Kiwanis hears how local schools are using computers, other tech

Published 7:00 am Friday, January 10, 2020

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VALLEY — Today’s classroom is a far cry from what went on in schools in the not-too-distant past. Gone is the teacher standing in front of a blackboard, writing with a stick of chalk, erasing one bit of knowledge and replacing it with more proven knowledge for her students to memorize and learn.

The chalkboard has been replaced by what’s known as a smartboard and the student’s pencil and tablet by what’s known as a Chromebook.

Michael Sanders, the technology director, and Daniel Brooks, the computer support specialist with the Chambers County School District, talked about this technological revolution at Wednesday’s noon hour meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Valley.

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Sanders is in his eleventh year with the CCSD and Brooks is in his fifth year with the local schools. Both have seen much change over that time. Not that long ago, said Sanders, most teachers were still using a projector to teach the students. It was basically a light bulb and a piece of glass the teacher would write on, and their words would be projected on a wall where the students could read it. Alabama public schools, and Chambers County, started getting into computers in a big way in 2010.

“A lot has happened in the ten years I’ve been here,” Sanders said. “In 2010, we were able to spend $100,000 on computers before the state started cutting us. We spent $60,000 the next year and $6,000 the third year. We got no help for several years after that.”

A big step had been taken in that lots of computers were in the school. Even so, the ratio of computers per student was around 4:1. The goal is one computer per student. It’s still not there, but it’s getting close.

In those first years, computers were prone to viruses.

“We had one computer at Eastside (Elementary School),” Sanders said. “Every time you plugged it up, viruses would go everywhere.”

The school district purchased 200 computers in 2010. A good start, but the computers weren’t new; they were reconditioned. Better ones have been acquired along the way. Sanders credited the local school board on having done a good job of funding technology needs, despite cutbacks at the state level.

One area that was well funded at the time was special education. In those early years, the school district was able acquire 30 smart boards for special education classrooms. It had an unintended effect that worked out well in the long run.

“It made the other teachers jealous,” Sanders said.

A great advantage of smart boards is that it gets students more involved in their lesson programs. A smart board is basically an information appliance that puts the world at one’s fingertips.

Sanders said the system’s computer-per-student ratio had dropped to 2:1 by 2014 and is even closer to the 1:1 goal today. Chromebooks were introduced to the system in 2014. “A Chromebook looks like a computer but has a Chrome operating system,” Sanders said. “A big advantage in using them is that we can manage apps better.”

It’s estimated that at least 60 percent of the computers in U.S. classrooms today are Chromebooks.

“My goal is to have a 1:1 environment,” Sanders said. “We now have that with mobile devices. Every kid every day needs to have a Chromebook by themselves to do research. We are getting close to 1:1 on our flat panels. Anything you can do on your smartphone you can do on a smart board. It has unlimited pages. You don’t have to erase anymore.”

Superintendent Dr. Kelli Hodge, who was present at the meeting, said that things are getting to the point that companies don’t sell textbooks to school systems anymore. “They sell links,” she said. “That’s what we are buying. Students can access these links on their own devices at home.”

This is not just for high school kids. It’s from Pre-k up.

“Some schools are getting away from computer labs altogether because of this kind of access,” Dr. Hodge said. “We are also getting into virtual reality. Students can put on goggles and go on virtual field trips. It’s amazing what can be done now.”

“It’s not just a dream anymore,” said Daniel Brooks. “It’s attainable. Math teachers can use robotics as they teach. The robot thing has really taken off. The kids love it. If they say two plus two equals four, the robot will nod his head in agreement. If they say two plus two equals three he will shake his head no.”

Something very positive with the Chromebooks is that they encourage collaboration between the students.

“They work together,” Brooks said.

“It keeps them engaged. The Chromebook is a new tool that really works. It can be tough to keep their attention the old way when they are sitting there with a blank sheet of paper in front of them.”

“We’ve had students learning Mandarin Chinese and Hebrew because of the access we now have,” said Kiwanis Club member Dr. Sharon Weldon, the school district’s director of secondary education.

“We have some students who were on their way to dropping out of school who are now in our all-day programs and flourishing,” Sanders said. “Parents can now go online and see if their children are keeping up in class and what their grades are.”

Chromebooks are valuable learning tools and are treated that way.

“The schools are doing well in maintaining them,” Sanders said. “They know how important they are.”

“Yeah,” Brooks added “They keep them in good shape for the most part.”

Replacement parts are in the $25 to $30 range, and they have to be charged.

“We do need more wifi,” Brooks said.

Sanders said that Alabama SuperComputer provides the service to the schools and Charter Spectrum the connections.

The Chromebook is a laptop device or tablet running the Linux-based OS as its operating system. They perform a variety of tasks using the Google Chrome browser with most applications residing in the cloud rather than in the machine itself. Chromebooks released since 2017 can also run Android apps.