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Technology Changes How Students Learn in Alabama School

The city of Decatur has invested $14 million in technology since 2011. This includes a $3.2 million tech budget this year, the largest in the school’s history, resulting in the completion of its one-to-one initiative.

by Deangelo McDaniel, The Decatur Daily / August 21, 2019
Gender gap in STEM fields could be due to girls' reading skills, not math ability. (Dreamstime/TNS)

(TNS) — Besides being seventh grade students at Austin Middle, Leonard Gordon and Lilly Walker have in common their feelings about the Chromebook computers they received from Decatur City Schools this year.

“We can no longer say we forgot our homework,” Walker said.

“That’s right,” Gordon chuckled.

DCS used one-time money from the state to invest an additional $968,573 in technology, which meant putting a new touchscreen Chromebook in the hands of every middle school student. On many levels, supervisor of technology Emily Elam said, the small laptop computers have changed how education is delivered in Decatur.

“If students have internet access, they have classroom access no matter where they are,” she said.

Middle school students had netbooks last year, while elementary and high school students had Chromebooks.

“Every student in the system is using the same technology, which makes it easier for students when they transition from elementary to middle, and middle to high school,” Elam said.

The investment is also changing how teachers do classroom assignments and in some cases when students receive test results.

If it’s a multiple choice test students get results immediately, which is a feature Walker said she loves.

“We don’t have to wait a week and be worrying about how we did on a test,” she said. “As soon as we press that we have finished the test, the grade is there.”

Gordon said getting test results immediately makes him look back and study what he missed.

Alicia McBrayer, a computer science teacher at Austinville Middle, said teachers are embracing the technology as well. She teaches mass media, computer science, yearbook and sixth grade technology at Austin Middle and is able to create assignments for each class and deliver them to students weeks in advance.

McBrayer said every student in the district has a Google account, which allows her to deliver group or individual assignments if a student needs additional help.

“I don’t remember the last time a student has said I lost my assignment,” she said, adding that last year she made about 200 paper copies of assignments. “When I started teaching, I would estimate I made about 10,000 copies to send home with students.”

The new computers allow students to access assignments across subject lines, so if a student completes an assignment in one class, the student can access classwork from another class. McBrayer said she also created educational games in different subject matters for students to access when they complete tests.

“There are not wasted minutes in class,” she said.

Austin Middle Principal Anita Clarke said the new Chromebooks are empowering students, putting technology at their fingertips and allowing them to integrate technology into everything they do in school.

“This is the world they live in and we have to prepare them,” she said.

Elam said teachers districtwide use Google Classroom, which is a free and secure learning network that allows teachers and students to connect, share content, access homework, participate in discussions and receive class information.

Gordon, who is in the elective robotics class at Austin Middle, said he communicates with students outside of class when he can’t solve problems.

“There are so many benefits and we’re learning daily,” McBrayer said.

DCS Chief Financial Officer Melanie Maples said the district’s $3.2 million technology budget this year is the largest in the school system's history. The money Decatur spent on new Chromebooks is a supplemental appropriation the district received from the state’s advancement and technology fund.

After almost a decade of planning, the school system completed its one-to-one initiative last year, but some students were using Netbooks and others were using Chromebooks. One-to-one means every student in grades 4-12 has a school-issued computer they can use for educational purposes in school and at home. Computers for K-3 students are available when they are in school.

Since 2011, DCS has spent almost $14 million on computers and infrastructure upgrades, but school officials said there’s still a digital divide in Decatur because many students don’t have access to the internet when they leave school.

Education Superhighway, a nonprofit group focused on making sure public schools have access to the internet by 2020, issued a report in 2017 showing that school districts since 2013 have narrowed the gap for sufficient internet access in schools. But this will not eliminate the digital divide that exists when students leave school, the report stated.

DCS has worked to close the digital divide by offering what media specialist Tracy Glenn called “MiFi,” a portable WiFi broadband hotspot device that students can check out.

She said the devices allow up to five DCS-issued devices to connect at one time.

“Content is filtered so that students are accessing educational material,” Glenn said.

©2019 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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