Future finally here for computers in schools

By Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle 

Since the first personal computers started showing up in classrooms in the mid-1970s, schools have been struggling to figure out what to do with them.

It wasn't uncommon to find donated, never opened and eventually outdated computers in classroom closets because no one knew how to set them up, use them or fix them.

But computers have become easier to use, less expensive and ubiquitous in everyday life. And public schools are increasingly seeing the benefits of bits and bytes.

In San Francisco, district officials have embarked on a 15-year plan to transform schools with digital curriculum, universal wireless access, a laptop for every educator, and laptops or tablets for every classroom.

A big part of it is training teachers.

This year, 30 of the district's middle school math and science teachers have spent hours and hours learning how to incorporate hundreds of Salesforce.com-donated iPads, already chock full of free and purchased apps, into the learning process.

Next year, 50 more will get the same training.

Real-life math

In one math class this year, textbook learning and solving 20 problems for homework went out the door.
Instead, the teacher told the students to create a catering budget for a movie set and present their bid for the job, said Michael Bloemsma, a program administrator in the San Francisco school district's education technology department.

The students were then set loose with their iPads to research the price of food and make a presentation using Skitch, Keynote, Educreations or Explain Everything software programs.

The teacher didn't have to spend much time showing the students how to use the apps. Like most middle school kids with an innate sense of technology, they figured it out.

The district is partnering with 3-D design software maker Autodesk, which provides training and free software to schools.

On Tuesday, the 30 middle school teachers in the first training cohort filled a conference room at the company's San Francisco office to learn about possible applications of the software.

The idea is to expose students to technology used in the workforce now and likely commonplace in the future, said Tom Joseph, senior director of education at Autodesk.

Creating a digital part for a broken pair of eyeglasses and printing it on a 3-D computer, for example, will be relatively simple in the near future, he said.

"You don't need to be a geek," he said. "You can use this in our everyday lives."

And kids need to learn how, district officials said.

Teacher Steve Temple uses the software in his science classes at San Rafael High School.
The goal isn't to teach them the software, but how to use the software to solve problems.

"We are in alignment with what industry and higher education were doing," he told the 30 teachers during the training.

And the best part? The students to a large degree taught themselves or each other how to use the 3-D modeling program. He described himself as a facilitator who challenges students to make robots or solve engineering conundrums.

"If you think you're the only avenue to knowledge as a teacher, you really have to rethink that," Temple said. "That's hubris."

$8 billion industry

Not surprisingly, Silicon Valley is paying close attention to the increased use of technology in classrooms.
Education technology is an $8 billion industry in the United States, according to the Software and Information Industry Association.

The number of education apps and gizmos or gadgets grows every day, with venture capital pouring millions into what are being called ed-tech startups.

Yet schools are not easy targets anymore in terms of buying technology because it's shiny and new, even if it might sit on the shelf.

"Education leaders are becoming more sophisticated," the association's analysts wrote in a 2013 report. "They are not looking for companies to sell them technology products but are instead looking for partners who understand their challenges and can help provide matching solutions."

In other words, schools want stuff that improves learning and won't go to waste in the back of a classroom closet or used as a glorified piece of paper.

"We don't want teachers to basically put their worksheets on the iPad," Bloemsma said.

Stiff criteria

Sales pitches are evaluated with a wary eye, said Michele Dawson, district supervisor of education technology.

"Trust me," she said. "We get a plethora of people who want to show us their products."

To be selected, a product has to meet stiff criteria, giving students and teachers the tools for critical thinking, creativity, the ability to communicate or share information and offer feedback on student understanding, she said.

But the stuff is secondary. Training teachers how to teach with technology is even more important, Bloemsma said.

"It's more student centered," he said. "This is scary for teacher, giving up control."

San Francisco veteran teacher Karen Clayman is among the 30 trainees this year.

She has always loved computers.

Her first computer was an Apple IIe, first released in 1983.

But using technology in her classes at Giannini Middle School was a little intimidating. With 35 years in the classroom, she had seen the early attempts and the resulting disasters.

This year, her students are using iPads to create class presentations, share documents and other applications that allow them to be creative in their class projects. She can see what they are each doing and control their iPads from hers or post their work on a digital whiteboard.

"They love it," she said.

The only downside is the reliance on power.

"If I didn't have electricity, if we have a power failure," she said shaking her head. "I'd have to remember how to use a (manual, write with a pen) whiteboard."