Steve Fryling, Communications Director, Vicksburg Community Schools
Anyone who has not stepped into a school or classroom in the last few years may be in for a shock in that the role of instructional and building technology has expanded dramatically. From the moment you come to a building entrance and use a video “doorbell” system to be allowed in, to visiting classrooms and seeing every student in every class using a computer to assist with learning, you will know that the “future” has arrived.
At Vicksburg Community Schools (VCS), everyone from the superintendent to the support staff has the philosophy that technology is a tool for learning, but that effective learning is a person-to-person process. According to Charlie Glaes, Vicksburg Superintendent, “Technology can make the transmitting content much easier and more cost-effective. It should never replace the human connection, just enhance it. No student ever thanks a computer for the learning and experiences that have shaped their lives. They thank a teacher.”
Hardware is what people often notice about technology. Last year, VCS reached an important milestone of being “one-to-one”; that is, having at least one computer available for every student in each building. This was achieved by judicious use of general fund monies and funds from the facilities bond that was passed a few years ago. The district was able to make purchases of Chromebooks and desktop computers in a structured way so that carts with the machines can be stationed in many classrooms or can be rolled in for student use when needed. Due to these changes, the elementary schools are discontinuing the use of the computer lab in each building, instead bringing in computers to the regular classrooms. This move allows for flexibility in teacher scheduling and lessons planning.
Other hardware includes installation of a computer projector and teacher audio system in each classroom in the district. This allows the teacher to quickly pull up videos, lessons, diagrams and interactive materials directly from a computer or the Internet for classroom use. The audio system includes a microphone and speaker system that teachers can use to better amplify what they are saying for better student understanding. Vicksburg Pathways High School, the district’s alternative high school, takes things a step further by setting up all classes online and issuing students a computer for use at home and at school so they can complete any combination of classes they need. Students work at their own pace, so they can complete classes much faster than in a traditional school, allowing them to make up for lost time and failed classes. Teachers are on site to assist students with the content and to personalize instruction.
District leaders realized that having accessible hardware was meaningless unless they had focused software to enhance student learning. For the last few years, Vicksburg has been using an integrated software system called Safari Montage to be able to search and present up-to-date content in the classroom, accessing programming from such sources as National Geographic, History Channel and NOVA. Notes Gail VanDaff, director of curriculum, “Teachers just search the database for what they need and immediately they are provided with video, instructional modules, presentations and learning materials that they can use to plan effective lessons.”
Among the other programs and “apps”, Google Classroom is found to be very useful. With this software (available free to any Google user) teachers can set up lessons, announce schedules, and give tests online. Since each VCS student is assigned a Google account, they can immediately log in to each teacher’s “virtual classroom” from school or home (or even their cell phones) to learn, review, communicate and test, as needed. VanDaff reflects, “Google classroom is simple, easy to operate and access and really improving student and teacher efficiency. I think that in the near future, we will see classrooms able to address more and more learning as learning is better organized, managed and personalized in a way that our graduates will see in the college classroom or in their careers.”
Of course, one of the concerns of educators and parents alike are that computers can be a distraction and can be used for games, social media and other uses that have little to do with school subjects. Educators note that this is the case with any technology. “When I was in school, paper and pencil was the technology, and textbooks were the content,” noted Glaes. “Like other kids, I spent a lot of time making paper airplanes and passing notes with the very paper I was supposed to use for learning.”
“Human nature does not change, so we just need to be focused and mindful with our hardware and software, being sure that access to hardware and software is controlled and monitored and resources are used with a focus on getting the job done,” he said. “We can’t pretend this technology does not exist. Instead we have to put it to its best use: helping students succeed in the 21st century.”
The third leg of technology is resources. According to Steve Goss, assistant superintendent, VCS has a great track record over the years with using money wisely, and technology has been no exception. “When we spend taxpayer funds, we want to make sure we are buying the right things for the right reasons. That takes research, patience and judgment, which is very much the case with technology,” said Goss.
Director of Technology Don Puckett has been assisting with technology for years and can attest that the process of putting technology on line is cost effective, “We bid out all of our major purchases and services, getting the lowest price for what we need. We can buy hardware for much less than what the average person would pay at a store, and we only install what we feel we need to keep everyone safe, comfortable, and learning in the best way possible. We are definitely getting our bang for the buck.” Goss agreed: “One frustration with technology is when it does not work or people don’t know how to best use it. So we make sure that every building has a support staff person who is dedicated to keeping the equipment running, updated and secure. These folks also make it a point to learn the hardware and software, so they can assist teachers and students with troubleshooting problems and getting the most out of what we have. While computer technology is not without cost, the benefits seem to more than make up for what is spent in higher efficiency, reduced need for textbooks and paper and helping to extend learning outside of the classroom.”
What will students be able do with technology in 10 years? “While we don’t know for sure, Vicksburg is working to make sure that the hardware, software and the human connection needed for student success will still be found right here in this town,” Goss concluded.