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September 15, 2009

Students using PlayStation Portables in the classroom usually are punished, either by getting their devices taken away or being sent to the dean’s office. However at Reagan Elementary in Brownsburg, teacher Chris Chadd makes sure each student in her class has one before the period starts.

Chadd, who teaches fourth and fifth graders, is a big believer in the benefits of technology in the classroom, and she has filled her classroom with it. “I feel like it’s my job to prepare my students for what they’re going to face tomorrow, and it’s a scary future. I mean, we don’t know what we’re going to have to face, but I guarantee that technology is going to be in that future.”

Technology is a huge part of life today, so it’s no surprise to find various forms being used in our schools. While computers and gaming devices can divert attention as well as focus it, teachers are finding that they often make students excited about learning, not only by helping them understand difficult subjects but by giving them the thrill of discovering something new.

Milton Chen, executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, is a big supporter of using technology in the classroom. Chen, who is part of a group of scholars working on innovation, access and diversity in education, believes every student should have his or her own computer because textbooks are limited not only by the information they contain but also by inconvenience. “I’ve always liked the idea of reaching kids at any time of day no matter where they are, whether they’re in school, at home, in a library, afterschool program, summer camp with positive and rich learning experiences,” he said.

Technology also promotes project-based learning where students can investigate a topic and learn about it on their own, Chen said. For example, instead of just learning algebra from a textbook, students could investigate how it is used in the real world.

“Instead of starting off with algebra and memorizing linear equations and quadratic equations and trying to understand the difference between the two of them, you could just ask kids questions like, ‘How does your cell phone work?’” he explained.

Chadd, too, appreciates the variety of learning that can be tapped with technology. In her classroom, she has a number of laptops. The PSPs are used to access the Internet and download information pertinent to the topic being studied. Also, she records spelling tests on them that students take while she is busy elsewhere.

In addition, Chadd has one Kindle but would like to have a set of them to download books, which students could then read or listen to. She likes them because students would be able to highlight words they don’t know and immediately look them up in a dictionary that pops up.

Her students are excited by the variety of technology available to them. “I obviously feel privileged to use it, and it’s a brilliant way to learn because you’re having fun while you’re learning. And it’s easier, in my opinion,” said Mawsoof Ali, 11.

“I don’t like writing with pencils and stuff, I’d rather type,”added Shelby Hiquet , 11.

“It makes me happy, and so I try harder,” said Vince Partlow, 11.

Not only are Chadd’s students more engaged in their educations, they’re performing better, too. “Data that I’ve collected [show] the kids have all improved, and they’ve improved by huge strides,” she said.

Students say the devices are easy for them to use, and the information they access is more interesting than what they read in textbooks.

Shelby gave another reason: “I always zone out when teachers are talking.”

Other school districts have found increases in student achievement in classrooms that employ technology. For example, a 2000 study of Illinois public schools found computer use had “a small but significant impact” on student performance.

In addition, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which provided a laptop to each of the state’s middle-school students, found that four out of five of teachers in the program reported that students are more active in learning and that they turn in better work. Also, about 70 percent of students said that their laptop helped them finish work quicker and with better quality.

But skeptics say technology can be unpredictable and expensive. It also can make students lazy and tempt them to view information that they shouldn’t.

Chadd has had to deal with most of these problems on occasion, but none of them was serious enough to limit her use of technology.

Her biggest ordeal so far was dealing with a computer virus last spring that slowed e-mail and Internet access. “We just go back to kind of traditional instruction then when that happens,” she explained. “Rather than requiring that something be typed or require that it’s something we do on Friday, I may have to back my time up a little bit and maybe let the kids work in groups.”

She’s also had some students who get so accustomed to doing work on the computer that they forget some fundamentals.

“There are times when they race back to the computer because they are so dependent on or something like that. That’s when I stop them and we go back to the books,” she said.

She hasn’t had much trouble with students straying far from assigned tasks because she keeps a close eye on them.

“We did use Gmail in terms of their Internet accounts,” she said. “I have their passwords, so they know I can get on and look at any time.”

As far as expense, Reagan Elementary hasn’t paid for any of the devices besides the laptops because Chadd has applied for grants for each set of technology she uses. Recently she was turned down for a set of iPod Touches, which she had hoped to use as interactive assignment notebooks and much more.

As Chen pointed out, the cost of technology continues to drop. He cited the Maine project, where each student received a laptop, hardware, software and connection to the Internet for $275.

Although precautions must be taken, Chadd believes the benefits of technology outweigh the risks, and that it will reshape education just as it has the rest of society.

“I definitely think things are going to change. I just see them changing all the time,” she said.

One big change Chen foresees is that students will have to take much more responsibility for their educations. “Students would be much more independent learners. They would be given problems or projects to research and work on, but the results and the answers wouldn’t be clear.”


ASSISTANT EDITORS: Bekie Stergar, 14; Grace Kura, 16

REPORTERS: Izabella Robinson, 11; William Andrews, 12



Milton Chen has long been a believer in using technology in the classroom. He first got his start in technology education in 1971 when he did research on Sesame Street’s effect on children. He noticed how preschoolers could sing along and recite phrases from the show. “From the very beginning I was struck by how television could educate,” he said.

In our interview, Chen made many observations on how technology benefits students:

Since technology can be accessed at any time, students can continue their research far beyond the school day.

· Research shows that in order to have a truly productive learning experience, students need both formal and informal (outside of school) learning.

· Technology can tap different skills in different students. “If you look at the work on multiple intelligences, there are at least eight different kinds of ways in which students can be smart, but the verbal and the math skills are only two of them,” Chen said. “Technology can support students in again showing what they can do, and for that reason I think that technology could help more students be more successful.”

· Students could use the Internet to get a more global perspective on topics. For example, with Skype, students would be able to talk to other students around the world.

· If he had to choose one age group to receive technology, it would be middle school students.


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