Montgomery students will find new technologies in the classroom

August 25, 2013

When more than 150,000 Montgomery County students head back to school Monday morning, many of them will find new technology in their classrooms.

While classes were out this summer, the school district replaced more than 9,300 computers. It installed wireless networks in more than 100 schools. And more than 2,000 classrooms will have new interactive whiteboards.

The upgrades are part of Montgomery’s move to increase digital learning as the county aims to improve classroom instruction and meet new national education standards.

“These changes are facilitating important shifts in the ways teachers are teaching and students are learning,” said Sherwin Collette, chief technology officer for Montgomery County Public Schools. “As a result, MCPS has begun to create learning environments that integrate robust wireless networks to facilitate differentiated and personalized learning using mobile computing devices and interactive whiteboard technologies.”

By the end of September, all of the county’s schools are expected to be have full wireless Internet capabilities — one of the most important pieces of technological infrastructure for the district as it moves more of its teaching and learning online. Wireless connectivity for Montgomery and other school systems also will be important in Maryland — and 44 other states — as they administer online exams in 2014 under Common Core State Standards. Common Core is intended to create more consistent educational expectations across the country, rather than having varying requirements from state to state.

Monday is also the first day of class for many D.C. charter schools and more than 45,000 students in the city’s traditional school system, which has pushed aggressively in recent years to align instruction to Common Core standards. Chancellor Kaya Henderson attributed the school system’s improvement on 2013 tests – which were aligned to Common Core in math and reading — to its focus on more rigorous standards.

Upgrading the wireless network in schools this year cost Montgomery about $5.6 million, funded with a mix of federal grant money and county dollars.

Not all school systems have the resources to update their tech infrastructure as Montgomery has, said Douglas A. Levin, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

He said that about one-third of U.S. school districts do not have budgets that specifically address advancing technology.

“That is concerning,” Levin said. “In 2013, it is hard to argue that technology isn’t going to be part of how we do the business of schools. We have to be more serious about ensuring ongoing support.”

Despite Montgomery’s wealth, Levin said the school system still isn’t considered on the “cutting edge” of technology. But it also doesn’t mean Montgomery is behind, either.

“The issue Montgomery has is it’s big,” Levin said. “They just have a magnitude issue.”

Virginia, which did not adopt Common Core, is one of the few states to completely move to electronic standardized tests for students. Virginia was able to move to the online tests for the first time this year after about a decade of planning and millions of dollars in investment from the state, which spent $60 million annually to pay for technological upgrades since 2000.

But the technological improvements aren’t just about testing.

Collette said the wireless capability and interactive whiteboards allow students to have video conferences with experts and students around the world, participate in “virtual field trips” and develop multimedia presentations that are part of the school curriculum.

The presence of interactive whiteboards in Montgomery schools has been uneven because some classrooms first started receiving the technology through PTA fundraising. The county decided to spend millions to ensure that the technology would be available in all classrooms this year to prevent giving students from wealthier parts of the county academic advantages over others.

Montgomery parent Heath Winter said the tech improvements are a “step in the right direction.” But he hopes the school system will provide ample training so teachers know how to effectively use the equipment in their classrooms.

Technology “is a tool,” said Winter, whose daughter starts fifth grade at Piney Branch Elementary School on Monday. “The degree to which they contribute to kids learning in the classroom is going to be dictated by a teacher’s ability to use that tool.”

Montgomery teachers spent much of their summer in training, learning to use the new interactive whiteboards and access some of the new technology available to them as they roll out a Common Core-aligned curriculum.

“Maintaining the appropriate levels of technology refreshment and infrastructure investment are critical to maintaining a relevant and competitive instructional program,” Collette said. “To prepare our students to succeed in college and career pursuits, our schools must have the ability to use instructional resources and pedagogical strategies that incorporate the very technology that is part of daily life outside the classroom.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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