Schools in the Roaring Fork Valley are moving aggressively into the digital future, but don’t expect androids to take the place of teachers anytime soon.
Both the Aspen and Roaring Fork school districts are aiming for one-to-one parity between computers and students (at least those above third or fourth grade) in the not-too-distant future.
However, the smart machines are not the goal in and of themselves. Rather, district leaders see the computers as tools — no different fundamentally from pencils or protractors — to be carefully deployed under the guidance of teachers.
In other words, the primary driver of instruction in both school districts remains the classroom teacher. Computers, though essential to 21st-century workplaces and schools, are merely the means to an end.
“It has to be intentional,” said Tom Heald, curriculum director for the Aspen School District. “Just to use technology for its own sake can confuse the lesson. We have to know what it is we want the kids to know and to do.”
Aspen also reinforces “digital citizenship” and ethical use of the Internet through materials from an organization called Common Sense Media.
Rob Stein, assistant superintendent for Roaring Fork, maintains what he calls a “healthy skepticism” about technology. Computers are remarkable tools when they can enhance communication, collaboration, efficiency and the relationships between students and teachers, Stein said, but they cannot and should not take the place of teachers.
“Technology is not the primary vehicle I want to put up front,” Stein said. “It’s about learning to teach, and then when you know how you want to teach, technology will be your tool.”
Alongside their push to bring computer technology into the classroom, school administrators say the state has pushed them in this direction with its ongoing move to new online student assessments.
Leaders in both districts are using Google hardware and software to enhance their instruction. They’re rolling out Google Chromebook computers for students to use in the classroom, and students are using tools like Google Docs to write, edit and share homework and other classroom materials. With every passing month, “the dog ate my homework” loses validity as an excuse.
Still, technology adoption is a gradual process, and both districts expect to travel this particular road for many years. Here’s a look at what each district is doing in 2014-15.
New in the 1,700-student Aspen School District this school year will be two new technology integrators, Evan OBranovic and Anita Moose. Both come from teaching backgrounds and will help teachers use new technology to enhance their instruction.
“In order for technology to really be effective and meaningful, you can’t expect to layer it on top of the way you’ve always done something,” Technology Director Chris Durhams said. “It really deserves a curricular look.”
Obranovic and Moose are working hard to build and populate the district’s new website (watch for announcements on upcoming how-to workshops), but their long-term task will be classroom-oriented.
Over the past several years, the district has spent some $4 million from a technology-oriented mill levy to provide thorough wireless access and high-tech equipment at its Maroon Creek K-12 campus, Heald said.
Also, between this academic year and last year, another $500,000 will be taken from the general fund and a city of Aspen sales tax to pay salaries and upgrade technology-related equipment and infrastructure.
Thus the district is poised to turn an important tech-related corner.
“This is the first year we’ll actually be one-to-one with Chromebooks in Classrooms 3 through 7,” Durham said. “If there are 25 kids in a class, then 25 kids will have a Chromebook in front of them.”
The district is providing the machines for the younger students. In grades eight to 12; however, the district’s 1-year-old “Bring Your Own Device” policy allows those kids with their own laptops or other devices to provide for themselves. The district will fill in the gaps as needed.
“We all know using your own machine is much more comfortable,” Durham said, adding that roughly three-quarters of Aspen High students have their own devices.
Stein estimates that the reverse is true in the Roaring Fork School District — that roughly three-quarters of high school students don’t have their own devices. So, the 5,400-student district is aiming for a one-to-one computer-to-kid ratio, but it will take longer to get there.
Director of Technology Jeff Gatlin said, “We’re hoping right now to be one-to-one in about three years.”
Stein anticipates that a Bring Your Own Device policy may make sense at some point for the Roaring Fork district, but no such policy has been adopted yet. District officials are mindful of a “digital divide” between students with ready access to electronics and students without.
Between the 2013-14 academic year and this one, the district will have spent $786,000 to upgrade connectivity and purchase 2,370 Chromebooks for its 12 school sites in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.
Stein feels the schools themselves are ready for the digital age, but district officials are unsure how many students have access to the Internet at home and in their communities.
“The school infrastructure is not as big a deal as the community infrastructure,” he said.
More Chromebooks will be purchased and moved into classrooms as teachers and departments request them. The district is ordering the devices when a classroom or grade has met certain criteria and put forth a plan to use them.
“If (teachers) aren’t ready, then we’re going to wait for them to get ready and help them get ready,” Stein said. “We want to avoid the problem of underutilization and waste.”
Like Aspen, Roaring Fork has hired a former teacher with a technological bent to enable the transition. Ben Bohmfalk, who once taught at Basalt and Roaring Fork high schools, is the district’s new technology integration facilitator.
“This level of instructional support is what we need for a successful launch,” Gatlin said. “It’s super-important that he can relate to what these teachers are going through.”
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and The Aspen Times are collaborating on coverage of education. The Times published this story on Sept. 15, 2014.