Metuchen School District plans technology upgrades

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By KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

METUCHEN — By the school year 2019-20, each student in grades 5-12 in the Metuchen School District will have a Google Chromebook.

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That is the goal with the three-year, 2016-19, technology plan that was presented by Shawn Powers, supervisor of Math and Instructional Technology, at a Board of Education meeting on Sept. 13.

Assistant Superintendent and Moss School Principal Richard Cohen said every three years the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) encourages districts to create a three-year technology plan.

“[The technology plans are] good practice, and long-term planning is very beneficial,” he said. “Good planning helps … us make good decisions now.”

Cohen said the proposed technology plan is not binding. It is a projections plan that could change, he said.

“The proposed technology plan is a culmination of a lot of good thinking,” he said, adding that many stakeholders were involved in the planning process that began a year ago.

Cohen said while the DOE does not require districts to create a technology plan, a submitted plan to the Middlesex County Office of Education would allow the district to become eligible for education technology grants.

The goals of the plan include taking focus on student engagement. It transforms teaching and learning in order to authentically engage students in a 21st-century learning environment.

Powers said the Technology Committee looked at a number of cost-saving measures from what they may be paying for some subscriptions for websites and how much usage is it really getting in the K-12 classrooms.

“We looked at what we use now,” he said. “[We asked ourselves] are we getting more bang for our buck when we have a device in each of these kids’ hands? And is it something that the kids can access 24-7?”

Powers said the BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) Policy has been working well in the district, but has its limits.

“You can’t get everyone to bring a device in, you have people bringing in different types of devices, it’s harder to plan for the teachers, it’s not equitable where some kids can’t afford to bring devices in, and a lot of parents are hesitant to let their kids bring the devices in,” he said.

Powers said they came up with a comprehensive list that they felt would best benefit the district in becoming a one-to-one device district, which is the second goal of the plan — accelerate progress forward with universal access for all students to quality devices.

“There are hidden benefits cost-wise because even though you feel like you are shelling out money to make this happen, there’s some cost savings that may occur as well,” he said.

Last year, Metuchen High School experienced 21 days of instructional disruption due to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing.

“We finished PARCC in seven days,” said Powers. “If every kid had a device, we could have been back to our normal schedule than have that loss of instructional time. You’re paying teachers to be in the classroom and instructing and not to be just watching over this state test.”

Powers said another benefit with the one-to-one initiative, the district could get computer room space back, and additional space could be converted into classrooms instead of paying to build for extensions on school buildings.

This school year the district is piloting a One-to-One Chromebook program in Emily Presuto’s fifth grade class and Shawn Doremus’ freshman English class.

There are dedicated Chromebook carts in the classrooms.

“The students will be able to use [the Chromebooks] all day in the classes,” said Powers.

The goal for the district is to budget 400 Chromebooks at $40,000 and initiate a four-year lease rollout of the one-to-one initiative for grades 5-12. The district’s total budget impact by year four would be $160,000.

Powers said from the pilot, the district will evaluate the initiative; research quality device options and best practices of successful one-to-one districts; research support and repair/replace procedures to ensure smooth deployment of devices and student uptime; and pilot Surface Pro with two math teachers and one art/music teacher.

Powers said they are researching and exploring opportunities for curriculum using Open Educational Resources (OER).

“It’s a movement that I have been interested in and the Technology Committee is going to explore this year,” he said. “There is so much information on the Internet and so much content available. Why should we be buying textbooks and paying so much money to these publishing companies when there is so much on the Internet?”

Powers said they just need to learn how to cull through the information on the Internet so the district would be able to design and write its own curriculum.

“If we have a device in every kid’s hand, then we are paying just for an annual subscription and a site license,” he said.

Powers said a digital subscription cannot be damaged or lost whereas a textbook can fall apart.

School officials have spoken to districts with successful one-to-one technology plans as well as failed plans.

Powers said he visited Hillsborough High School, Somerset County, and observed classrooms using the technology as well as not using it in year one of the school’s one-to-one initiative rollout.

“There was an article about the Hoboken School District that had a failed one-to-one initiative partially because they purchased the devices and didn’t put the right amount of support in [their plan],” said Powers.

The proposed one-to-one initiative in Metuchen would enhance the role of a media specialist and increase tech team support.

Powers said there are 57 teachers participating in Google Classroom and Google Apps for Education Professional Development.

“I think we could use our own people for professional development whether that develops later down the road having someone that is in a technology coaching role,” he said. “[Professional Development] is ongoing. When there is big paradigm shift like that, it needs to be ongoing, accessible professional development all the time. It can’t just be a consultant that comes in one day and shows some stuff and they are gone.”

Powers said with Metuchen Teacher Leaders and the outlook on professional development, he said the district will fall in line with the one-to-one initiative.

“We have really worked hard on this and done our due diligence,” he said. “I think we can really make it work for us and make it cost effective for us.”

Powers also said there are benefits of leasing over purchasing devices.

“If we are leasing the devices four years over time and we knew that this lease is coming up, we are going to start a new lease,” he said. “We will always have new devices in. We wouldn’t have to worry about trying to keep devices alive for however many years we can before we have to buy new ones.”

For example, a fifth grade student comes in next year and is given a device.

“They would give that back to us when they graduate eighth grade because that is when the lease would be up and when we would give it back to the company,” said Powers.

The plan includes piloting Surface Pro with two math teachers and one art/music teacher.

“It’s something to explore because I haven’t noticed Chromebooks used effectively to change the learning environment in math classes and/or our music/art classes,” said Powers. “A tablet device is really powerful in a math class. Doing the math by hand is a valuable experience.”

Powers said even when he visited a school district that had a strong one-to-one initiative, he only observed an e-book on the screen in the math classes.

“We have had conversations about having tablet carts in the math department,” he said.

Powers said as of right now tablets are very expensive; however, he said in a year or two that may change.

Powers said the board is not making any commitments on funding by approving the proposed technology plan.

“These are ballpark figures and sets forward an idea of where we want to go in the future,” he said.

Board Vice President Dan Benderly said the proposed plan was exactly the thought of what the board was looking for when they were looking at expanding Powers’ position to include instructional technology.

“We were really looking for somebody to put on an educational technology hat,” he said adding that he appreciated the plan’s very forward, sane-look approach to rolling the one-to-one initiative plan out.

Benderly said OER looks interesting and noted that it would be easier on student backsides carrying a thin laptop as opposed to five textbooks back and forth.

Chris Thumann, technology coordinator, said upgrading technology in the schools started in 2011 when the board committed to hiring a technology department in the school district, which has since expanded with Powers’ position in 2014.

“The technology plan is just a continuation and commitment in the community to put technology in hands of the students,” he said. “Now we are physically putting the devices in the hands of the students. By year four of the rollout, the legacy of the board would have been transformative dedication to technology.”

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