Digital learning bill aims to arm students with technology, train teachers

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ST. GEORGE – Although schools throughout the state have adapted new technologies in their classrooms, a new funding bill being proposed in Utah’s upcoming General Session seeks to expand “digital learning” and updating available technology in the classroom and increase educator training.

Rep. Jacob L. Anderegg will introduce the Grants for Digital Learning bill, House Bill 67, that calls for the Board of Education to award grants to school districts, schools within a district and charter schools to facilitate digital learning through the purchase of digital content and hardware. That includes personal mobile devices and laptop or personal computers, and professional development for educators related to the use of the technology.

According to the bill’s terms, if passed, an education agency that receives funding will be required to provide matching funds equal to 25 percent of the grant award. Amounts granted to students for the purchase of hardware or digital content may not exceed $500 per student.

Funding for the grants would come by a $10 million appropriation from the state’s education fund to the initiative funds; $5 million for the purchase of digital content and hardware, and $5 million for professional development for educators or the purchase of peripherals or networking equipment.

According to Fiscal Analyst Angela Oh’s notes to the bill, “enactment of this legislation likely will not result in direct, measurable expenditures by Utah residents or businesses.”

Sen. Vickers – Bill has potential, needs a plan

Considering the proposal, Sen. Evan J. Vickers said it has potential but outlined three components to be considered.

“We’ve done a lot of pilot programs with digital learning, some of them have been state-sponsored. Anytime you put money into something like that, there’s kind of a model that Legislature has had some success with,” Vickers said. “Sen. Steve Urquhart has used it, and what you do is, you set up a situation where you put some money out there and people that really want it can go and qualify for it. I think it has potential.”

But, Vickers said, it’s not as easy as just buying equipment and implementing it into the schools. Three components need to be included in this kind of plan:

“One is the device itself; purchasing a quality device and having a maintenance program – because some are going to get broken, some are going to get lost. You have to deal with that,” he said.

“Then you have teacher preparation,” Vickers said; “they’ve got to get prepared for it, they’ve got to understand how to use them and be efficient with them.”

“Then,” he said, “you’ve got to have the infrastructure so the bandwidth can handle all of the technology.”

All three components are essential to the success of this kind of program. “You can’t just do one without the other,” Vickers said, “you’ve got to do all three.”

Rep. Last – Bill’s goal not new to Legislature, not all parents on board

Rep. Brad Last, who is also the vice president of development at Dixie State University, said that implementing technology in Utah’s schools has been something legislators have been trying to do for some time now.

“We’ve been doing quite a bit in the Legislature to encourage the use of technology in our schools because we think it’s a way to make our education more effective and more efficient,” Last said.  “We’ve been talking a lot about this and Sen. Lockhart was promoting a bill that would put a digital device in every student’s hand.”

But, Last said, not all parents are on board with this idea. Parents are concerned with the amount of screen time that would come with every student having access to a tablet or laptop. And parents are concerned about their ability to monitor their children’s activity on the devices, especially with younger children.

Teacher input 

Claudia Empey, a member of staff development at Panorama Elementary School in St. George, said she has worked at the school district for Title 1 schools –higher poverty schools, migrant education programs and services for neglected and delinquent children and youth. She would go around and help teachers implement technologies into their classrooms, she said, because even if they have the technology they still need to teach teachers how to use it in their classrooms.

“You know, I think we’d be excited to get anything,” Empey said. “With $10 million, I bet you could do quite a bit with that. I’m certainly not going to say that’s not enough because I’d be excited to even get that.”

The current state of technology in our schools is lacking and outdated, Empey said. Laptops are missing keys, don’t have wireless internet, or just don’t work at all, she said.

“Even if we could get Chromebooks or laptops for the older students, that would be a step in the right direction,” Empey said.

That’s not to say that some schools have not started implementing technology in their classrooms. Several Southern Utah schools give their students iPads to use for learning and others provide software.

“I’m pretty spoiled at my school,” Loni Goodwin, who teaches third grade at Crimson View Elementary School in St. George, said. “We have a lot of technology that a lot of other teachers don’t have. We have a library so they can download books and check them out right on their iPads. We research stuff on the internet and create projects using the iPads. I use it in my instruction.”

Goodwin said her school has Apple TVs that allow her to walk around the room using her iPad to dispaly things on the board.  Apple TV also allows her students to connect to her Apple TV to show her how they’re completing things and share information more easily.

Iron County Schools recently struck a deal with Microsoft that allowed them to make Microsoft Office 365 software available to all K-12 students for use at home and at school. Having all the students and teachers equipped with the same software has advantages. It allows teachers to include different things in their curriculum that they may not have considered in the past, Iron County School District technology coordinator Troy Lunt told St. George News. Read more here.

Utah’s 2015 General Session of the Legislature starts Monday and runs until March 12.

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