Computing pilot project the latest in large GCSD technology investment

michael karlik/ Torrington TelegraM Southeast High School freshman Kealy Carson works on an assignment. Southeast High School features 1:1 computing for students this year.

GOSHEN COUNTY – “What makes a region?” Trisha Bates asked her class of freshmen and sophomores.

An area defined by at least one common characteristic, a student replied.

Bates nodded, walking from table to table and plopping down thin, softcover books on desks, as educators have done for hundreds of years.

“You are going to use the atlases of Europe to determine different regions,” she said. But then came the 21st century twist. 

“Get your computers open onto Canvas, please. We are going to work in Canvas today.”

At every seat, the teenagers pulled out black carrying bags and removed laptops, powering them on to view the assignment that Bates’s own laptop projected onto the smart board.

New at Southeast Schools this year is the implementation of 1:1 computing, a movement that allows each student – in this case, grades 6-12 – his or her own computer to access the internet, assignments, and digital texts.

Bates’s World Civilizations and Cultures class bridged the gap between old and new, with students flipping between an atlas in their hand and a computer in their lap. Bates moved around the room to keep students on task, answer questions, and troubleshoot.

“I tried to go in the thing and now it’s just not working at all,” complained a student whose computer was unresponsive.

“It’s loading,” Bates said.

“No, it’s been loading for, like, five minutes,” the student informed her.

“Shut it off,” Bates instructed. “Have you tried that? Or restarting? That’s always my first thought – to restart.”

A few minutes later, she spied another student sitting at his desk avoiding work.

“What’s the matter with your computer?” She leaned over him. “You’ve been trying to turn it on this whole time?”

After neither of them could diagnose the problem, Bates told him to use the projection on the board as a template.

“While you’re waiting, you can see what’s up there and start jotting it down. I don’t know what else because I didn’t make copies.”

Southeast students check out their assigned computer in the morning, carry it with them throughout the day, and return it at dismissal.

Craig Leithead, the computer science teacher at Southeast, said that while he initially spent five to 10 minutes per class troubleshooting in the beginning of the school year, 1:1 computing has sped up classroom technology use.

“Instead of having to start over again every day basically with a new proxy, where the filters clear all the temporary files, they have their own specific files that upload to one drive,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier to organize their files.”

After her World Civilizations class, Bates agreed that compared to computer labs or carts, where students might sign in to a different computer each time, it was more efficient for each student to have an assigned computer. She found classroom technology slightly faster than the days of passing out and collecting worksheets.

“He was sitting here waiting and I said, just look up there and start writing it down. Otherwise you’ll get behind,” she referred to the student who had difficulty logging on to his computer. “It saves me from making a lot of copies.”

Bates estimated her students need their computers three or four days per week. She was conscious of the preference some kids may have for writing by hand or handling physical materials over digital files.

“Some kids really like to be able to touch it and that’s why I don’t do everything on the computer, because that’s not fair to them,” she explained. “But it’s kind of the way of the world. Things are just digital.”

A large investment

Goshen County School District No. 1 has more than 2,000 computers in its 1,700-student system. Every school except Lincoln Elementary has more student devices than students.

The district’s technology department has a budget of $723,000, most of which is for personnel costs. That money, however, does not capture the entirety of GCSD’s expenditures on computing.

Since November 2017, the board of trustees has approved $654,000 in purchased and donated devices.

These have included 775 student computers, 98 staff computers, 65 iPads and 42 Chromebook laptops provided through the education crowdfunding website DonorsChoose.org. Sources of funding have included the district’s technology budget and federal money available for special education and rural schools.

GCSD averages 370 computer purchases each year. The highest was the 2015-16 school year, with 521 new devices.

“The whole trend is to take your tests on an electronic device. So if you’re not very good at running your electronic device, it doesn’t matter if you’re a very good reader or a very good math person,” said Bryan Foster, the district’s technology director, explaining why GCSD has amassed so many devices. “If you can’t maneuver your mouse around a screen to open up the slide rule or calculator or whatever you’re using, then you score lower.”

The lifespan of the district’s computers is six to eight years. Tier 1 machines are newer and come with a four-year warranty. After four years, they rotate into Tier 2.

“They still run okay” in Tier 2, Foster said. “They just need reimaged, cleaned up, keys replaced maybe. We put our Tier 1s at the high school level because they use them a lot. Tier 2s will be elementary level. We move them to a place where they’re not used as heavily.”

Foster called it the “waterfall effect.” 

IPads are the exception to the waterfall, targeted more heavily to younger children. The district owns approximately 300 iPads, which are older and more difficult to update. 

“When students create stuff, then they would use a laptop,” Foster said. “When you consume things, which would mean I go to a game or I go to a website and I’m doing stuff – I’m consuming whatever that media is – then you can get by using an iPad or something. Because you’re not creating anything new. You’re using it to manipulate that website.”

High school students behave as “creators” and younger children behave as “consumers,” making the difference in computing devices more feasible for the two age groups.

