, such as universities and the Smithsonian, will pop up.

At Davis High, where students were all issued Chromebooks in August, new immigrants working in teams could instantly translate their different languages using the Google Translate function. The phrasing sounds odd sometimes, but it gets the message across. They also used Google Earth, satellite photos and street-level views within its mapping software, to show their hometowns – even their former homes – to classmates.

On any search, click on the word “images” in the line across the top and a page of pictures of the person, place or thing will appear. I found this really useful when pondering a replacement sliding door – who knew there were so many options? Click on “search tools” along the top line and filter the images shown by color, type, even usage rights.

Type “England” and a box with a map of England and basic country facts will appear on the right. Click on “images” and a map, the Union Jack, a montage of London photos and scenery will appear across the top. Below will be lots of popular English places and photos. Click on “news” and the latest headlines will appear. Click on “map,” type in “Stonehenge,” and check out the street view to be right in the middle of the historic site.

On election night, I followed one congressional race that crossed 10 counties. We used to have to call every county office. That night, Google had results up instantly. For the record, I used official results from the California Secretary of State’s website, but it took digging to find them.

Google apps for education expand on all that, offering its free Gmail addresses tailored to school districts. Each email address comes with a cloud-based document file called Google Drive. Those word-processing pages or spreadsheets live on servers, which means I can type on a group assignment on my computer at the same time as you type on the same page from your computer. We both see each other typing and it is saved instantly – no more computer crashes where everything is lost.

Calendars can be shared with the class and parents, showing every assignment’s due date. Teachers also can share a page with details on each assignment and links to helpful websites or how-to videos.

To be sure, kids still need to know the basics. The “garbage in, garbage out” principle matters more now than ever.

But the endless memorizing of state capitals is pointless. Knowing what capital cities do, or how they came to be where they are (why Sacramento, not Los Angeles?) would be a far better use of teaching time.

Multiplication tables, how to figure 5 percent in your head and other math skills still need to be understood. But when a spreadsheet can multiply, divide or figure percentages for columns of figures in an instant, it is clear that speedy math is not where the jobs are.

The key is to know how to use what now sits at the fingertips. That is the real tech revolution in schools.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.