Electronic education

Written for The Argus Observer. Published on September 7, 2014. 

The classic excuse of the dog eating a student’s homework is being replaced with cyber-space’s alleged lunch as school districts are implementing new technologies in the classroom.

iPads, Chrome Books, SMART Boards and other tools are now fixtures at most school districts, and students are using applications such as Google Docs to complete assignments.

“That’s the environment that the kids live in outside of school,” Weiser School District Superintendent Wil Overgaard said. “They are comfortable using technology, and we need to be as adept at using it for instruction as they are for finding entertainment or information themselves.”

Schools are doing their best to prepare their students for a high-tech work life and trying to stay on top of the new technology.

“We know that [technology] is the future, and it’s never going to get more simple,” said Larry Ramirez, principal at Nyssa High School. “We try and give the students the skills so they can get familiar with what’s out there.”

Technology in education also provides the opportunity for students to get a jump start on college as well as take classes online that aren’t available in their area.

“It’s essential to us because we offer so many online and interactive distance learning opportunities for kids,” Overgaard said. “We send some of our high school classes out to smaller districts.”

Weiser School District also offers dual-credit opportunities at the high school, partnering with the University of Idaho, College of Southern Idaho and Boise State University. The district uses technology for state testing, too.

“Last year Park School was teaching its fourth- and fifth-graders to keyboard,” Overgaard said. “They were learning to keyboard and use the keyboard to write essays and get immediate feedback.”

Overgaard said Weiser’s elementary school teachers have been using technology to promote reading, math and science. With the use of tools like online textbooks, the public can expect newer technologies to extend into the third grade in the next few years.

Nyssa School District uses technology in the classroom to create immediate feedback on the material being taught using the Senteo Interactive Response System. Each student is assigned a clicker, which is shaped like a TV remote control and used to respond immediately and anonymously to questions posed by the teacher.

“Everybody has a clicker that responds, and the teacher gets the info right away,” Ramirez said.

Though it has many benefits, the use of technology in school districts comes with its own challenges. Maintenance, connectivity and safety are top priorities at school districts throughout the area.

“In Idaho, there’s concern about student data and the safety and security of student data,” Overgaard said. “There’s a lot of bad guys out there and, while technology can be a great tool, it can expose students to some of the unhealthier things on the Internet.”

Overgaard said schools have to be careful about protecting their students’ information. Districts use networks and firewalls to promote the safety of their students.

“In order to use the Internet, you have to be logged into our network,” Overgaard said. “Our network has its own filtering system.”

The security systems aren’t only for keeping potential safety threats at bay. Schools also use firewalls and filters to keep students on track while they’re using technology tools in the classroom.

“Every student signs an agreement, and there are consequences for inappropriate use,” Weiser Middle School Principal Jason Hunter said. “Anything that is suspect gets flagged.”

Along with the security challenges, school districts have to navigate funding and access to the Internet in order to create a high-tech learning environment.

“New technology is difficult for a lot of our rural schools due to cost and Internet access,” said Stephen Phillips, superintendent at the Malheur Education Service District.

Huntington School District has experienced those challenges firsthand, as it is located in a more remote area where Internet access is difficult to establish.

The district purchased $50,000 worth of new technology for both staff and students this year. The money came from the state of Oregon and was awarded to Huntington for becoming a charter school in July 2013.

“Had Huntington not received an unexpected one-time payment for becoming a charter school, the district would have been unable to make such a large purchase,” Superintendent Scott Bullock said.

Though it has purchased the technology, Huntington has the roadblock of spotty Internet access to overcome.

“Keeping current and up to date with technology is a major issue for most small rural schools,” Bullock said. “The greatest technology problem is the lack of a dependable high-speed Internet connection to the school.”

Bullock said he is one of several superintendents who have tried to bring a high-speed connection to the Huntington School District.

“I have found that while fiber-optic lines run all around the outskirts of Huntington, the cost of connecting those lines makes it impossible,” Bullock said.

Phillips said inability to access the Internet is a common problem for rural school districts.

“No matter how wonderful the technology is, if there is not Internet access or very little bandwidth, then the latest and greatest technology is worthless for our rural schools,” he said.

Even those school districts that have a dependable connection to the Web have to take into account that not every family has access to technology. According to the ESD, Malheur County is the poorest in the state, and many homes do not have Internet access.

“Schools post homework assignments, grades, project due dates and important messages online,” Phillips said. “The practice is a good one, because it will get to many parents, but it must be understood that it won’t get to all of them.”

School districts everywhere have to take into account that not everyone has round-the-clock access to technology and implement strategies to reach the students who do not.

“There’s always an option for students that don’t have access to technology,” Hunter said. “Most of our use is at school, though, and we make sure that there’s plenty of time for that. Students aren’t left out because of access.”

Technology has been an integral part of the education system for many years. Overgaard remembers transitioning from electric typewriters to stand-alone desktop machines more than 20 years ago.

“It’s probably exploded here with the iPads and Chrome Books and the WiFi in the last eight years or so,” he said.

Though there are challenges to implementing technology in the classroom, school officials believe it is a necessary and exciting tool. They are optimistic about the future and are willing to tackle the challenges in order to provide their students with the skills they will need in today’s high-tech working world.

Jessica Else is a news reporter at The Argus Observer. She can be reached at (541) 823-4822 or by emailing jessicae@argusobserver.com. To comment on this story, go to www.argusobserver.com.

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