Vision for technology

Beginning in 2016, GCSD began receiving federal E-Rate funding to pay for wireless access points and upgrade Internet connections. The money – more than $150,000 in total – was based on the number of district students receiving free and reduced-price lunch.

The Central Administration office and campuses in Torrington all share a 600 MB/s fiber connection through Eastern Wyoming College. The schools outside of the city use PTP microwave connections that average between 60 and 80 MB/s. The IT department acknowledged that while the lower bandwidth has been able to accommodate Southeast’s 1:1 computing, connections are slow at times.

Visionary Communications recently won a bid to provide 1 GB/s connections to all campuses, although construction has not yet begun.

Sixth grade students at Torrington Middle School may be next in line to try 1:1 computing. There are three components the district weighs before making the decision. Is there sufficient technology for it? Are the students disciplined enough to participate? And is the staff ready?

“That [sixth grade] hallway has all three of those components, the same way that Yoder did,” Foster said.

The district encourages teachers to use Canvas, a computing platform that EWC and the University of Wyoming employ. GCSD does not prohibit teachers from using other systems for assigning work, but the IT department seeks to minimize the inconvenience to students of learning entirely new platforms for the sake of an individual teacher’s preference.

The 1:1 computing model moves away from the prior methods of getting technology in front of students: bringing them to a computer lab or bringing a computer cart to them.

All of Goshen’s schools still have computer labs. But labs are less efficient because there are times of the day when the computers will sit unused. A teacher might want students to use a computer for a brief assignment, but traveling to and from the lab and logging in and out of the computers may be time-prohibitive.

A 2016 study published in the Review of Educational Research determined there were minor gains in academic achievement from 1:1 laptop computing programs. The study did not examine the effect of other devices, such as tablets or desktop computers, on achievement.

Even with the ease of access, for Southeast’s 1:1 computing pilot program, the district felt some restrictions were appropriate. 

“We didn’t know what kind of access they’d have at home. Whether they had good wireless, poor wireless, whatever,” Foster said. “So we wanted to make sure the teachers didn’t assign them things to do on their computers at home and then they didn’t have a way to do that. If you’re going to use them, you need to use them at school so they all have the same opportunity.”

However, Foster was optimistic that snow days and athletic field trips would become more productive with further development of the 1:1 model.

Policing the classroom

As her World Civilization students reached the end of their assignment, Bates called for a halt to the day’s work.

“Make sure you save what you have done. And I want you to pause in what you’re doing,” she said, “meaning I want you to close your lids part way so I know that you’re paying attention and not playing a game or continuing to work.”

She waited 30 seconds for every student to partially close their laptops, calling out a few stragglers.

“If they are not busy, they will mess around,” she said afterward. During this period, Bates’s classroom policing focused entirely on non-computer behavior. A student was out of his seat. Another was too chatty. No student appeared to use his or her device to play games or browse the Internet.

“It’s not like they’re going and doing bad things. But I have to monitor,” Bates explained. “There’s always something. It’s education. You have to monitor what they’re doing all the time anyway. It’s just a different kind of monitoring.”

The IT department cited very little damage to student computers, putting the number of machines that need repairs at between 40 and 50 annually. Issues range from accidental screen damage to purposeful destruction.

“We had more damage where people would get frustrated and they’d punch the things. Nowadays, we have less of that,” Foster said. “I don’t know if kids are getting better with using computers, but this is my own opinion: I say it’s because they’re faster.”

GCSD estimated that it has spent to date $6,500 on vandalism or abuse of technology. Four out of Goshen’s seven principals who responded for comment said they could not recall a student being disciplined for improper use or vandalism of district technology. 

A fifth, Torrington Middle School Principal Marv Haiman, said two or fewer students per year fell into that category.

Only rarely will the district make a student pay for purposeful damage. Most of the time the damage is on a smaller scale, such as rearranging the keys on a keyboard. However, even that seemingly small act of vandalism could break the pins underneath the keys and cripple the machine.

The 1:1 computing model attempts to build in accountability by making students responsible for their device during the entirety of their school life. In GCSD, a student whose computer is beyond repair would be given one of the extra Tier 2 machines. The black carrying bags at Southeast were a last-minute addition to better protect the devices. As a side effect, students could personalize their bags and feel a greater sense of ownership.

“That’s the idea. ‘This is mine. Don’t you come near it. Don’t you step on my computer’,” Foster described.

Sometimes, it is the classroom teachers who need policing. Foster said that faculty have tried to place Alexa, the voice-activated virtual assistant from Amazon, in their classrooms.

Amazon employees listen to audio recordings from Alexa and use transcripts to better train their workers and their technology. The company has confirmed the voice recordings never get deleted, unless a customer does so manually.

To protect student privacy, the district discourages teachers from placing virtual assistants in their classrooms.

“The state IT directors, we kind of said, you can’t have that. It doesn’t have the protections built in them,” Foster said.

On Sept. 8, the board of trustees received the district’s technology plan for the next three years. Its key components are for GCSD to become a “community of tech learners,” with universal access and professional development for staff.

“Nothing is as pervasive and demanding as technology,” the plan reads. “Safety and communication must remain a top priority.”

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