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With new year, most schools add tech to classes

Recorder/Paul Franz
Teachers at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School get a crash course in iPads that will be used to teach the middle school students there this semester.

Recorder/Paul Franz Teachers at the Stoneleigh-Burnham School get a crash course in iPads that will be used to teach the middle school students there this semester. Purchase photo reprints »

When Stoneleigh-Burnham School seventh and eighth graders went shopping for back-to-school supplies this year, they picked up new notebooks, pencils, pens — and an iPad.

The Greenfield-based preparatory school for girls is requiring all incoming middle school students to buy a tablet device and bring it to school — part of an effort to reduce the use of large paper textbooks and bring advanced technology into the classroom.

For many in Franklin County, today marks the beginning of a new school year. And while certainly not all students are required or even allowed to bring in their own devices, the march to a fully equipped technological classroom is happening at all of the areas’ public and private schools — albeit at slightly different speeds.

At Stoneleigh-Burnham, the days of students carrying backpacks that weigh as much as they do are over, said Tod Pleasant, the school’s director of technology.

The students will access textbooks on their tablet devices. And the reams of paper reference materials that teachers print out, and which students may only look at once or twice, will be replaced by PDF files, he said.

“Digital editions can be updated much more frequently. It makes it almost a living document in some ways,” said Pleasant. “We’re trying to keep up with the culture and allow (students to use) the devices they’ll be using in college.”

To support the program, Pleasant said that the school increased its wireless network and added technology staff. It will expand into the high school grades in the years to come and is intended to supplement, not replace, the school’s desktop computer labs, he said.

Parents embraced the opportunity to trade backpacks weighed down with textbooks for increased academic opportunities, said Pleasant. And teachers excitedly moved through their training sessions and have found iPad apps that allow them to build lesson plans and create in-class assignments for students.

Opportunities and distractions

There has been recent iPad activity in public schools, too.

The Gill-Montague Regional School District, which has used tablet devices in the past in special education classrooms, is deploying four new 20-iPad carts into schools this year. Teachers will be able to take turns with the carts for their classes, said Darin Pawlus, the district’s technology manager.

The iPads, which cost about $500 each, were purchased using both grant and budget money in response to requests from teachers who wanted to add more technology to their lesson plans. The school district already has laptop carts, said Pawlus.

At Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, which are entering their third year with iPad carts, teachers occasionally allow students to pull out their phones for research, said Superintendent Martha Barrett.

She said there’s an app that allows students to respond to a question electronically, which provides a quick way for teachers to assess how well the class understands a topic without asking students to raise their hands if they are having trouble.

Barrett said that allowing students to use mobile devices is a difficult concept for some teachers, who are wary of the potential distractions that come with phones and tablets — Facebook, texting and games, to name a few.

Four Rivers Charter Public School, which has carts of laptops and graphing calculators available for students when needed, requires students to have their cell phones and MP3 players turned off and out of sight during the day, said Assistant Principal Susan Durkee.

And Pawlus said that distractions are part of the reason Gill-Montague schools aren’t moving toward a “bring-your-own-device” policy.

“We need to be able to control what the student accesses on that device,” he said. “(In the) bring-your-own-device movement, that is a big hurdle. How do we keep content appropriate?”

At Stoneleigh-Burnham School, teachers were given training and guidance on how to balance the academic opportunities with distractions, said Pleasant. There will be many times when teachers will require students to put their iPads away on shelves, he said.

Technology not everything

Other schools, while still encouraging technology, don’t want students to lose out on skills like being able to write down homework assignments, take notes in class and handwrite essays.

Eaglebrook School, a Deerfield private middle school for boys, encourages students “to not always rely on machines to do the work,” said Schuyler Bogel, the school’s director of communications.

“(We) teach them the values of technology and the ethics surrounding the use of technology while also promoting putting away the computer sometimes,” she said.

At the Academy at Charlemont, where students are encouraged to mark up their textbooks, many students still prefer notebooks over laptops or tablets, said Stephanie Purington, an academic dean and math teacher at the school.

Plus, some don’t have a choice. Poor access to high-speed Internet in the hill towns prevents many from being able to access digital textbooks or use some apps in the classroom.

“Moving to that full technology is really hard without everyone ... having really good Internet access,” said Purington. “It’s a fairness issue, an accessibility issue.”

Paying for devices

But the schools that have good Internet access have the challenge of finding money to purchase devices. Unlike private schools, public schools can encourage, but cannot require, that students buy their own tablets.

An annual state report in March found that about 45 percent of Massachusetts public school districts allow students to bring their own devices. If school officials encouraged all of their students to bring tablets into class, they would need to provide devices for any students who elected against, or couldn’t afford, to buy one, according to state spokesman J.C. Considine.

To buy tablets, schools are either applying for grants or using some money that they’d normally spend on textbooks, he said.

The Greenfield School Department, which uses iPads for special education classes and has some at the high school for research projects — entered a grant contest last year to equip all eighth graders with iPads. The school didn’t win.

But many of the school’s textbooks do come with a digital version, which helps cut down the load of books that students carry to and from school, said High School Principal Donna Woodcock.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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