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Technology brings new benefits, challenges

As each holiday season passes by, gifts and presents are often opened and enjoyed with great excitement and gratitude towards those who gave them. 

New advances in technology have opened the doors of possibility wide to a world gleaming with ideas through the use of devices such as iPhones, iPads and cellphones.

In time, these once new and seemingly futuristic items may not only become replaced by the even newer advancement, but also a staple of its user’s everyday life.

But before that, they will often spill into the classroom, posing new challenges for educators and other classmates alike.

“It’s frustrating because (students) get the iPads, which are a great tool, but they’re also a big distraction. Our school policy is also that if you are using your cellphone in class, it is supposed to be confiscated and turned-in to the principal,” said Tanya Miller, an English teacher at Park Rapids high school.

“But I would walk around and catch students playing games (on iPads) when they were supposed to be listening to what you’re saying or doing other classwork. You would think that with the iPad you wouldn’t have cellphone problems, but you still catch students texting too. I had to start a penalty that if you are caught playing games, you will lose points (in your overall class grade),” Miller said.

Park Rapids Area School District’s recent implementation of its “one-to-one initiative,” in which each student is assigned their own iPad for school-related use by the district, has now become a mainstay in every classroom.

Along with it has posed new challenges for teachers and students dealing with multitasking and overall attention span length.

“Students – not just students, a lot of people and adults, too – seem to think that they can multitask more than they actually can. You find that you are pulled in all of these different directions and you’re never able to fully concentrate on the single task at hand,” Miller said.

Miller sees playing games on the iPads and texting on cellphones as the most common infractions of her classroom rules; they are also the most detrimental to group learning.

Miller sees this multi-tasking as a major hindrance to her efforts within the classroom.

Now teaching a generation born and raised on multitasking, the issues accompanied by it are not nearly as copacetic as students may have her believe.

“I had a case where we had students in the computer lab writing an essay. I had students working on an essay, but right in front of the computer screen they had propped up their iPad and were working on homework from another class at the same time. Besides the other distractions you always have in a classroom – the friend sitting next to you or people moving around – there is this new added distraction. People trying to do more than one thing at a time – it’s impossible to focus on both,” Miller said.

Outside of the classroom itself, changes indicative that technology’s advancement has a firm hold on society can be seen in the library, or “media center.”

“We have done a lot of remodeling and reconfiguring of the media center to focus more on accessing information and taking advantage of the individual iPad that students all have - making it a place where students can collaborate and be a little more creative; not a place where they have to be super quiet, but a place where they can communicate and work together,” said Laurie Conzemius, a media specialist and curriculum integration specialist for the high school and district.

“We have gone through our collection and probably cut our non-fiction section in less than half. We have weeded out the materials that were outdated and not being used by students. In place of them, we have really been looking towards building an online collection of resources where students can find up-to-date information and can access it no matter where they are. We still really like to encourage children to read and enjoy books, but we know that the online presence is such a big part of their life,” Conzemius said.

Conzemius sees these new technologies as both positive and negative; seeing firsthand the distraction it can create, but also the benefit it can produce.

“There is a distraction (with iPads) and that is a big part of it. We’ve tried to provide students with support for how to deal with (iPads) so they can understand that it is a distraction. We’ve told teachers to tell students who are having problems being distracted by an iPad to hand it over. It’s perfectly appropriate for a teacher to tell a student that ‘now is not the time to use your iPad.’ Part of it is setting expectations and rules and then following through with consequences to students who don’t follow those rules. All of the rules that we used before are still in place now,” Conzemius said.

“But there are so many things students can do with the iPads that help them out which can curb things like cheating. There are so many resources to support their learning that they really don’t need to cheat. We are framing our tests differently. Saying ‘yes, you can use the resources you have and also the notes you took,’ which requires students to do a better job of listening and taking notes,” Conzemius said.

“It is absolutely making it harder on teachers. Teachers have had to work really hard to understand how to deal with this new technology. But on the other hand, there are also positive things; like we’ve found that during ‘break times’ in class some students are so engaged in the learning that it’s not as noisy or distracting for the other kids.”

For every action there is a reaction; for every benefit there may lay a distraction. The task for the district now is finding the perfect balance between ultimate educational efficiency and a headache.

“I think we are continually looking ahead because technology is changing so fast. As children become more infused with technology, they need to learn how to manage it as well. One of the things we need to do is help students understand what technology can do for them, and also how it can harm them. One thing we know and understand is that students in Park Rapids aren’t just competing with other Park Rapids students anymore; they are competing with kids all around the world,” Conzemius said.

“Technology has done a great job at helping us make global connections for our kids. They can learn a different language, they can communicate with others around the world, and they can apply for jobs around the world. Their world is not going to be just a small little area,” Conzemius said.

“These kids are using technology 24/7 and for us to not use it at school would be inappropriate. We need to be allowing them to use those tools that they have, but also be helping them understand the consequences for their actions.”

These new challenges have also created new opportunity for Miller to alter the teaching methods adopted over her tenure.

“It’s mostly about teaching students to have a little bit of self-control, because what they’re doing at school they’re certainly doing at home, too. If they’ve never learned the skill of self-control, I think it’s our job as teachers to show them how to shut all (distractions) off and just concentrate on the one task that you’re supposed to be doing right now. It’s hard, because we all do it,” Miller said.

“(iPads) are not just distractions, though, they can be really great. It’s a tool and definitely one that is part of our world. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and hope it all goes away, because it’s not going to. I think the best thing for us to do as teachers is to think about how we can use the technology available to help students learn better and more independently. We need to re-think what school means. Now, the teacher has a different role in asking students pertinent questions to search for answers. It’s not the teacher as the know-it-all, but now it’s the teacher who is the one asking the questions that is promoting inquiry from the students, helping them learn how to learn on their own,” Miller said.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
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