By Debbie Gardner
GREATER SPRINGFIELD Education will be more interactive, more hands-on and more technology-based for many area students returning to the classrooms this fall.
Some communities, such as Longmeadow and Chicopee, have made major investments designed to put interactive learning into the hands of nearly all students. Other communities, including, Agawam, East Longmeadow and the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District, are building on the investments made last year, supplementing interactive learning with additional technology investments in strategic areas.
However, whether a school district is making a major commitment or moving more cautiously in the introduction of technology into the classroom, the consensus seems to be the same that education on all grade levels now needs to include an electronic component.
"This is a new day and age. It's extremely important that we integrate technology into the curriculum," Longmeadow Superintendent of Schools Marie H. Doyle told Reminder Publications. "These students are going out into the 21st century, where they are going to be required to have excellent command and understanding of technology. It's imperative that schools change to meet the needs of the workforce."
Doyle's comment echoes the recent findings of The Center for Public Education (www.center-forpubliceducation.org). In its report outlining the critical components of a 21st Century education, the Center noted "Experts agree that what schools can do is help young people learn how to use information technology more responsibly, reflectively, and effectively in different areas of life. They can also help students link their use of technology to what they are learning in school."
Longmeadow, Doyle indicated, is planning to do just that. The district made the commitment to bring iPads into its classrooms, investing $500,000 to insure that there is an iPad cart with 28 to 30 devices available for every grade level kindergarten through grade eight at each elementary and middle school. The district has also invested in a new computer and iPad for every teacher in all grade levels. In addition, Longmeadow has hired technology teachers for each of its elementary schools to assist teachers in integrating iPad use into daily lesson plans.
"They will be using them to learn to read and write and do math," Doyle said of the iPad carts. "They'll also be using them to learn how to keyboard and create projects that show what they have learned."
At the high school level, Doyle said much of the technology planned for the new building would be in use in the old building this year, including interactive White board and a number of iPads.
"I hope the will use them for dissections (in biology) for studying foreign languages, there are a multitude of ways to integrate (iPads) into the curriculum," she noted.
Chicopee, too, has made an investment in upgrading its interactive classroom technology. According to Superintendent of Schools Richard W. Rege Jr., the district installed 92 interactive white boards in grade two through five classrooms during the summer and is also bringing in 280 iPads for distribution throughout the school system.
"Every elementary school will be getting one to two carts with 28 to 30 iPads," Rege said, adding that the objective is to use the iPads "in learning centers where students can work at their own pace on math and language arts."
He said the plan is also to outfit the middle schools with two carts of 28 to 30 iPads, and to provide the high schools with a cart of iPad3s.
"They are a little more sophisticated," Rege said of the iPad3s. "We will be using them with our art programs, and (with) Advanced Placement students for advanced research and learning."
Agawam Public Schools Information Technology Director Michael Feeley said his district began integrating iPad use into the curriculum last year, allocating 40 devices to each of the four elementary schools, and 40 to the Roberta G. Doering Middle School.
"You have to be careful [that] they are the right fit," Feeley said, noting that there are more iPad applications "written for kindergarten through grade two than any other apps."
He said Agawam has also been piloting iPad use at the junior high and high school level, but is reluctant to make a major investment until a consensus is reached regarding electronic textbooks and the best platform for their use. It has, however, invested in 100 additional iPads, with the intention of using the devices in its special education curriculum.
According to Feeley, fund-raising by parent-teacher organizations at several schools has allowed the district to add additional Epson BrightLink interactive boards in more elementary classrooms for the coming year.
"They don't have all the bells and whistles of a Whiteboard," Feeley said. "But most teachers just want to be able to project [on it] and open apps on the board."
He added that one teacher used a BrightLink board to Skype with her brother in Afghanistan last year, allowing her students to ask questions in an interactive format. The activity, he added, was a big hit.
Agawam is also expanding the use of its Edline software this year to include elementary schools, allowing teachers to post assignments online, and parents to access information about their children's progress.
Some old-fashioned technology is also in demand in Agawam, Feeley added, noting he'd had multiple requests for overhead projectors.
East Longmeadow is also building on existing technology investments for the 2012-13 school year, with plans to add an iPad cart at the middle school this fall, according to Superintendent of Schools Gordon Smith.
Smith said the district is hoping that the cart will spark student creativity in the same way the Mac Lab, which was recently added at the high school, did last year. He said high school students gave School Committee members a very impressive demonstration of their work with the technology during the committee's June meeting.
"It engages students, it piques their interest," Smith said of the Mac technology, noting that with the proliferation of personal computing devices in the home, there are often instances where students are demonstrating how to use the devices more effectively.
Smith said the district also invested in Mimio Whiteboards for every classroom last year. These interactive devices allow teachers to not only engage students during class time, they also, he said, have the capacity to "capture not only audio but video [allowing teachers] to demonstrate a math lesson or art demo on how to set up a project,"
Those videos, Smith said, can later be posted to the teacher's website "so students can access them at home" either as a reference, or as part of a homework assignment.
Smith said the district's hope is to expand its investment in technology such as the Mac Lab and iPad carts in the near future.
"We're just beginning to use that technology [and] we want to see where it can take us in the classroom and how students use the content," Smith said.
In the Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District, Superintendent Dr. Jay Barry said the district introduced some iPads into its schools during the second semester of the 2011-12 school year, and intends to continue slowly integrating technology into its curriculum.
"Kids have enough technology in their lives," Barry observed. "We have to be careful how we introduce it into the schools."
He said technology can be a useful tool as long as its application is "thoughtful."
Barry noted, "We have to remember the balance; that's really important [with technology]."
Barry said the district recently hired an information technology director to help assess its needs, especially as it moves toward the renovation and restructuring of its current elementary-middle-high school campus in Southwick. He also said the district is keeping a close eye on the developments in the field of electronic textbooks.
"I do think that paper is going to continue to play a role in teaching and learning," Barry noted. "I think the thinking process that is behind good writing is something that we can continue to prioritize."
Reminder Publications contacted the Westfield, West Springfield, Holyoke and Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School districts, but did not receive information about their technology upgrades by press time.