By Jessica Farrish
(Beckley) Register-Herald Reporter
BECKLEY — When the iRaleigh Initiative in the Raleigh County school district placed iPads with every public school student at the beginning of the school year, most teachers and administrators agreed that technology in the classroom is necessary.
West Virginia is one of 29 states in the new Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). The new academic assessment system will be extremely competitive and will require students to take standardized tests online.
Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown, a driving force behind the launch of iRaleigh, said that since computer assessments will play a large role in Common Core testing, giving students access to technology is basic preparation that will allow them to compete globally and against other SBAC states.
But several teachers who support iRaleigh have reported that many teachers are still unable to use the iPads for classroom work and that better teacher training is needed.
In March, Woodrow Wilson High School Spanish teacher Michelle Clarkson told Brown and board of education members that some WWHS teachers weren’t using the iPads to teach at all.
West Virginia Education Association-Raleigh County Co-President Marie Hamrick summed up some teachers’ frustrations by saying that while Raleigh central office technology experts are “knowledgeable” and “very good at their jobs,” the training provided to teachers by the district doesn’t address what’s needed in classrooms on a day-to-day basis.
“They’re very good trainers,” Hamrick said. “We just need training that’s more in line with what teachers need for the programs they’ve been given. The training teachers need for classroom work needs to relate directly to what they’re doing in the classrooms.”
Teachers also noted that their students — “native” users of iPads — are often more knowledgeable about the devices than educators.
In 2012-13, Raleigh schools had around 2,000 iPads in the county, enough for one iPad per five students, and support was strong in elementary schools for iPads in the classrooms, Brown reported.
In August 2013, teachers were given MacBooks to lead iPad-based learning initiatives for 2013-14, and 20 teachers received Vanguard training and were available to teach fellow teachers, according to information released by the BOE office.
Students received iPads in August and September — giving every third- to 12th-grade student in the county one iPad, while students in kindergarten to second grade shared a device with one classmate.
Two full days of training were offered for teachers at the beginning of the school year, and seven half-day training sessions were offered during the school year.
In March, mandatory iPad trainings were canceled by the central office and offered on a voluntary basis, and new basic classes on the iPads and the accompanying teachers’ MacBooks were offered at the iRaleigh Center — the technology center that handles training and tech support.
Brown said that training teachers to teach via iPad must evolve over time, as teacher needs are identified.
“One of the things we knew was, there was an underlying foundation we had to establish first,” he said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that.”
Brown said the iPad deployment in relation to professional development training presented a Catch-22.
“The chicken or the egg ... which should come first?” Brown stated. “It’s very difficult to do the training without the devices.”
He explained that the best move for the district this year was to allow teachers to implement what they had learned in their classrooms in small ways throughout the school year, rather than host a yearlong training session prior to iPads deployment.
“This thing builds over time,” he added. “It’s not going to be something that happens quickly.”
Themy Sparangis, technology director of the Los Angeles Unified School District — the second-largest district in the United States and the largest to launch a 1:1 initiative — reported that most American teachers understand the need for technology in their classrooms, especially as more districts adopt the Common Core standards.
“It’s no longer a thrill if you have technology,” he said. “This is about the implementation of Common Core and the need for media technology.
“If they’re going to take the assessment with a computer, shouldn’t they have access to the computer all week long, to synthesize, to create? The alternative is not doing it and exposing our students to a weak learning environment.”
Sparangis said the training concerns of Raleigh teachers mirror those of educators in every district that has adopted a 1:1 initiative and that the early pitfalls are part of the learning process and present opportunities for success.
His suggestion is that 1:1 tech teams partner with teachers to build training.
“The good teachers want to connect with students, and call me ‘Pollyanna,’ but I believe the large, vast majority of teachers want to engage students,” said Sparangis. “Teacher involvement should be in everything, from the beginning to the end.
“Everything from good pedagogy using digital media, from how to turn it on to how to leverage to use it with whatever content area you have, that constant information loop of what’s needed is always necessary.”
Teachers, said Sparangis, can inform trainers on what engages students and increases attendance and test scores.
Trainers should then be able to take the data, develop and fine-tune it and present it to teachers in other schools.
“It’s not so much that teachers need to copy exactly (what works in another classroom), but to understand how they can enlarge it and make it part of their pedagogy. Teaching is a very personal kind of thing,” he noted. “We teach based on our skills set.”
Following the introduction of iPads, classrooms should steadily be moving from a paper-based environment to a digital one, Sparangis said.
Development of lesson plans, instruction of students, the evaluation process and development of new materials should be digital instead of paper-based, he suggested.
“You bring that technology in and make it an element of every aspect of the day-to-day operation,” he said.
Mentoring teams of professional teachers in each school are necessary, he added.
“Research shows that, any time you do any type of training or professional development, if you don’t follow it up, over time, you only retain maybe a tenth of that knowledge,” he reported. “The way you reinforce that is through professional learning communities.”
As professional development evolves for teachers, Sparangis acknowledged that some teachers may feel at a disadvantage when they’re expected to teach students who know more about the technology than they do.
But he advised teachers to treat students as expert resources who are capable of helping the district become more digital.
“Think about when we were younger, in the classroom, the things we knew that the teachers didn’t know,” said Sparangis. “The younger generation has always seen whatever the tech flavor is of that day, not as technology, but as a way of life. This is not a new phenomenon.”
He recalled that he’d once felt proud when a teacher had asked him to thread a film projector — a task Sparangis knew how to do but the teacher did not.
“Go back when you were young, and the teachers you liked the best were the ones that were willing to learn from you,” he said. “How is that any different from today?”
Brown noted that iPad learning will necessarily create “growing pains” in Raleigh County.
“We know there’s frustration, but we also know there’s some outstanding work being done,” he said.
He added that Trap Hill Middle and Bradley Elementary teachers are creating digital content on the iPad.
“We know there are pods of success already across the county,” he reported. “We know it’s a work in progress, and it’s just going to take some time to evolve, but we will get there. I’m confident the district will get there.”