From textbooks to tablets

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In Galax schools, mobile devices aren't a distraction — they're part of the curriculum

By April Wright, Reporter



Galax City Public Schools students aren’t discouraged from bringing tablets and mobile devices to class.
In fact, the school system is embracing new technology by integrating it into the classroom.
Galax schools are increasing broadband bandwidth, going wireless and purchasing 123 iPads for sixth grade students next school year — all to create a dynamic way of teaching students.
These technology initiatives will support mobile devices in the classroom, enhance instruction through the delivery of multimedia content and provide multiple options for communications between teachers and students, said Benton McPeak, Galax schools’ technology director.
To support these mobile devices, bandwidth will increase from 16 to 50 mbps (megabits per second), at a cost of $26,000 next year. Wireless access will be brought into the core classrooms at the high school and middle school.
As part of the second phase, wireless internet will be deployed into Galax Elementary School next year.
Working through gaggle.net, which provides online learning tools for schools, students in grades 3 through 12 each will take have an e-mail address and will be able to save homework and assignments to an online storage system. Gaggle includes e-mail, storage of data, posting to message boards, blogging, chatting and messaging.
Even textbooks can be loaded to Gaggle.
All information submitted through the system by students and teachers will be filtered. If Gaggle picks up inappropriate words, the e-mail sent from a student would go straight to administration instead of the addressed recipient.
All sixth grade students and teachers at Galax Middle School will be issued an iPad 2 for use during the school year.
Right now, McPeak is working with Apple on the cost of the 123 tablets, which is estimated at $100,000.
Initially, the iPads will be only for classroom use. However, as the school year progresses, students will be allowed to take the iPads home. Students in other grades will be allowed to bring their own mobile devices, based on preferences from administration and faculty.
McPeak said he, Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Cardwell and information technology resource teacher Charlene Isom “have devoted a great deal of time to research the best choices and implementation strategies. Mrs. Isom has already started working with grade 6 teachers to prepare for next year and to start deciding which applications are required for classroom use.”
Students will be able to search iTunes and load free learning applications that meet the schools’ approval. Applications that are not free will use the same purchasing procedures that all customers use.
Galax Superintendent Bill Sturgill said this embracing of technology is a trend that will continue. Each year, as students move into the sixth grade, they will receive a tablet. In six years, Sturgill said, the plan is to have students in grades 6 through 12 using mobile devices.
Despite the large investment, Sturgill said this provides Galax students with a competitive advantage.
“This is a positive step we’re taking,” he said. “The goal of the division is to be one of the best school systems. We have to invest in our children.”
Galax schools are starting with sixth grade students because they know how to use electronic devices and are the most adaptable to learning about technology, said McPeak.
“Our goal is to alter the approach to education, incorporating 21st Century technology skills into the curriculum so that students learn to integrate technology into their education endeavors..,” said Isom, noting that teachers have been going through extensive training to learn how to incorporate the technology into the classrooms. “When students apply to college, they have to be tech savvy.”
With only four computer labs at Galax schools, teachers had to sign up for the labs and wait their turn for their students to use the computers.
“In Language Arts, students will do more writing, and research will be available to them right in the classroom,” she said. “Students that wouldn’t normally carry around a book will be reading on their iPads.”
The tablets enhance learning, she said, and it becomes more interactive and exciting for students.
Patrick Buckner, a math teacher at Galax Middle School, encourages students to bring their mobile devices to school. They take notes and learn from math applications on the devices.
The learning possibilities are endless, said Isom. Students will take notes, exchange information through discussion boards, use interactive maps and play educational games that enhance learning.
Isom said she has met with administration from schools in Martinsville and Franklin County that have implemented tablets.
“Student engagement increased and communication between students and teachers increased,” said Isom. “This opens a whole new ball game for us.”