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August 16, 2012

School eBooks

Digital curriculum kicks in as Southwest Parke schools issue netbooks

MECCA — On Tuesday and Wednesday, Southwest Parke Community School Corp. distributed about 800 netbook computers to students in grades 2-12.

It’s part of a transition to digital curriculum from print, district leaders say. Increasingly, students will learn through digital tools, rather than through traditional textbooks.

“It will be a big transition, but it will help us in the future,” said Cloey Kinne, an eighth-grader at Riverton-Parke Junior-Senior High School, who was in Jason Wilburn’s U.S. History class.

Wilburn plans to make much use of the netbooks through My Big Campus, an online learning platform that uses a format similar to Facebook (it is not associated with Facebook).

Wilburn told students they’ll be able to use their netbooks to make video presentations and even music videos for class. “We’ll have fun with that,” he said.

Students also will be able to download notes in which they must listen and fill in the blanks. “They have to pay attention,” he said.

Wilburn believes use of the netbooks “will allow all students to learn better. It gives them an opportunity to do things they couldn’t do before because they were limited with resources.”

Students will take the netbooks home each night, and families pay a rental fee similar to what they previously paid for textbooks.

On Wednesday afternoon, Riverton-Parke High School juniors and seniors received their DakTech netbooks and learned some important rules and guidelines.

They need to bring the netbooks to school each day and charge them every night. They also were told to never give out usernames/passwords and to “use [the netbook] appropriately.”

Devices that malfunction or are damaged must be reported to the Student Support Center or office, and the school district will repair devices that malfunction.

But there are consequences, and costs, if students have more than one incident of devices that are damaged from misuse, neglect or even accidentally.

The district recommends riders on home insurance policies to cover the netbook, said Rachel Porter, the district’s digital curriculum integration specialist. The netbooks are equipped with an anti-theft system so they can be tracked if lost or stolen.

District officials were nervous about the “rollout” of the program this week and handing out 800 computers, Porter said, but “It has been flawless for two days. It has gone very, very well.”

Student reactions vary. Some of the elementary children “come up and wrap their arms around me and say thank you for the computer, like I’m Santa,” Porter said.

Some of the students would never be able to afford a computer on their own, she said. “Some of the parents have made comments about how they could never provide that for their child but they know it’s important.”

Older students believe the change to a digital curriculum is a good one, but they are concerned about such things as computer systems crashing and losing homework. (Porter strongly encourages students to back up their files).

“I like it and I’m always up for a new challenge,” said senior Brian Obenchain, who will work in the Student Support Center at the high school to help troubleshoot computer problems.  

“I really think if it works it would be great,” Obenchain said. “I’m a skeptic on maybe on how all this stuff running at once might slow it down a little. But if not, that would be awesome. I’d really like it to work.”

The district is making the transition to a digital curriculum because “we feel this is something we need to do for our kids,” said Leonard Orr, district superintendent. “We really believe that within the next five to eight years, probably every school will do some form of digital curriculum.”

The intent is not to use computers just for the sake of using computers, Porter said. “We want to use it at points where it will help students learn.”

This first week of school, “We’re just getting our feet wet right now. We have an enormous amount of professional development planned for the teachers to train them in how to use the computer,” Porter said.

She worked with 10 pilot teachers during the summer.

The vision is for all teachers in the district to incorporate at least one digital component in every lesson and “to be non-reliant on printed textbooks by the start of the 2014-15 school year.”

The transition to a digital curriculum will better prepare students for the workforce and college, district officials say.

The district chose the netbook because it uses the Windows-based software Southwest Parke uses, and it can be used for statewide testing requirements, which increasingly are being done online.

The netbooks cost $569 each and the district purchased about 800 student computers. Teachers have a similar version.

Students rent the netbooks, just as they would textbooks, and turn them back in at the end of each year. Rental ranges from about $100 to $150 a year.

While students can make some personal use of the netbooks at home, the computers are school district property and subject to the district’s filtering system. Students are allowed to put on personal pictures and music “as long as it’s something that won’t get them in trouble,” Porter said. “We have the right to search at any point.”

Currently, students can use Facebook after 5 p.m. but YouTube is blocked. Procedures related to Facebook could change “if it becomes a problem,” Porter said.

The initiative also involves student management software that will allow teachers to monitor what students are doing.

The district has experienced an enrollment increase of about 40 students this year, and officials believe the netbook initiative is probably a factor in that increase. Total enrollment in pre-school through grade 12 is about 1,100 students, Orr said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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