Technology in the Classroom: QPS looks at how far it has come

Zoey Vahle uses an iPad in Susan Job's keyboarding class April 11 at Quincy Junior High. Job received a cart full of iPads for her music classes through a grant. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 20, 2019 10:50 pm Updated: Apr. 20, 2019 11:17 pm

QUINCY -- Quincy Junior High sixth-grader Riley Welch focused on the iPad in her hand while contemplating musical notes on a staff.

By identifying the correct note, and adding its letter to the blank space, Riley took another step toward finishing an online story activity focused on the treble clef.

"I think it helps us learn better," Riley said.

Teacher Susan Job sees the iPads and a smartboard in her classroom as just as vital to music education as the guitars hanging on the wall -- especially to build excitement in her general music classes for students not involved in band, orchestra or chorus.

"The smartboard and iPads are right up there in the top three as to what has made education more enjoyable and made it easier to teach," Job said. Students are "going to get all that stuff out in the world. We (have to) bring it into the school system and get kids excited about learning – about the endless possibilities."

With apps available on the iPads, students can compose their own music, play pieces on the piano or test their musical knowledge, even on musical notes or guitar strings, with instant feedback. Job and students can "analyze" a piece of music on the smartboard, circling the treble clef or all of one note, then erase it and start over again.

"The general consensus of all the kids is they enjoy the technology," Job said.

But the technology was nonexistent when Job first walked into her classroom this year after teaching for 32 years in Missouri, the last 16 at Canton, where she had both a smartboard and access to iPads. So she wrote a grant to the Quincy Public Schools Foundation, which awarded her funds to get the smartboard now installed in her room, with a projector still to come, and the iPads which students got to use for the first time just over a week ago.

"I haven't had time to get apps on them, but I could utilize them in my classroom every day with different things," Job said. "There's just some really cool things out there."

A report to the Curriculum Committee this month highlighted how far QPS has come in putting technology in the hands of students -- and how much more it still needs to do.

The district's computer count of student laptops went from 1,500 six years ago to more than 3,500 with 1,596 available K-5, 1,184 at Quincy High School and 339 at QJHS.

Numbers aside, though, Job's efforts highlight ongoing challenges for QPS with limited technology in some classrooms, teachers writing grants to get needed equipment and the foundation or other sources, not the school district, providing funding.

Knapheide Manufactuuring Co. and the Knapheide family partnered with QPS and the foundation in late 2012 to implement a major technology upgrade to provide network and wireless internet access in classrooms, a mobile digital environment in instructional areas of school buildings, a centralized infrastructure to support the technology and devices to access the internet. QPS furthered the process with a digital conversion for teaching and learning initiative combining professional development, resources and parent and community engagement – and buildings developed individual tech plans.

"Wireless devices became the focus of the district plan. We've done pretty well over a short period of time," QPS Information Technology Coordinator Dan Ware said. "Starting now into the next year, we'll look at replacing outdated devices which will slow the increase of devices in the district."

Ware makes an important point.

Technology is more than just computers. It's smart televisions, interactive boards and projectors along with what it takes to maintain them, replace them and prepare staff to utilize them in the curriculum.

"It works really well for teachers who have access to it on a daily basis. It's the daily basis part that kills us," QHS Principal Jody Steinke told committee members. "We are ready to take the next step so everybody will have the opportunity for high use."

Getting a laptop in the hands of every high school student would mean buying another 700 units -- or spending around $490,000 based on the average price for typical laptop bought by the district.

With the College Board offering online tools specific to each AP class beginning in the 2019-20 school year, it's even more important to provide that valuable resource for students and staff. One option, Steinke told the committee, is requiring students enrolled in AP courses to bring a device to school which would shift the cost away from the school district to parents of about 300 students.

That's where Superintendent Roy Webb draws the line.

"Here's another thing that the district is not picking up that they should be. We're already not paying for coaches, for directors, for textbooks. Now we don't pay for a kid going through an AP course for a computer they're expected to have. I wouldn't be in favor of that," Webb said. "We keep expecting other people to pay for things we should be paying for."

Seventy-five percent of the funding for laptop purchases has come through the QPS Foundation and federal Title I grants.

"We have focused on tech as one of the pillars that we are supporting within the district, trying to balance the tech needs with the other areas that we're committed to like fine arts and athletics," QPS Foundation Executive Director Kent Embree said. "Ideally, the tech would start to become more of a budget item for the district. However, when there are gaps we're going to feel obligated to try to step up and help the district in those areas."

District-wide, the ratio of students to devices is 1.9 to 1, but it's not the same in every building. "That's where it breaks down a little bit," Ware said.

It's 1.9 to 1 for K-5, 1.7 to 1 at QHS and 4.5 to 1 at QJHS.

At the junior high, "they put money into upgrading their computer labs, adding a few computer labs. They're lagging behind a little bit in the laptop area," Ware said.

Project Lead the Way classes utilize one computer lab, with exploratory classes using two others. Two other labs are available in the building, but one is used every morning for classes, and "all of those devices are also competing for time with all of our testing -- three times per year MAP testing and we're just finishing up the Illinois Assessment of Readiness," QJHS educational technology specialist Andy Hoskins said.

"We've had a lot of upgrades," QJHS Principal Dan Sparrow said, but with computer carts, "we're nowhere near what we need. I'd like to have two or three computer carts per team. We're at one."

The junior high needs to catch up to other district schools, and Embree said that's one area the foundation is looking at to help support this year.

But the foundation won't necessarily be able to meet the need in just one year based on its other priorities and available funding from its own fundraisers, donations and grants from other organizations or foundations.

"A big push in the district is blended learning – some of the work in class, some of the work online. It allows teachers to do grouping with students and meet their needs a little bit better, but where the junior high struggles is we don't have enough devices to do that consistently," Hoskins said.

A goal would be for every student to have a computer or laptop available when needed, "but they don't need it all the time," Hoskins said.

Equally important, QPS officials agree, is being prepared to use additional technology.

"We have to be planned in what our teachers are wanting to do with it. We have some apps and programs out there that can assist with student learning, but it takes time for professional development to get both computerized education and cooperative skills, communication skills, collaboration and those types of things happening in the classroom," Sparrow said.

"Teachers know kids are coming to us with these skills," Hoskins said. "Teachers are anxious to learn skills to stay one step ahead of the students. How many are there right now? I'm not sure. How many want to be there? Most of them if not all of them. They want to be prepared."

Overall, Ware remains optimistic about technology in QPS.

"I know that the feeling is generally that we need more. We always need more, but just looking at the trend over these last few years, a lot's happened," he said. "We have been moving forward, and I don't see any reason why we wouldn't continue."