Bellevue School District weighs in on its 1:1 initiatives, its status as a Microsoft Showcase School, and the future of technology in its next-generation school.
Children in schools today face many of the same academic and social trials as their parents did — mountains of homework, complex mathematical equations, and even a dreaded zit before the big dance. But for all the similarities, at least one thing is unrecognizable between the generations: technology.
The chasm between individuals that grew up in the analog age and their digital native children isn’t completely impossible to navigate, but it can be hard for grown-ups to traverse the new path their children are blazing.
Gone are the days of a single computer lab filled with boxy Apple II computers with their pixelated screens, clunky keys, and unwieldy floppy disks with programs like Learning with FuzzyWOMP and Oregon Trail. It’s safe to assume that a glimpse of yesterday’s computers would lead today’s children to see their parents as virtual Luddites.
Instead of using antiquated computer labs or classroom terminals, many Eastside schools have asked taxpayers for technology levies in recent years, enabling them to begin implementing a 1:1 initiative to put a tablet or computer in the hands of each child in their districts.
And it’s working. The Mercer Island School District has distributed iPads to all students in grades six through 12. The Lake Washington School District maintains its 1:1 ratios in the same grades with laptops, and even launched pilot technology programs in younger grades, offering access to carts of devices, at a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1, that can be signed out for a class period or a day.
To the south, Bellevue School District still is in the process of rolling out its 1:1 effort to every school in the district. Each Lenovo ThinkPad has the ability to convert from a laptop to a tablet in a second; it comes loaded with Microsoft Office 365, a pen-like stylus for taking notes directly on the screen, and a matte gray lid emblazoned with the district’s crest.
Kate Barratt, a fourth-grade teacher at Bellevue’s Ardmore Elementary, was eager to help pilot the ThinkPads in her class of 28 students. Barratt approached her leadership, applied for a grant, and the school district obliged her request to pilot devices, due in no small part to her enthusiasm about the future of technology in the classroom.
“I think the biggest thing right now is shifting the frame of mind of how we think about technology, because it is not just my students sitting in front of a laptop,” Barratt said. “(The technology) is really enhancing their learning and providing them with opportunities that they otherwise would not have access to as we think about how to prepare students for (future) jobs.”
Barratt’s philosophical approach to digital learning is echoed by her district’s director of instructional technology, Eric Ferguson, who said the largest component of technology initiatives is asking why.
“Why put devices in kids’ hands?” Ferguson frequently asks during presentations he prepares for Microsoft guests who visit the district’s schools and want to see how the Redmond computer company’s educational tools are being used. Instead of answering, Ferguson queues up a YouTube video by Justin Reich, executive director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, who explains that as more jobs become automated, more of the future workforce will need to adapt with different skills.
“There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States. Sometime in the near future, whether it is 10, 20, or 30 years, there won’t be jobs for truck drivers,” the virtual Reich said. “We need to figure out a way that those 3.5 million kids who would have been truck drivers who are sitting in our schools right now have some kind of other opportunity to be able to tackle. It seems most likely that those opportunities are going to be in places where human beings can do work that computers don’t do very well.”
As the YouTube video comes to an end, Ferguson resumes his presentation. He said today’s students will not only have to fill the gaps left by automated processes, but they will be the workers programming said automated processes. That is why Bellevue schools have begun introducing basic coding as early as kindergarten in some instances.
The aforementioned antiquated Oregon Trail game still is being used by many, including Ardmore’s Barratt, who says the game is ideal for social studies lessons, with a 21st-century twist.
“I was able to take a group that was an extension group and have them create their own Oregon Trail game on Scratch, which is a coding program,” Barratt said. “They design their own wagon and things like that. It is a learning tool that just enhances what they are already doing in class; it just provides more engaging material.”
The technology-heavy lessons don’t stop there. Barratt’s most recent STEM project was centered on magnets — a simple enough topic in a 20th-century classroom — but today’s students are asked to do much more than design a maglev train system.
“I was able to take that project and ask students to create their own companies in small groups where they are creating these budgets and sticking with them,” Barratt said. “(The students) were doing research on how much it costs to build the train, and here’s how much it costs to maintain over 10 years, and how do you get a grant from the government to help pay for that.
“With all this innovative, yet seemingly constant, screen time, parents — who see their children coming home from school and getting lost in Call of Duty or Minecraft — may be concerned about the amount of screen time their children are being exposed to. But Ferguson asserts this common fear is unfounded.
“It comes down to good teaching,” he said. “A good teacher will be able to say, ‘OK, we’ve all read this story; let’s close your laptops and now let’s have a discussion, let’s make eye contact.’”
