Teachers taking classes digital

Nick Chapman, 10, of Huntley uses a tablet Thursday in his fourth-grade classroom at Martin Elementary School in Lake in the Hills. District 158 recently started transitioning to tablets from textbooks in classrooms.
Nick Chapman, 10, of Huntley uses a tablet Thursday in his fourth-grade classroom at Martin Elementary School in Lake in the Hills. District 158 recently started transitioning to tablets from textbooks in classrooms.

In a Martin Elementary School classroom, teacher Carol Johnson rarely finds the need to stand in front of her fourth-graders and lecture on a literacy lesson.

At Marengo High School, science teacher Terie Engelbrecht doesn’t need to remind her underclassmen to write notes on a lab assignment. Laptop computers replaced stodgy paper notebooks a few years ago.

The teachers are from different school districts but have firsthand experience with the digital transformation that is changing classrooms in McHenry County and the country.

The days of chalk, blackboards, classroom lectures and textbooks are fading. Traditional tools have been replaced with tablets, laptops, apps and a classroom learning style that puts more emphasis on the student rather than the teacher.

“My teaching has done a 180,” Engelbrecht said. “I have moved away from traditional lectures, and now the kids are doing their learning. It’s less me and more them.”

Engelbrecht’s freshman students are a part of the first class at Marengo District 154 to buy small laptops called Netbooks as a requirement for all subjects. Freshmen pay a $300 fee and will carry their Netbooks, a case and replacement battery for the next four years.

The laptops essentially put classes online. Software allows teachers to file and grade assignments, and students can access a range of research materials and resources.

Engelbrecht’s students write about lab assignments in Google Docs and publish their work online, where science professionals outside the district have been known to see and offer critiques.

At Martin Elementary in Lake in the Hills, Johnson’s fourth-graders use tablets to learn literacy. Her students have used the school-provided tablets for language exercises and to email Johnson after school with questions about the day’s lessons.

“If they have a question, they can Google it themselves and take a more active role in their learning,” Johnson said. “I see much more motivation and willingness to do projects.”

High School District 156 in McHenry will ask voters in an April referendum about refinancing bonds to upgrade the district’s antiquated computer network to a wireless one that can support laptops and tablets in classrooms.

But there can be drawbacks to increased use of technology in the classroom. About 87 percent of 2,462 teachers recently surveyed by the Pew Internet Project said technology is creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

In a similar study, 71 percent of 685 teachers said technology was hurting attention spans “somewhat” or “a lot,” according to Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that studies media use by children.

Nonetheless, nearly 77 percent of teachers in the Pew survey said digital tools have a “mostly positive” impact on student research.

The two educators from Marengo and Lake in the Hills view challenges such as short attention spans as an example of the evolution of their role as teachers. Students need to be taught how to use their tech-savvy nature productively and not just for texting or tweeting, they said.

“It’s not a distraction,” Johnson said. “Just like any good teacher, you put boundaries on the time and where they are going to use it.”

In Marengo, students have to take a required technology etiquette class that covers productive uses of technology and privacy issues before they receive their Netbook.

Superintendent Dan Bertrand initiated the district’s technological transformation three years ago with a pilot program in which Engelbrecht and another teacher experimented with laptops for class instruction.

Without technology in the classroom, Bertrand said students “are living in the 21st century, and we are turning back the clock a couple of decades when they get to school. We are trying to meet them in their world.”

Johnson said literacy lessons through the tablets are more interactive with videos and graphics.

District 158 unveiled digital learning tablets at Martin this year with an eye toward incorporating them for all subjects from kindergarten to eighth grade by 2014.

“It’s not like a classroom where teachers are standing in the room,” Superintendent John Burkey said. “The kids are taking much control of learning. And the technology is making this all possible.”

What teachers say

• 87 percent say technology is creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

• 77 percent say Internet and digital search tools have had a “mostly positive” impact on their students research.

• 64 percent say today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

• 47 percent “strongly agree” and 44 percent “somewhat agree” that digital literacy should be incorporated into school curriculum.

Source: Pew Internet Project, which surveyed 2,462 teachers on technology and student research habits

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