This is a precipitous time for education in Redondo Beach.
New funding, being made available through the state and through voter-approved bond measures, is changing the game. First, the district built new buildings. Now, it’s installing new solar energy systems. By the fall, if all goes according to plan, most Redondo Beach students will have their own personal computers.
In the last week of January, the district will initiate an experiment among a pilot group of 35 teachers and 1,000 students. Each will receive a Chromebook, a personal computer loaded with Google applications, to use for the remainder of the spring semester.
Feedback from members of the pilot group will inform the board’s ultimate decision. If the pilot program proves to be a success, every third through twelfth grader – about 7,000 students – in Redondo Beach will receive a Chromebook at the start of the 2014-2015 school year.
“We’ll be going back to our Board of Education later this year to make a recommendation,” said the district’s deputy superintendent Dr. Anette Alpern. “It’s anticipated that we will be making a recommendation to move forward with it, but we’re open to the possibility that we may decide something else. I think that’s what you have to go into any kind of a pilot program with – an understanding that there’s an intention, what we think will happen, but also an openness to realities of unanticipated situations arising, or unanticipated external opportunities that maybe were not identified six months ago.”
One classroom from each elementary school will participate in the pilot program. In most cases, these are the classrooms of lead technology instructors – teachers who have been identified as promoters of technological integration.
All sixth grade students at both of the district’s middle schools are also part of the pilot. The test group representing ninth through twelfth graders comprises students attending the district’s continuation school.
Whether or not the pilot project vets positive feedback will determine whether the Board of Education chooses to proceed with, or squash, the initiative.
It all started with Measure Q, an initiative voters approved in 2012.
The $63 million bond measure earmarked $18 million for technology, plus other funding for specific purposes like the installation of solar energy systems. Almost concurrently, the district began to phase in California’s Common Core standards; to achieve full implementation, Redondo Beach is receiving state dollars.
The confluence of both streams of funding gives the district an opportunity to make widespread, radical change.
“It’s the biggest shift I’ve seen in the 25 years I’ve been working in education,” Alpern said. “It just feels like I have this awareness that I’m part of something that is truly not just bigger than myself or our school district, but truly changing education and changing the way students learn and how they’re demonstrating their learning and how teachers are spending their time. It’s a little bit scary, but it’s mostly just really exciting.”
In recent months, a taskforce comprised of parents, teachers, principals, and administrators has been mulling over the implications of the project. The group weighed several technological possibilities: iPads versus Hewlett-Packard laptops versus Chromebooks. Ultimately it decided to go with the Chromebook and its Google functions, including file-sharing program Google Drive, email network Gmail, and chat program Google Talk/Hangouts.
The functions give students the capacity to share their files, collaborate on projects, and become accustomed to completing assignments on a computer – a necessary adjustment, as the state is moving toward computer-based assessments and away from fixed-form assessments as per new Common Core standards.
“One of the things you get from going paper to online is that you get immediate feedback on how well students are performing,” said Todd Loewenstein, who served on the School Board when the project was being conceived, owns an internet-based content delivery business, and whose daughter is part of the forthcoming pilot. “You don’t have to wait months until the test is taken. You can get feedback and address deficiencies and strengths in each student. Why is that important? Well, as class sizes have gone up, the need for individualized learning is going up as well.”
Emma Cueva, a fourth-grade teacher at Alta Vista whose students are part of the pilot, is particularly excited about the Google Docs service. The program enables multiple people – an entire class, in fact – to view and edit a document concurrently. It tracks all changes, attributing them to the user who made them.
“Now you can have a whole class working on the same document at the same time, seeing live comments and what other people are typing,” Cueva said.
The function is particularly useful within the context of a group project, Alpern pointed out.
“There’s so much frustration about being assigned a group project and ultimately everyone gets the same grade,” she said. “No one walks away feeling like contributions were equal. I think it’s helpful for a teacher to be able to look at a document and be able to see who’s done the editing and where and what contributions each person has made to that group collaboration.”
Textbook software can be loaded onto the Chromebook. While it is possible the device will replace all textbooks, it is also possible that it will constitute a mere supplement.
“I don’t see it [replacing textbooks],” Loewenstein said. “I think it’s actually supplementing textbooks and supplementing learning. The state still has to figure out what’s going to happen in terms of approving online textbooks.”
Replacing the textbook with the Chromebook could represent a cost-saving measure.
Whereas the district is required to purchase multiple textbooks for a single student, the Chromebook represents a one-time expense.
Regardless of whether the Chromebook replaces the textbook, as a supplemental tool it adds to the education experience another dimension of engagement, Cueva said.
“I think it’s easy to be apprehensive about it because we’re all used to learning from our textbooks, and all of us teachers grew up that way and learned that way,” Cueva said, “but if we introduce it early on, I think it could end up being a very important tool. Students are going to be able to check out maps and photos and videos, be able to link information to other information. The [project] has a lot to offer.”
“There are some interesting things online does that paper and pencil don’t,” Loewenstein added. “You can update materials a lot quicker at less cost than you can, say, with textbooks. That’s a big, big advantage. Plus, it’s a lot more interactive.”
Some parents have expressed concern at the potential for the tool to open up other channels of distraction, but proponents point out that the Chromebook’s internet access is restricted through a filtering program called iBoss.
Like textbooks, Chromebooks are checked out at the start of the school year and returned at the finish. There are rules about the device’s maintenance – no stickers, keep them away from pets, use a case – and about the condition in which they are to be returned. A replacement Chromebook will cost a student $275.
Cueva acknowledges the adjustment might be difficult, but believes it is one today’s student must make at some point anyway.
“A lot of us had to figure this out on our own, little by little, so they’ll be having explicit instruction and a lot of opportunities to ask questions and figure out how to do this,” she said.
Alpern agrees that students should be learning to adapt to a digitized world if they haven’t already.
“I’m a parent, as well as the district’s deputy superintendent,” Alpern said. “I think that parents understand that their children are growing up and being educated in the 21st century, and we want their school experience to not be completely devoid of what happens outside of the school day that the two worlds really should come together and should build on, and benefit from, one another as opposed to being very separate realities where during the day, from 8 to 3, you are one person and learn one way, and after 3 o’clock your world is very different and you engage differently. We want both worlds to become more synchronized.”
And as the pilot project moves ahead, administrators and teachers will work out a strategy for receiving formal feedback from students testing the Chromebooks. To discuss and design their feedback system, they are interfacing with none other than Google Drive.