Grants launch algebra by iPod

For the first time in its history, the Georgia Department of Education this month will hand out grants for schools to pioneer the use of “handheld computing” to see if it engages students better than traditional book-and-paper methods.

The move goes beyond the use of computers and the Internet for class work, now a common occurrence in schools.

Rather, it endorses for public schools the idea of mobile learning through small devices such as an Apple iPod Touch or Microsoft Zune — devices that connect wirelessly to the Internet and have the capability for Web-based research and e-mail but heretofore have often been banned from use during school hours as distractions.

It means not just recording podcasts or e-mailing teachers, activities that a growing number of schools also sanction. As envisioned by state officials, these devices would be the primary, everyday learning tool of students in class and at home. Class projects, homework and research reports will all go digital.

Few such school-related programs exist in the United States, despite encouragement by federal officials and education researchers about their potential in an era of increasingly sophisticated and cheaper technology. Those that do exist, however, have seen encouraging preliminary results.

“Do you know the Jetsons? This is George and [Jane’s] world,” said Mindy DiSalvo, assistant director of grants and community programs for the DeKalb County school system. DeKalb is one of 47 systems awarded grants in the first round of funding approved last week by state school board members. The system, which won $193,740, will hand out iPods and netbooks (mini laptops) to about 300 students at three high schools; Cross Keys, Stone Mountain and MLK Jr., next semester.

The DeKalb students are enrolled in Advanced Placement biology or chemistry classes, where rote textbook lessons and experiments can be expanded and enlivened. “We’re going to say to them, ‘You’ve got the iPods and netbooks. Now find six research institutions across the country doing cell division,” said DiSalvo, who wrote DeKalb’s winning grant proposal. DeKalb will insure the devices against loss or damage, and teachers will be able to monitor how the devices are used.

State officials expect a second round of grants to be recommended for at least 10 more systems, probably in January. The devices must be given to students no later than March 1, with pilot programs at each school expected to run at least through the 2010-11 school year.

The state is funding the grants through Title II-D federal education money, which encourages the use of technology to improve achievement in schools where a higher than average number of students are economically disadvantaged.

In metro Atlanta, Jonesboro High School (Clayton County) and Therrell High School of Health Science and Research (Atlanta) each got $64,580.

Officials expect to award $4.3 million statewide to fund the programs, which they have paired with an ongoing effort to increase and diversify student enrollment in Advanced Placement classes. To win the grants, systems had to propose programs that would use the handheld devices to help a greater number of students enroll and succeed in these classes.

The Advanced Placement curriculum is considered college-level. High school students who take AP courses and score high enough on end-of-year exams can receive college credit. At the very least, students are exposed to the rigor of college-level work. With the devices, officials hope they will also get excited by it.

“They are in many instances students who are very capable of working on an Advanced Placement level but look at all the reading and writing and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can do all that,’ ” said Becky Chambers, a 30-year teacher who now works for the state. Officials hope the devices cause students to rethink that hesitation.

Teachers, in turn, will receive face-to-face training and online support to get started. The grants require that 25 percent of the money be spent on professional learning. In DeKalb, for example, officials will take advantage of existing partnerships with Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State University to monitor the program.

“We will not hand them a list” of materials that they have to use, said the state’s Elizabeth Webb, who leads the education department’s division for innovative academic programs. “We really envision that we are empowering teachers to access resources available on the Internet, download them and make them available for their students to use.”

These students, Webb added, are likely to already have an understanding of the Internet and how to use technology, even if it is “in a very superficial way” such as social media or texting.

One goal is to give students a deeper understanding of what they can do online, such as “understanding the difference between a blog entry and a peer-reviewed publication,” Webb said. “We want to get the kids engaged, when they don’t really like to pick up traditional [textbooks]texts.”

The challenges, of course, are in the details. Using such devices is relatively new; there’s no surefire method. Potential disadvantages include the opportunity for students to misuse such devices. Plus, adults don’t trust them. A study last year by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Common Sense Media found most teachers viewed cellphones and similar devices as having no place in school.

Still, experts see opportunities. Mobile devices offer virtual 24/7 access to learning. They provide an individualized experience for students. The 2009 Horizon Report, put together by The New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative, called mobile devices an educational “technology to watch” and predicted their presence in many schools within the next year.

One of the first U.S. mobile learning projects is taking place in North Carolina. School officials launched the initiative, called Project K-Nect and funded by device chip-maker Qualcomm, last year by handing out more than 100 “smart” cellphones for math instruction.

The program targeted ninth-graders at four public high schools where a high percentage of students received free and reduced-price lunches. Students used the devices to do everything from documenting, by video, how they solved math problems using linear equations to contacting peer tutors and teachers after-hours if they had a question.

The result: Students in the program scored higher on state Algebra I proficiency tests than peers not in the program. Officials also reported increases in average study time. The program has been expanded this year to nine schools.

Handhelds in schools

Georgia officials have awarded grants to 47 school systems to pioneer the use of handheld computing devices, such as a netbook or iPod Touch, as a student’s primary learning tool in class and at home. While that doesn’t mean these systems are ditching textbooks, it does mean students will make widespread use of curriculum and research material online, and use the devices to collect real-time data for analysis. Here are a few examples of what students will do:

● Compare and contrast trends in the chemical and physical properties of elements and their placement on the periodic table.

● Create multimedia presentations including video and audio in the analysis of literature and history.

● Research topics for essay writing as well as practice analyzing such pieces of literature as poetry and historical speeches. Connect instantly to current events worldwide using online media sources.

● Interactive discussion boards among students and/or experts that can be monitored by instructors. Essay organizer and step-by-step planner to build critical writing skills in all content areas.

● Use probeware with the devices to conduct scientific investigations.

Source: Georgia Dept. of Education