Can technology make large classes at suburban schools better?
The average suburban classroom is awash in technology.
Chromebooks, iPads and smartphones, Google Docs, class websites, video lectures -- things invented today will be in some classrooms next month. It's a new reality.
But the average suburban classroom varies greatly in size, from nine to 35.5 students, according to state report card data released this fall for the 2014-15 school year.
As more districts put computing devices in the hands of every student, education experts say there has yet to be much study on the effects of technology in large or small classes. So it's easy to presume all the new computing power can only help.
"I think with the advent and explosion of technology, that's been the general assumption," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "Like, 'Oh, great. Everyone has a tablet, must be easier to teach now.' What we're finding, and there's actually no good research on this, is that's not necessarily true."
While some might think the introduction of technology could allow easier management of large classes, teachers and educational experts aren't so sure. Technology, they say, can help increase student engagement and ownership of work, but it also can hinder concentration and focus.
"I do not think that it solves any big problems when it comes to class size and the number of students in a class," said Melissa Wilson, instructional technology coordinator and an English teacher at Neuqua Valley High School in Indian Prairie Unit District 204, where high school class sizes are 27.7 students on average -- the largest in the Daily Herald's coverage area.
Neuqua classes don't have as many students as those in sixth grade at Otter Creek Elementary in Elgin District U-46 or seventh grade at Waldo Middle School in East Aurora District 131, which each average 35.5 pupils. But they dwarf the sixth-grade average class of nine students in Rosemont Elementary District 78.
For teachers with 29, 30 or more students, a device in each student's hands could be a godsend or a disaster, depending on student behavior, learning disabilities, subject matter or home environment and parental support.
With their own devices, Montgomery said, "some kids might need less attention. For other kids, it's a whole other set of challenges."
Teachers say they are intrigued about the possibilities technology creates. But no matter the class size, experts say teachers must not use fancy new devices solely for their own sake.
"Now that people are starting to understand how to use the technology and what it's for, the push forward this year has really been now how can you use it to enhance teaching and learning," Wilson said. "Regardless of the class size, the technology itself shouldn't be at the center of everything."
Large class strategies
Common sense says smaller classes are better, and educational research backs it up, says Lee Shumow of Geneva, a professor of educational psychology at Northern Illinois University.
Shumow has also found the negative effects of cramming too many kids in one class are heightened when other circumstances are less than ideal, such as when schools lack resources for new materials, when many students are struggling through difficult home situations, or when high numbers of them don't yet speak English.
"Class size becomes a factor for student achievement in situations where there are low resources, where there are not other things that are offsetting the fact that the teacher doesn't have enough time and attention to spread around," Shumow said.
Unfortunately, she says, low-resource districts often are the ones to adopt technology later or not have enough devices to go around.
In those circumstances, students might need extra support when using a Chromebook or iPad during class. And that could make it tougher on teachers trying to manage a large room of students while still challenging them and introducing new knowledge.
"Sometimes technology is not the answer in a classroom," Wilson said. "Sometimes it can be something that is distracting to the students."
In large classrooms, teachers need to be creative, Shumow says.
Some will pair up a struggling student and a successful one to make sure everyone understands classroom material. Others turn to tech to provide review materials that can help everyone learn -- even if the teacher can't always give personal assistance.
Shumow said many of the teachers she works with have begun video recording select lessons and posting them to class websites or online school portals so kids can review by watching the content using the technology they have at home or the library.
Teachers in Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 are taking that video-recording feature a step further, said Aliaa Kamara-Ibrahim, technology integration specialist. In some cases, they're even "flipping the classroom" -- using together time during the school day for students to work individually or in small groups and receive help from the teacher, while using homework time after school to assign video lectures of new material.
Class sizes are on the lower end in District 23 schools, especially at MacArthur Middle School, which has the smallest average eighth-grade classes in the Daily Herald's coverage area with 13 students. So as teachers get used to the new 1-to-1 technology initiative that gave each MacArthur student an iPad this year, Kamara-Ibrahim said she hopes the technology can help expand student boundaries outside small groups of peers.
"We've had teachers connect to experts outside of MacArthur to have the students complete research on different scientific methods," Kamara-Ibrahim said. "We're definitely at a stage where teachers are starting to find out what more they can do with it. The hope is we get to the point where we're doing Google Hangouts and talking to other classes and experts throughout the world."
In larger classes such as the ones Wilson teaches at Neuqua Valley High School, teachers can use technology to increase student engagement and hold them accountable for completing assignments during class -- instead of slacking off, thinking the teacher won't notice one teen in a room of nearly 30.
Many classes at Neuqua have 20 laptops in the room, so teachers can assign small-group work using the devices, which promote collaboration. Teachers can require students to fill out a simple online form at the end of the period to show their work. Those forms can become "digital artifacts," part of a body of work that lasts and can become a reference for exam preparation, parent-teacher conferences or background for future classes, Wilson said.
"There are a lot of benefits for engagement," Wilson said. "It definitely produces a different level of engagement because it forces the students to take a little more ownership for their work."
Steady class sizes
Technology introduction is trending in suburban classrooms, but the teachers federation's Montgomery says there aren't any true trends in class sizes. They're not expanding drastically, which is a good thing, he says. But as testing requirements and school expectations increase, class sizes aren't shrinking, either.
The federation of teachers recommends schools aim for 15 to 19 students in each class, but those numbers are exceeded by average sizes at the majority of grade levels across the region.
"What we haven't seen is a dramatic reduction in class sizes. We're amping up the expectations, amping up the pressures and saying, 'Do it with the same resources for the same number of kids,'" Montgomery said.
Montgomery said he recognizes class size decisions are a balancing act between the number of students of a given age and a district's limited resources, which could be threatened further if the state shifts pension costs onto schools or changes the funding formula.
But with the largest average class size among all grades in the Daily Herald's coverage area at 32.7 students, experts say now might be the time to examine how technology helps -- or hurts -- education in large settings.
"I think it's a very important thing to study," Northern Illinois University's Shumow said. "I just don't think we have the data yet."
Until the research comes in, experts are advising administrators and school boards not to see technology as a cure-all for the problem of large classes.
"Technology itself does not mean things are better and we can put more kids in a class," Montgomery said. "In fact, in some cases it's the opposite, and I think we have to be mindful of that."