Automation: Educators preparing for unclear future

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Educational institutions are using technology to assist teachers, make a wealth of material available to students and virtually transcend the traditional classroom.

“We have a whole initiative in place because we have to prepare students for a world yet to be imagined,” said Devra Ashby, public information officer at Colorado Springs School District 11.

“The workforce is changing; we need to foster more creative, adaptable learners,” Ashby said. “Incorporating technology in the classrooms is important for us. We call it Next Generation Learning.”

Next Generation Learning Coordinator Scott Fuller said the term automation isn’t much used in education circles.

Rather, the concept is leveraging technology to empower teachers by reducing their workload.

“Nationally and internationally, people are trying to come up with intuitive software programs that adjust to where kids need to go,” Fuller said. “That’s not really the direction we’re going. We don’t want to take teachers out of the classroom — just to shift their role.”

Teachers are shifting away from being the all-knowing person in the front of the classroom and becoming more of a designer or engineer.

“Computers can’t build empathy with students,” Fuller said. “We need a person who can interact with individual kids and do all the things teachers bring to the classroom.”

What teachers need more of is time, Fuller said.

“You have to leverage time. That’s what we’re using technology to do,” he said.

Fuller said he worked with a teacher who said writing comments and giving feedback was the most onerous part of grading papers.

“Through technology, she started recording verbal feedback and offering digital office hours to do one-on-one feedback rather than writing paragraphs of feedback,” Fuller said.

“This is really about designing technologies that give them more face time with smaller groups of kids,” he said.

Extra practice and enrichment, software packages that take learners step by step through a subject at their own pace, and interactive simulations can help to do that.

In the past, communicating students’ progress relied on report cards and once-a-year meetings with teachers. Now technology is giving parents an unprecedented view into their children’s classrooms.

“I was at a conference with a teacher, who kept looking at her phone,” Fuller said. “Her son was sending her his work on a project in real time, asking for feedback. We’ve eliminated that question, ‘What did you do in school today?’ ”

Even kindergarten students and first graders are giving their parents — and each other — feedback by taking photos and videos that are available in real time.

Trailblazer Elementary School is a leader in implementing innovative, personalized teaching methods.

Some Trailblazer classrooms are set up to accommodate small, teacher-led groups as well as students working individually at computer stations or on tablets. Students rotate through different stations, depending on their needs.

Throughout the day, Trailblazer students can choose how they engage with learning activities.

Based on daily pre-assessments and personal preferences, students can select a Learner Pathway, which offers them further choices on when and how they work on a specific skill and how they demonstrate mastery.

Computers provide a platform for Learner Pathways, present resources and give students access to data to help them make the best choices.

Teachers create the pathways that provide individualized instruction, share data to help students identify their needed path and supply additional resources and choice points as they move through their pathways.

Other classrooms have a more traditional look and feel.

“We recognize that, to be a well-rounded person for the workforce, you need to develop abilities, skills and the disposition to tackle various kinds of work, solve problems and interact with people,” Fuller said. “So we don’t use screens all the time.”

Sean Wybrant, a career and technical education teacher at Palmer High School, is using virtual reality as a learning tool.

“One of the projects his class did last year was re-creating the Salem witch trials,” Fuller said.

Wybrant’s students created a digital simulation of the courtroom in painstaking detail. When a user donned virtual reality goggles, he could look around and move as if in a physical room. As the user touched an artifact such as a dais, information would pop up about the role it played in the trials.

In fact, technology opens up the world.

“In previous years, to get real-world expertise, you had to organize a field trip or get a guest speaker,” Fuller said. “Now we can Skype with somebody in Australia for 10 minutes to get that expertise.”

Nationally, Fuller said, there are a lot of one-to-one student-to-device initiatives, where every student has a laptop, tablet or other device for personal use.

District 11 decided not to pursue that strategy, instead choosing to fit the number of devices available to the needs of each school.

Technology also is helping schools to ensure students’ safety.

“We are experimenting at Doherty High School with scan cards to automate attendance and know where everyone is at all times,” Fuller said.

Technology is even being used to teach students about online behavior.

“I work with a teacher who is using online simulations, almost like role playing, to teach digital citizenship,” Fuller said. “The kids are making decisions in an online, safe environment where they can see what the consequences and dangers are.”

Virtual learning at CC

More than 80 percent of the classrooms at Colorado College are smart, meaning that they have equipment such as a flat-screen TV to which a computer or other peripherals can be connected.

That’s nothing new; what is unique is that the college is starting to send data through a campus-wide network that enables students to access material anywhere.

“The quality difference is amazing when it’s high definition and on the network” rather than viewed on traditional audio-visual equipment, said Dave Ziemba, CC’s infrastructure manager.

Enhanced connectivity on and off campus was achieved when the college upgraded its network four years ago. One of the greatest benefits for students has been virtual labs.

“We started building apps they can use, some very expensive, very academic and very powerful,” Ziemba said.

More than 50 applications have been developed for use in math, computer science, the physical and social sciences and the humanities, Ziemba said.

Some enable students to do virtually what cannot be done physically. One such app, Virtual Human Dissector, promotes an understanding of anatomy by letting students view the human body slice by slice.

Other apps allow students to listen to a symphony for a music class, view paintings for an art history session or look at digitized slides of historic photos. Math-related programs help students perform massive amounts of statistical analysis or solve complex algebra problems.

Some of these apps currently are available only in physical labs, but about a dozen can be accessed through any browser by students who have appropriate permissions, a username and password.

Ziemba said the college is looking to hire a tech expert whose job will be to expand virtual access to nearly all of the available apps.

“The goal is removing the physical labs and repurposing the physical spaces,” Ziemba said. “I see resources we could give back to the college, knowing that we found as much power and productivity as possible.”

Students can connect to virtual labs from their own devices to use specialized software even when the corresponding physical labs are closed or they are off campus.

“One of the big ones we’re looking to install is GIS,” Ziemba said. Currently, students must use the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson GIS Lab in the new Tutt Library.

“There are classes in that lab as well, and students have to wait until it’s unoccupied to use that lab,” he said.

On the faculty side, the enhanced network gives professors the ability to access courses, grades and applications they use, on any device they own.

“We can make it look like we’re in our office — the same icons and the same wallpaper follows you throughout all devices,” Ziemba said.

Ziemba doubts that virtual apps are going to put any CC teachers out of work.

“A lot of our tradition is small classrooms, very professor-driven learning and individualized learning built around that interaction,” he said. “I wouldn’t ever see the traditional, in-person classroom changing.”

He expects virtual connections to enhance classroom learning with supplemental activities and collaboration between students, which is already taking place.

Colorado College is bucking the current trend toward universities offering open courseware that enables one professor to reach hundreds of students everywhere through exclusively digital classes.

“We don’t have true distance education,” Ziemba said. “I’m not sure where that’s going now, but I would see the same amount of faculty even if we had distance learning. Maybe in another school, it might be different.” 

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