Children have been arriving to their elementary schools with computer skills for years. First it was because they grew up playing on their parents' desktops. Later, it was laptops they had been around. Now, whether it is the touch screen of a smartphone or tablet, Libertyville District 70 Director of Technology Pam Imholz has noticed kids entering school knowing how to swipe but not necessarily how to type or use a mouse.
Students learn mouse skills in District 70 kindergarten classrooms and keyboarding will begin in second grade this school year instead of sixth as computers increasingly take the place of paper -- and with higher stakes. A new state assessment will debut during the 2014-15 school year and every school with the capacity to do so will be expected to administer it online for third- through eighth-graders.
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For some districts the testing shift has outpaced educational technology expansion. In others, the number of devices has matched the number of students for years. So called one-to-one programs exist in Huntley School District 158 and Schaumburg District 211 with Batavia middle and high school set to distribute Chromebooks to every student this month.
"Educational technology is finally affordable and it's something that schools can invest in and make work," said Anton Inglese, chief information officer and assistant superintendent of Batavia School District. "The question isn't if we're going to do this anymore, it's when."
District 214, which covers the Arlington Heights area, is in its fifth year of an internal grant-like program that asks teachers to submit proposals explaining how they plan to transform instruction with new devices. In the early years of the program teachers tried using tablets, netbooks, Chromebooks and laptops but nearly all devices are iPads now. The purchase of thousands of iPads has been entirely budget-neutral as the district has funneled tech money toward the tablets instead of replacing desktop computers. The district also has shifted toward digital textbooks and free software over hard textbooks and Microsoft Office suites.
By 2015-16, all of the district's students will have a device, said Keith Bockwoldt, director of technology services in Dist. 214. Freshmen will start their high school careers with an iPad they will keep year-round. Ownership questions are still being decided, but Bockwoldt said allowing students to keep the iPads 365 days a year could help stem the learning loss that is identified after long breaks from the classroom.
The job of parents today isn't forcing kids to unplug from their devices and do their homework but to connect and stay off social media or video sites.
Inglese said administrators hope Batavia's program doesn't cause too much extra work for parents but recommends they supervise their children's Internet use. The Chromebooks will come with web filters in place to keep students off the worst sites but parents should be aware the filters aren't perfect. And students who stay up all night watching videos on their new devices won't be ready to learn the next morning.
For the youngest students, besides supervision, Imholz recommends encouraging keyboarding practice and exposure to these types of technology. Parents should keep in mind the line between encouraging and enforcing this practice, though.
"You want it to be fun," Imholz said. "Five minutes a day, four to five days a week is better than one day a week for 25 minutes."
Most school websites include online learning resources for students of various ages. They are a good place to start for educational websites. Parents can also find resources about cybersafety online. Some advice on this front hasn't changed in more than a decade. Parents should be observant and keep their kids close as they explore the Internet.
"The best thing you can do," Imholz said, "is having your kids interacting with devices in the same room as family, not alone in their bedroom."