Teachers test out the latest tools at ‘EdTech Unconference’

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This article also ran in the East Providence Post on March 17, 2016

Sitting at a table filled with colleagues in the Library Media Center at Martin Middle School, Math Department Chair, Patty Usenia, recalls the technology that was available at MMS when she began teaching in 1989.

“Twenty seven years ago, our modern technology was a mimeograph machine. There was one photocopy machine in the main office and we were limited to 25 copies.”

Today, at the East Providence Schools “Ed-Tech Unconference”, Usenia is making plans to go paperless in her classes by exploring a variety of education apps and sites. With websites like Ten Marks, an online math practice and enrichment program, she is able to more effectively extend the classroom experience for her students.

“They can login at anytime, from a variety of devices, to practice skills that they need to be successful. It has especially helped kids who need to reinforce basic math concepts that they somehow missed along the way,” said Usenia.

At the Ed-Tech Unconference, teachers and administrators from the elementary schools, the city’s middle schools, and East Providence High School had an opportunity to explore technology at their own pace on laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. Since the expertise of individual participants varied, teachers were able to either take the lead or just observe their colleagues.

“The idea was to provide unstructured time for teachers to explore technology that is interesting and relevant to their classroom and their students,” said Tabitha Watjen, an EPHS teacher and one of the facilitators of the Unconference. “Some participants came away with a complete new lesson that they plan to present to their classes this week. Others just had the opportunity to dig deeper into an app that they had read about.”

One of the most popular technologies at the Ed-Tech Unconference was Google Classroom, an online platform that allows teachers to create class websites and integrates with students’ Google email and Apps accounts. At Martin Middle School, teachers in grades 6, 7, and 8 are using Classroom to foster collaboration between students and their classmates.

“It makes it easier and more efficient for teachers to provide quick, quality feedback,” said Kelley Richardson, the English Department Chair at Martin Middle School. “We have had such a better time this year getting kids to work together to improve their writing. They also like being able to work at their own pace.”

Where once schools banned portable devices in classrooms, educators in many schools have found that smartphones provide an extension of the classroom. Despite a concern that students will be distracted by the variety of entertainment that smartphones offer, teachers know that the future of education, in part, will be found on computers and mobile devices. With such change imminent, school administrators are beginning to address the issue.

“We have to start by changing our culture,” said Fatima Avila, Principal of Martin Middle School.”We need to move from an Acceptable Use technology policy to a Responsible Use policy. We want kids to know that these tools should be available to them throughout the day, but with that ability comes the responsibility of appropriate use of technology. My feeling is that if we give kids more constructive things to do on their phones, they will come to see the devices as tools for learning, not just entertainment.”

The schools of East Providence are poised to take the next step in the use of technology for the purpose of increasing educational attainment. In the coming year, there will be more blended and personalized learning – the delivery of curriculum, in part, via computers. This comes not a minute too soon as students are spending more time online than ever before. According to a study from Pew Research Center, 92% of teens report going online daily. This includes 24% who say they go online “almost constantly,” due to the convenience of cell phones and tablets.

Plans in EP to step up the technology offerings also fall in line with a recent initiative of Governor Gina Raimondo to expand computer science offerings in the schools of Rhode Island. Raimondo’s initiative, called Computer Science for Rhode Island, looks to train teachers in computer science who will pass on skills to a new generation of students. The plan is to have new computer courses in schools by December 2017. Principal Avila would like to see such courses introduced even sooner.

“We are educating our students for jobs that don’t even exist yet,” said Avila. “We want to provide our students with the skills and experiences that will allow them to compete in the global economy of the future. There’s not a lot of time to waste. We just have to get down to the business of making it happen.”

If the enthusiasm of the participants at the Ed-Tech Unconference is an indication, the schools of East Providence are moving toward meeting Governor Raimondo’s challenge.

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