Tech Insights: Technology is Primary at Plymouth Elementary School

Dan Kaplan

When SAU 48 launched a building renovation project two years ago, Plymouth Elementary School principal Julie Flynn recognized an opportunity to expand and update the school's technology inventory.

"Technology has always been a priority at Plymouth Elementary School, and we've invested in equipment," Flynn said. "But it changes so rapidly that it's hard to keep up, and we found ourselves duct taping to keep things going."

After voters approved spending for the two-year, phased-in renovation of the building which houses classes from kindergarten through eighth grade, Flynn and other school officials convinced the school board that the time was right to ramp up the technology curriculum and the stable of mobile devices needed in the classroom.

"We looked at technology at other schools," Flynn said, recounting a visit to Concord, Massachusetts where three elementary schools had been renovated and outfitted with new technology. "We took it to a new level, even beyond that."

Flynn, an educator who has been in the field "long enough to see the shift" in teaching from analog to digital, believes children benefit from exposure to technology at an early age. In the kindergarten class at PES, for example, children look forward to the arrival every Friday of a newly-purchased cart that rolls into the classroom carrying laptops used for reading.

"Technology helps differentiate instruction," Flynn said. "The beauty of it is the teacher gives general information, students interact using the white board, and they rotate in small groups."

Technology allows students to progress, and to be monitored, individually, Flynn said. It also teaches them to think critically.

In an eighth grade social studies class at PES, the principal noted, students learned about genealogy by using a website, ancestry.com, accessed on their laptops with direction from the teacher. In the classroom, the teacher demonstrated the research process by tracking census reports from the early 1900s to find out about his mother's side of his family. As a result, Flynn said, students were encouraged to have conversations with their families and to pursue their own investigations.

"It's becoming more invisible, something that's naturally there, not special," Flynn said of computers in the classroom. "That's our pen and pad of paper."

John Martin, technology coordinator for Plymouth Elementary School, shares Flynn's enthusiasm for computers in the classroom, starting in the early grades. He is also an advocate for students bringing their electronic devices to school.

"Now, the youngest users, the littlest ones, are using audio and game systems, iPads and iPods, and these systems are all capable of accessing the Internet with all that this entails. In the future, there will be new types of devices that our kids will be exposed to," he said. "With that amount of access and constant contact, schools need to balance this expanding access to and use of technology for learning while also teaching students to keep themselves safe."

"The reality is we can only control their exposure at school, but they need to learn how to make the right choices when those artificial barriers such as filters aren't around, Martin added.

Current fiscal challenges are another reason Martin is interested in what is being called the" Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)" movement.

"We're expected to be so much, to so many," he said. "In this age of differentiated learning, technology can be used as an extension of the classroom, allowing learners to move at their own pace, while approaching problems from new angles. Allowing students to bring their own devices enables us to demonstrate how they can be used for learning and education, while allowing us to focus our technology budget on the gaps in accessibility and affordance that inevitably occur."

Investing is technology in the schools is critical to the future success of both students and society, Martin continued, pointing out how partnerships between businesses and schools and the ability to leverage free applications from the Internet are reducing costs and presenting new opportunities.

"A year ago when I took a look at my inventory, the average age of my computers was eight years and they were primarily desktops," Martin said. "By leveraging my relationship with Plymouth State University, we were able to get some surplus computers that were four-years-old, cutting that average age in half. We've also shifted our focus towards mobile computing, laptops and netbooks, rather than desktops, and the teachers and students have responded positively to this change."

Daniel Kaplan is the Chief Information Officer at the New Hampshire Local Government Center. He can be reached by email or 603.320.3342.