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5 Radically Different Approaches to Technology in Schools

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Not long ago, I was checking email when a Google doc notification popped up. It was from my son Will, who was then in second grade. The document he was sharing was a school project about the ancient Romans. I had no idea my 7-year-old knew how to research bygone civilizations, let alone use and share a Google doc. He quickly realized I was impressed and followed up with a Google presentation on "Reasons to Adopt a Family Dog."

As someone who works in the technology industry, it's thrilling to see how tech is making its way into schools and changing the way our kids interact. Schools in the U.S. spend nearly $8 billion each year to bring educational technology--devices such as Chromebooks and iPads, software, and educational apps--to classrooms (eWeek).

My current hometown, San Francisco, is especially progressive when it comes to integrating technology in elementary schools, leveraging it to track and communicate academic progress, promote collaboration between students, customize curriculum, and even to close learning gaps.

Several schools shed light on the variety of ways tech is integrated--or purposefully not integrated--in education today:

1. A Fully Personalized Curriculum
AltSchool, considered a tech-forward educational start-up, is leveraging technology to improve communication between students, teachers and parents. The school has built and uses inter-connected tools to create personalized curriculum ("Playlists," as they are called) for each student to track progress and communicate with parents. Instead of graded papers, for instance, parents receive an updated stream of their child's progress on a Parent Communication app.

"We use technology to deeply understand our students and their goals, and to document their experience and their progress," says Carolyn Wilson, director of education for AltSchool. "Our use of tech enhances the learning experience."

2. Advocating STEM
One of the most exciting ways technology is changing the classroom is by offering educators apps and devices to create riveting, interactive curriculums. For instance, starting in second grade, students at The Hamlin School, an all-girls K-8 school, use iPads to create multimedia trailers to accompany their book reports. They attach QR Codes to share the videos with students who check the books out of the class library. They also work in a lab stocked with tools from duct tape and Legos to the latest technology laser cutters and 3D printers "to demonstrate their thinking by making." Students are able to bring social studies projects to life by adding conductive tape, LED lights, batteries, and embedding video interviews. "We are never in one place with technology," says Mark Picketts, director of program innovation and professional development for Hamlin. "We model design thinking by constantly evolving and taking tech to the next level."

3. Collaborative Learning
Collaborative learning develops deeper thinking and better communication, fosters stronger teamwork, and ultimately produces better work. Google educational tools have made it easier for students to collaborate with each other, and to share work with teachers for feedback.

"We don't integrate technology because we feel pressured to keep up with the latest and greatest or to be perceived as cutting edge," says Emma Peat, a humanities teacher and educational coach at Live Oak School, a private K-8 school in Portrero Hill. "We evaluate why it's being used and find how it can best support learning." Leveraging it for collaboration is one of the best uses the school has found--gradually introducing students to computers in the early grades, and later moving into collaborative digital projects, such as creating comic books or making podcasts, and sharing digital portfolios, Web and Wiki pages.

Collaborative learning is also a focus at Alta Vista, a progressive PK-8 school that emphasizes science, technology and math. Students there use scratch, a child-friendly programming tool, to tell stories and make games to teach each other skills, and products such as Google docs to share work with peers, diving into more complex tech use in middle school.

4. Promoting Equality
Where The Hamlin School uses technology to tackle the current gender gap in STEM education and Live Oak uses it to accommodate different learning needs, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADHD, perhaps the best example of the use of tech to foster equality is the effort made by the San Francisco Unified School District, which includes about 60 elementary schools. The district is two years into a massive shift to transform itself into a digital domain, bringing aboard new tech tools, enhancing curriculum, and building a robust, resilient infrastructure to support the increased use of technology.

"Technology has the power to level the playing field," says Heidi Anderson, public relations manager for the district. "As a district focused on providing equitable access to all, closing the digital learning gap is core to our agenda."

5. The No-Tech Perspective
Other schools take a limited or no-tech approach within the classroom.
"Technology immerses children in solitude, giving them no feedback--they can't see body language or hear changes in the tone of a voice--it's the antithesis of experiencing true senses," says Mary Barhydt, a lead teacher at San Francisco Waldorf School, a K-12 school centered on creative, holistic education. The school believes technology hinders learning and unnecessarily tethers children to objects, ultimately creating passive consumers. Until middle school, Waldorf curriculum focuses on artistic expression and social interactions. Students work with simple, natural materials--no tech or even textbooks. Instead of sharing a device or a document, for instance, they collaborate to create and harmonize music.

There's little evidence to prove whether or not technology improves kids' long-term academic success, but most believe that integrating it into schools is valuable if done with good sense and digital citizenship. How much--or how little--your child interacts with it is ultimately up to you and the school you choose.