By the time a student graduates from Ashland High School, he or she might have talked over the Internet with Slovenian students in elementary school, produced digital videos to air schoolwide in middle school or taken a class entirely online in high school. And the whole time their parents were probably monitoring their grades and attendance online.
It's not the school experience of their parents. Technology has transformed the educational experience, and not always for the better. But the positive aspects of technology give students a more personalized education, with more resources and connectivity at their fingertips than ever before.
Dana Rensi is one teacher who has embraced the technological revolution, so much so that her colleagues sometimes refer to her as Mary Poppins, because they never know what new gadget she will pull out of her bag next.
Her Spanish students improve their oral proficiency by recording themselves on iPods and produce videos of themselves cooking traditional dishes while narrating in Spanish. They attend class surrounded by technology such as document cameras that function like futuristic overhead projectors with no requirement for transparencies, and ActivBoards, white boards that students interact with like a giant tablet computer. The Internet also makes possible activities like listening to Spanish music, which in years past required a trip to Mexico to obtain, she said.
"The way it's changed has just facilitated incredible activities and projects that we can do that you couldn't do before," she said. "I can bring the world into my classroom."
Rensi is also an educational media specialist and serves on a regional technology cadre with several other district teachers. She designed GrizzNet, the online course management system that several high school teachers use to post class notes, quizzes, videos and much more, available to students any time, anywhere.
Not all teachers are quite so involved in technology, but students don't need to take Rensi's class to learn skills for the technological age.
The district has ratios of computers as low as 3-to-1 in Helman and Walker elementary schools, and once construction on Bellview Elementary is complete, the classrooms will be equipped with the same ActivBoards in Rensi's class, said Michelle Zundel, director of educational services for the district.
Technology skills have become so key that Oregon's state board of education has drafted technology goals it hopes to adopt in December, down to how many words per minute students should be able to type, Zundel said.
Administrators and teachers involved in the high school redesign process will also be evaluating ways to use technology to meet heightened state graduation requirements and still provide a variety of electives.
Already, high school students who are behind in math credits can take a "credit retrieval" course where they work individually on a computer to learn just those skills they have not mastered while still enrolled in their grade-level class. Plans for a video conferencing center at the high school are also underway, with a $10,000 grant from the Sharkey Family Charitable Foundation. The center would allow elementary students studying fossils to interview a scientist at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles or a history class studying immigration to speak with Ellis Island employees, AHS Principal Jeff Schlecht said.
"It's a digital world, and I think kids need to experience that sort of thing," he said. "I think it will enhance understanding and reinforce critical thinking."
Elementary teachers Mark Sherbow and Morgan Cottle foster that type of connectivity in their individual classrooms with a $10,000 Qwest Technology grant to connect their students with those in Slovenia, Morocco and three other schools in the United States. They collaborate on projects using blogs, Google documents and the online phone system Skype that can all be used in real time, without the delay of traditional pen pal letters.
"The key concept of what we're trying to do is have curriculum that integrates teaching and technology," Sherbow said. "We're not doing technology on the side. It's used as a tool, just like a pencil, except not quite. It's providing them tools for the 21st century, and to have a certain technological literacy is critical."
What teachers are saying
The list of skills included in that technological literacy is vast and growing, but tech-savvy teachers and parents alike see great advantages for their kids.
For Leeanne Wallace, a high school English teacher, technology is the language her students speak, allowing them more creative outlets in their studies.
"They were born with cell phones in their hands," she said. "For them to sit and look in a book, it seems Stone Age. When they enter a classroom like this and they have interactive access to technology, they're more engaged."
Rick Shaw, who teaches video production and yearbook classes at the middle school, said technology helps his students get instant feedback on the quality of their work and makes them better communicators and consumers.
"They're becoming more effective at deconstructing what they see and not being so influenced by it," he said. "When you've been on the other side of the camera, you realize you could have been manipulated by it, but you're not."
Jim Rible, a systems librarian at Southern Oregon University, is amazed at how quickly his 10-year-old daughter picks up Web skills and believes it has improved her writing. She even created a blog to write about her favorite book series, "Warriors," a fantasy about cats.
"I tend to think that as easily as she picks it up, there is definitely learning there," he said. "When I grew up, you read a book and that was pretty much it."
Jim Teece, the founder of local tech company Project A and parent of two children, believes $100 laptops could be the school tool of the future because it helps kids learn no matter what they are interested in.
"The key to it is that it empowers each individual child differently, whether they want to investigate music or art or they want to play games," he said. "It's an empowerment tool."
Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or email@example.com.