District demos new Dell laptops for Oakland schools
on October 10, 2014
Taking math class online, designing video games, working with NASA scientists to launch experiments in space—these are things students at the Urban Promise Academy (UPA) can do with the 210 laptops the Oakland Unified School District provided for the school this year.
On Wednesday’s “lunch & learn” hosted by the school district, students at UPA showed the public their recent experiences using technology in the classroom and the progress they’ve made towards the district’s vision to “help every student thrive with technology,” according to Superintendent Antwan Wilson.
Wilson unveiled the district’s five-year technology plan of providing every student with accesses to Internet-connected devices in his remarks delivered at UPA’s gymnasium. Civil rights leader Van Jones and directors from the Dell computer company also took part in the discussion and addressed the digital divide in Oakland, where over 14,000 students in the district don’t have technology access in their households.
“Every single student has potential to do something great if they are given the opportunity,” said Jon Phillips, director of worldwide education at Dell. “Technology should be a part of that.”
UPA is a public middle school with roughly 300 students, located in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. This year, the school received 210 Dell Chromebook laptops from the district for students to use at school. In addition, every classroom is implemented with a wireless router to ensure a strong signal.
“We encourage students to have fun while focusing on personalized education, and being exposed to technology and opportunity,” said Claire Fisher, the principal of UPA, in her remarks at the school gymnasium. She said she wanted students to “build the abilities to sustain themselves through college, career and future.”
A Dell Chromebook is a Dell laptop running Google Chrome OS as an operating system. This year, the OUSD purchased 11,000 of them for 87 schools in the district, 44 of which have now been connected to wireless. It is the first step towards the district’s goal of giving students 24/7 technology access, before installing connected devices in city libraries, recreational centers, and eventually in every student’s household. The purchase was accelerated when the state decided to replace the California Standards Tests with Smarter Balanced Assessments, which are conducted online.
The $3.5 million worth of laptops were purchased by the OUSD after being carefully rated on price, durability and power, among multiple samples, by teachers across the district. Now, the district has one computer for every four students. The ratio is expected to increase, according Tracey Logan, Director of Technology for the district. “The focus now is on wireless upgrades at the remaining 50 percent of our schools,” said Logan, “which will be done by February, 2015.”
“We want to provide equitable, supportable and standardized environment for all students—not some students, but all students,” said John Krull, the Chief Technology Officer for the district.
The initiative is moving towards what Fisher calls a “level playing field,” meaning that all children will have equal access to computer technology. Given how diverse the Oakland community is, “It is so apparent that each student has individual needs,” said Fisher. “We have kids in the 7th grade who still are struggling with fractions, decimals and percentages; and we have kids designing video games using coding. So you kind of have A through Z in your classroom.”
Fisher then led attendees on a tour into a typical math class at UPA. A class of 30 students was divided into four groups with different tasks. In two groups, each student had a laptop, with which they studied conceptual lessons online to catch up on math fundamentals. Each student can move at his own pace, which “works even better for non-native English speakers,” Fisher said.
Another group of students were recording themselves while explaining to their teammates how they solved each math problem. By listening to the recordings and reading online assessments, the teacher monitored for mistakes and skill gaps, giving one-on-one attention in the fourth group he couldn’t have done if speaking to the entire class. “With such adaptive and interactive technology, students are able to have personalized learning experience,” said Fisher.
In the classroom next-door, students were presenting their seven-page long science project proposals on their laptops using Google Drive, where they are able to share their materials with the entire class, including every edit and comment. “We are encouraged to comment on other people’s work and improve our own projects according to other kids’ opinions,” said 7th grader Jose Horga, whose proposal just won a school-wide competition. For his project, he will be packing worms into a microgravity tube to send to the International Space Station in late October.
“Technology is opening doors for students to new career paths,” said Tierre Mesa, a science teacher at the school, while watching attendees playing a video game that one of her students created on her own. Mesa said that students are much more engaged in their studies, instead of getting distracted by new gadgets. “A lot of families do not have Internet at home. They are glad that kids are getting access at school,” said Mesa. When asked whether technology dependency is something to be watched out for among the students, Fisher shrugged. “Because this school is very much about family, community and relationship, and technology is laid upon that strong foundation, I think we would never go that route,” said Fisher.
In fact, the school is hosting family activities to let parents know what their children are doing with technology. The school is going to have a fun family night next week to teach parents how to monitor technology and why they should have screen time limits on their kids.
“It would be cool to take these computers home,” said Horga, after presenting his proposal on a laptop. “But it’s so simple and fast working on a project with these computers that I wish we had these earlier.”
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