Many Bellevue teachers said a typical six-hour school day includes an average of two hours of screen time and involves group collaboration, class discussions, lecture, and, of course, the usual lunch and recess breaks.
While students are engaged with their devices, their movements are closely monitored by teachers via an application called LanSchool, which allows instructors to see what is happening on each screen within the classroom. The program also grants teachers the power to redirect a student back to his assigned task or even block him from accessing the internet.
Sara Clarke, a math teacher at Bellevue’s Highland Middle School, said blocking is something she does from time to time, but she and her fellow teachers also strive to make sure students practice responsible technology use and online citizenship.
“That stuff still needs to be taught,” Clarke said. “What does it mean when you are posting things online? What does it mean when you are emailing a teacher, versus a friend, versus the principal? Kids have silly pictures for their email, so making them realize that if you have a picture that is a cartoon, that is one thing. If you have a picture that is an emoji of poop — that is probably not the most professional thing to be sending to a teacher — what image are you portraying when you do that?”
Using programs like Microsoft OneNote is another way Bellevue teachers keep track of the work their students are doing. All the notes for a day’s lesson can be preloaded into each student’s OneNote so they can follow along and take notes directly on their screen with their pen.
Students also can complete worksheets and provide writing samples in the device, thereby saving countless trees and teachers’ time running to the copy machine.
Barratt likes OneNote because she can go back and look at how a particular student did a specific assignment without having to dig through files or lug around tote bags full of papers. “I can go back and say, ‘OK, when we first started this unit, here is the student’s exit ticket from a specific lesson, here’s how I corrected it, here’s how they did the next day.’ So informal assessments were a lot easier to track, and it is easier to track student data over time.”
As a math teacher, Clarke said her students are always looking for help after hours. The ability to remotely sync to the student’s OneNote is especially helpful for her. “I get emails nightly from students asking to get help on their homework, asking for clarification, students who were absent asking where to find the work … oftentimes it will be students emailing saying, ‘I tried these problems, can you check them for me and see if I was doing them right? I’m not sure.’”
Bellevue Schools and Microsoft
With Bellevue’s use of the Microsoft suite, its proximity to the Microsoft campus, and its willingness to open its doors to other schools for professional development, some of the district’s schools — like Sammamish High School and Medina Elementary — have been designated as Microsoft Showcase Schools.
Microsoft maintains relationships with more than 800 Showcase Schools, and 1,500 Microsoft Schools that transcend county borders and can be found in areas either rural or urban. They can be primary or secondary schools, and can be independent- or government-run as long as they fall into Microsoft’s Showcase School parameters.
“The thing that makes a Showcase School a Showcase School is that it is prepared to support other schools in their journey,” said Mark Sparvell, senior manager of worldwide education at Microsoft. “So a Showcase School has gotten to a certain point of capacity building where the whole staff and the leadership team can really clearly articulate the purpose for engaging with digital tools from the staff room to the classroom — everything from how the leader uses predicted analytics and data sets to make business decisions through to how the teacher and the students use technology to develop 21st-century skills.”
This existing relationship with the tech giant not only helps Microsoft help other schools, but it is beneficial to Bellevue, as well.
Clarke remembers one assembly at Highland Middle School when more than 30 Microsoft employees talked to the students about life at Microsoft. “They were talking about what they do for their job and how they use coding and use math and apply all that,” she said. “And then we followed it up with an evening event where parents came out. We had a food truck; they could code with their kids; and we had more Microsoft people come out for that as well.”
Moreover, the district currently is deep in the planning and building of its next-generation Elementary 18 (E18) School — slated to open just in time for the 2018-19 school year — and it reached out to Microsoft for help.
“The district is a progressive district; they’ve got a history of innovation,” Sparvell said of Microsoft’s commitment to assisting Bellevue with the planning for E18. “Sammamish High School is a perfect example. It is profoundly personalized through 1:1 technology; it has beautiful innovative open learning spaces; and it has had dynamic leadership, which has really driven a high-performing culture within that school. So the district already has a track record of innovation and also a willingness to do big things.”
The new school will be a state-of-the-art facility with bright collaborative spaces and a modern design comparable to the district’s newer schools, with plenty of room for Sparvell and his team to show off Microsoft’s innovative technology.
“We have a chance to ride shotgun along the process rather than once a school has been finished,” Sparvell said. “(That’s when) people wonder what they should do with the technology — what should they buy, how are they going to manage student achievement data, how are they going to get their systems to talk to one another, what professional development should they start to think about for their teachers in this new school? — this is going to be covered long before the doors open.”