Technology presents challenges for schools

While teachers and educators have embraced technology to challenge their students in new ways, they're also running into another set of challenges: cheating, texting in class, formidable costs and widely varying skill levels to name a few.

The real test is turning the problems technology brings into teaching moments and setting appropriate limits, teachers said.

At the high school, for example, English students submit their papers to the anti-plagiarism Web site, and the school reworked its cell phone policy this year, strictly prohibiting use during class and allowing teachers to confiscate them for the day. Students are allowed to bring phones to school, however.

"It's so distracting for a cell phone to go off while a teacher is teaching, that is an obvious reason that we wouldn't allow cell phones in class," AHS Principal Jeff Schlecht said. "The other piece is kids can text message questions or answers on a test. There's really no shortcuts in our mind. Kids should develop their skills the old-fashioned way."

Eighty-two percent of high school students said they witnessed academic dishonesty at least "sometimes" in an online survey conducted by the district this fall, and even with the online safeguards against plagiarism, English teacher Leeanne Wallace said she still receives plagiarized papers.

The rise of Internet sources, however, creates the perfect opportunity for discussions on ethics and appropriate ways to paraphrase, summarize and quote information, she said. She even requires students to cite their sources when using Clipart in their projects.

"The onus comes back on us to teach young people to evaluate sources," she said. "We want to help them stay in a place that gives them valuable, accurate information that has been verified by others."

The discussion starts early, said Mark Sherbow, who teaches fourth grade at Helman Elementary.

"We try to really talk about acceptable use policies and we're really pushing that it's a tool for what we're doing in the classroom," he said. "Just like it's not OK to be talking to your buddy all day long, it's not OK to be chatting with somebody across the room on your chat function."

Although he is the only person in his classroom with an online social networking account, about 10 kids in his room have cell phones, up from three last year. So far, it hasn't caused a problem, he said.

Capitalizing on technology

Arnie Abrams, a professor at Southern Oregon University who spent much of his career teaching K-12 teachers how to use technology in their classrooms, said banning things like cell phones doesn't work. Instead, technology should be used to its full potential to engage students.

"It's not whether it's right or wrong, it's speaking in their language," he said. "With cell phones, it's not whether you're for it or against it, but how are you going to capitalize on it?"

Class activities could challenge students to use their cell phones to conduct research, for example. Some students could access the Internet through their phones, and others could call knowledgeable sources, he said.

Now that Abrams teaches applied multimedia classes to college students, he confronts a second challenge of technology with students who have vastly different skill levels. Almost all his students have viewed Web pages for example, but only one in 20 knows how to actually create those pages, he said.

"We can't expect that they know anything," said Dana Rensi, a high school Spanish teacher who heavily integrates technology into her class projects. "There are kids who are really able and kids who don't like technology at all."

Some students do not have access to computers at home, so teachers must be careful to provide assignments that can be accomplished with school computers or do not require technology.

And even students who are very comfortable with technology tend to have "spikes" in their skills, where they are very good at one or two aspects, but don't have strong tech skills across the board, Rensi said. The best solution she and other teachers have found is to help students teach others and fill in their knowledge gaps.

The same problem also exists for staff members, many who began teaching long before computers made an appearance. All teachers must use e-mail and online grade-tracking software, and even those who may have resisted at first are warming up to even more integration.

"If they think it's going to help kids, they're willing, even if they don't like technology," she said.

Setting limits

For those teachers who readily embrace technology, they must watch out for the opposite issue, using technology for the sake of technology.

"The challenge of any new technology is to be the master of the tool, knowing how to use it appropriately to improve your living working and learning and not to end up a victim of that new technology," said Michelle Zundel, director of educational services for the district. "When you look at children using technology, it's so important to look at their development and to be able to set limits."

Kindergarteners, for example, should never be learning to count on a computer screen when they could be counting real objects and developing their motor skills, she said.

And just as teachers must set limits on technology in their classrooms, parents should do the same thing at home, she said.

Zundel has a child in eighth grade, and for her family, cell phones and social networking sites are off limits.

"Parents have the right and the responsibility to set limits for children on any number of topics, and technology is no exception to that," she said. "You have a bed time, you have appropriate clothing, you have appropriate language, and if you have a family dinner — which is also so important — you can say, 'There's no texting at the table.'"

Setting limits on technology was the topic of the most recent middle school parent club discussion, led by Jim Teece, a parent of two children and founder of Project A.

Limits can be hard to set on gadgets that parents didn't have when they were growing up and sometimes do not understand, he said.

"Just because (their children) are on the computer doesn't mean they're doing something bad," he said. "They may be learning something new or creating art or listening to music."

And although technology can be dangerous, so are things like driving a car and living life, which parents eventually must allow their children to do, he said.

"Eventually it's going to get to the point where technology isn't something that we necessarily talk about," he said. "It's just going to become an integrated part of our fabric of life."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or

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