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Dassel-Cokato examines catering education to digital natives’ tastes
Monday, March 12, 2012
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By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

DASSEL, COKATO, MN – The DC School District has put a lot of time and effort into studying the most effective way to create an environment that caters to the 21st century digital natives’ tastes for learning.

For more than a year, the district has researched hundreds of articles and attended numerous workshops to understand all the choices available to create a digital learning environment.

All that research has led to the 21st Century Digital Learning Initiative, a plan to create a 21st century learning environment throughout the district by providing technology to all students, at all times.

“We have been very deliberate and responsible in studying this. We want to make sure whatever we do is in the best interest of the students,” said Dassel-Cokato Media Specialist Paul Beckermann.

It is now up to the DC School Board to decide if moving forward with the 21st Century Digital Learning Initiative is affordable for the district, and whether it will satisfy the needs of its students.

“We need to move in this direction at some point – if not, we’re not being fair to students,” said Superintendent Jeff Powers.

The board was presented the initiative at the Feb. 13 board meeting, and had a lengthy discussion at the Feb. 23 meeting. The board plans to further discuss the topic at its Monday, March 12 meeting.

Digital natives learn better in a digital environment

The learning environment of the 21st century is much different than that of the 20th century, and is changing at a pace faster than the textbooks of yesterday can keep up.

At this time, the DC School District spends more than $180,000 per year purchasing textbooks, according to Powers.

“We buy them – they never change. After a few years, they’re junk,” Powers said. “With technology, we can constantly update.”

“Information changes so fast,” Beckermann said. “The amount of technological information doubles every two years.”

Fifteen years ago, students had access to a limited menu of resources and tools of delivery with which to satisfy their appetite for learning.

Digital natives, or anyone born after 1990, have grown up in a world where access to information about any subject can be obtained with the touch of a few buttons on a keyboard.

Students of today assume a world with PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, smart phones, video games, the Internet, personal web pages, downloadable music, Google, Wikepedia, interactive Internet content, and social networking.

The youngest amongst digital natives are growing up in a world where access to information about nearly anything they want to know is in the palm of their hands.

“All of our students – and some of our teachers – are digital natives,” said Beckermann.

Digital natives have a voracious appetite for instantaneous information and feedback.

The technology available today offers students multiple menus of resources and tools of delivery, from which they can choose the most satisfying, and easy to use, for their personal learning appetite.

Students not only assume a world of accessible technology, studies have shown they now need it to learn most effectively.

“Because of this – growing up with technology – studies have shown brains are actually wired differently, and work differently than they used to,” Beckermann said.

Not using the technological tools available for educational purposes puts students at a disadvantage and contradicts the way they are naturally learning, Beckermann noted.

A phased approach

In order to meet the needs of students who are digital natives, and who will be working in the 21st century, a 21st century learning environment that extends learning beyond the traditional classroom needs to be offered.

Studies have shown that a blended learning environment, which uses traditional teaching methods blended with and enhanced by online teaching methods, is most effective in preparing digital natives for the future.

The DC digital learning initiative will take place in phases throughout the district, with the goal of eventually being a one-to-one school.

A one-to-one school provides students access to a computer anytime, anywhere. Studies have shown that students in one-to-one schools have better attitudes about, and involvement in, school.

To become a one-to-one school, the initiative calls for purchasing mobile laptop labs in phases, eventually having one laptop per student at the high school level.

“Where will the money come from when we are spending a million more than we are taking in this year, already?” asked School Board Member Mark Linder.

Moving forward with the initiative would require additional deficit spending, Powers said.

However, if the district begins moving towards mobile labs, it would move away from the current computer labs.

Currently, the computer labs are on a six-year replacement cycle, and three labs are scheduled to be updated in the next two years, Beckermann said.

It costs the district $23,000 per lab to replace all the computers, according to Beckermann.

Eventually, the mobile labs would replace all but one of the current computer labs, Beckermann added.

With the communications curriculum up for renewal for the DC School District, it is really a matter of timeliness that the board makes a decision soon whether to move forward with the digital learning initiative, Powers said.

If the initiative is approved by the school board, five mobile computer labs, with 32 computers each, will be purchased for the communications department in the 2012-13 school year.

Purchasing mobile labs for one department at a time will also create a professional learning environment in which the teachers can rely on each other for help and tips in using the new technology, Beckermann noted.

“I like the incremental plan, it gives us a chance to learn about problems as we continue through the phases,” Beckermann said.

The purchase of five mobile labs in 2012-13 would cost an estimated $166,235, which would cover the cost of the computers, a technology assistant, staff development, and updating the school’s filtering software.

If having mobile labs available proves to be successful, the goal is to take the initiative school-wide, purchasing mobile labs each year.

It would cost the district an average of $189,224 each year from 2012 to 2016 to implement the digital learning initiative.

However, by the fourth year of the initiative, the school would have purchased enough computers to have one available for each high school student.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen (regarding technology), which is why I’m comfortable with a phased approach,” Powers told the school board.

“The other plan, to purchase all the mobile labs at once, is scary – shows lack of wisdom,” Powers added.

“When we start something new, we are always doing two things at once,” Powers said. “Eventually, we phase one out, but it takes time.”

He also noted there are a lot of hard questions to answer about how this will work at DC. “Until we start doing these things, we won’t know the answers,” Powers said.

Long-term benefits

At this time, the DC High School has six computer labs, two of which are scheduled full-time for classes.

With technology becoming such an integral part of education, the teachers at DC are really limited in what they can do when there are only four labs available for checkout, Powers said.

“Our kids now have less computer access than five years ago because of all the required testing,” Powers said. “We are just trying to get back to where we were by providing access and opportunity.”

Purchasing mobile labs to be used by the communications department next year would increase student access to technology by freeing up a lot of computer lab space.

“Other teachers are chomping at the bit to use the computers freed up with this,” said DC High School Principal Dean Jennissen.

“If that is all we did (purchasing mobile labs for communications), it would take a lot of pressure off the computer labs,” Powers said.

Along with allowing more classes access to valuable computer time, creating a digital learning environment for students will allow access to more information.

Powers also noted that the school would use less paper moving forward with the digital learning initiative by allowing students to turn homework in digitally, and teachers to grade it digitally.

By moving towards digital learning, the goal is to have students more prepared for their future.

“We don’t know what kind of job our kids will be competing for, we just know they need to be ready,” Powers said.

For parents who are interested in finding out more about the initiative, it will be presented at the DCPTA meeting Thursday, April 12 at 6:30 p.m. in the DC High School Media Center.

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