Tablets Keep West Virginia Students Connected on Off Days

Devices like iPads or Android-based tablets have become must-haves in many districts as school officials look to create “anytime-anywhere” learning environments.

by Samuel Speciale, Charleston Daily Mail / March 6, 2015

(Tribune News Service) -- Recovering lost instructional time caused by snow days has been a source of great frustration for West Virginia’s educators, but the recent utilization of take-home technology is proving to be a game-changer, says one Kanawha County school official.

Leah Sparks, the technology director for Kanawha County Schools, has spent several years planning for a district-wide technology program that has culminated in the distribution of nearly 10,000 iPads this school year. While the program is still in its infancy, Sparks said she already is receiving reports of teachers and students connecting through the devices even when they aren’t in the classroom.

“If you have power and Internet, there’s really nothing that can stop learning from happening,” she said.

Using technology to expand the learning environment is one of the most talked about subjects among educators in West Virginia and across the country. Devices like iPads or Android-based tablets have become must-haves in many districts as school officials look to create “anytime-anywhere” learning environments not restricted by the four walls of a traditional classroom.

Doing so lets teachers and students continue coursework even on days like today when weather cancels school.

Sparks said teachers are still figuring out how best to push daily content to their students, but said resources that help make that happen have been made available by the state Department of Education.

“Kids are doing their work on the iPads and sending it in to their teachers,” she said. “It’s going to take some time to get everyone on board because everyone isn’t comfortable with it yet, but we’re really proud of what our teachers and students are doing.”

While the anytime-anywhere learning concept is one education officials hope advances student learning, its success is still dependent on access to things like technology and high-speed Internet.

Sterling Beane, the state Department of Education’s chief technology officer, said those two things are barriers that still need to be overcome in West Virginia.

“Our focus here is identifying those limiting factors and working our way around them,” he said.

Despite shrinking education budgets across the state, many counties have creatively made room in their budgets to start technology programs that pair each student with a laptop, tablet or other device they can take home with them.

In Kanawha County, the program is off to a good start, Sparks says, but Internet access at home is still a hurdle that must be overcome. High-speed Internet is even more of a limiting factor in West Virginia’s smaller school districts.

According to the FCC, 56 percent of West Virginians lack access to high-speed Internet under new standards adopted last month. Nearly 75 percent of people living in rural parts of the state lack adequate speeds. Some don’t have Internet at all.

“Even if a child doesn’t have Internet at home, there are ways for them to download assignments at school,” Sparks said.

While not having Internet access for their device means a student can’t communicate directly with their teacher — a major selling point of the initiative — Sparks said there are applications that let students download assignments and other materials when they are connected at school.

Beane said those applications are being piloted at Mt. Vernon Elementary School in Barbour County where a content distribution program called URCast is being used to cache content on student devices that can be accessed later without an Internet connection.

The success of that program could mean other counties follow Mt. Vernon’s lead, but Beane said the state already has similar content distribution software acquired in a deal with Microsoft.

Regardless of the software and the devices that are used, Sparks said the focus remains on learning.

“It doesn’t matter what the tools are because those change,” she said. “Learning is the focus and making sure we are preparing students for a world we don’t even know what will look like in five years.”

Both Sparks and Beane said it’s hard to predict what the future of classroom technology programs will look like, but they both agree it has allowed education to go places that previously had not been conceived.

“A year or so ago, this (regaining lost instructional time) was an impossible problem to solve,” Beane said. “We now have the tools to fix it, and we’re closer than we’ve ever been.”

Kanawha County still is in the process of distributing iPads to students. Sparks said all high schoolers and about half of the county’s middle school students have received a device. The rest, barring any other delays caused by weather, will be out by spring break.

©2015 the Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC