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Technology in the classroom: Dickinson High School learning from hiccups, tablets help engage students

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Despite a few technological hiccups, use of tablet computers in Dickinson High School classrooms has been going well.

The school purchased 150 Microsoft Surface tablets, software and training last year for $96,000 and begin implementing their use in the classroom at the beginning of the school year.

Because of the tablets, teachers are able to lead discussions based on information students find using the computers, said Brian Ham, social studies department chairman.

“We’re not just giving information anymore,” Ham said. “The kids are finding the information and then we’re having them do things with that information. So we’re doing more complicated things, focusing more on those 21st century skills that we keep hearing about — cooperation, communication — those kinds of things.”

Along with the tablets the social studies department has begun using a web interface called Edmodo, which is an education-driven social network.

“You can put a lot of your things online,” Ham said. “I can post videos on there that we watched in class or documents and things so they have them at home, they can print them off, they can watch my lectures. That’s kind of, in essence, homework.”

Overall there’s less homework because the students are doing more query-driven research in the classroom, Ham said. Because the students are obtaining the the information themselves teachers aren’t lecturing as much and are instead leading information searches to help students find facts on their own.

“One of the big things that we’ve really done is teaching how to evaluate information from websites,” Ham said. “‘How do you know if this is a reputable one or not?’ We’ve had specific lessons on that.”

One of the biggest surprises was that very few students were getting off topic, Ham said.

“That, to me, would be a big, strong indicator to you that a lot of the kids aren’t sitting there because they’re not having to listen to lecture anymore,” Ham said. “They can go do things that engage them.”

School Board President Kris Fehr had noticed the trend in her own son, who attends DHS.

“What I observed from listening to my son and his friends was the critical thinking skills, which I hadn’t heard from them before,” Fehr said.

The students liked using the tables, per the results of a survey given to those that used them in the first half of the school year.

“They think its a good step that we’re taking,” Ham said. “Although there were glitches along the way or things that they were frustrated with, they thought overall that it was a good thing for their learning, that they’re feeling more prepared, they’re getting more familiar with technology, they feel that things are more engaging.”

The biggest frustration the students had was with the keyboard, which was a flat surface keyboard instead of one with individual buttons for the keys.

Another hurdle classes faced was troubleshooting, Ham said. When something didn’t work right it could take the whole period to figure it out.

But a dedicated technology coordinator would help immensely.

“The social studies people spend a tremendous amount of time trying to get through these problems, and when you have 30 kids in class it’s a little bit more difficult to do than when it happens to your computer yourself,” Dockter said. “Kids aren’t as tech savy as you’d like to think they are.”

Another roadblock came after lunch, when the school would run out of IP addresses on its wireless network.

The tablets weren’t everything the department wanted. For example, the Surfaces were advertised as coming with Microsoft Office Suite, which typically includes a program called Publisher, Ham said. The version of Office on the Surfaces did not include this program, but the teacher found that they could use Word or other online programs to create the same effect.

“The reason I included that is just — I thought — we’d better make sure next time that we slow that process down maybe a little bit so that we are exactly, 100 percent sure exactly what we want to do,” Ham said. “So instead of saying, ‘We want to use Office,’ we want to make sure we use Publisher on Office.”

Despite some of the setbacks, using technology in the classroom to obtain knowledge, rather than teachers lecturing, has engaged students in a way that simply talking to them doesn’t.

“We’re not teaching history anymore because there’s no need to teach the actual subject content matter,” Ham said. “We’re helping kids find it, how to break it down and analyze it and do something with it.”

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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