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Utah schools experiment with social media, technology

Published June 15, 2011 3:22 pm

Networking • Programs designed to better connect teachers and parents and improve students' skills gain popularity.
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A Facebook program piloted this year by Canyons School District aims to help teachers use the popular social-media site to connect with parents.

"People check Facebook first thing in the morning," said Katie Blunt, an educational-technology specialist in Canyons. "They have alerts sent to their cell phones. They're on it throughout the day. If we want to get messages out to the community, we should go where parents already are, and that's Facebook."

Canyons isn't the only district experimenting with social media and technology. But all of them face constraints when it comes to budgets.

"Not only is it difficult to grow programs, it's difficult to maintain programs," said Mark Sowa, instructional-technology consultant in Jordan School District, of balancing technology initiatives and budgets.

Though the district has Facebook and Twitter accounts, expanding those programs to individual schools and classrooms is still not feasible, said Steven Dunham, the Jordan School District communications manager.

But Jordan is still working on moving technology forward in the classroom, Sowa said. Every classroom, whether it is kindergarten or a high-school biology class, now has a video projector, which Sowa believes is a first for any Utah district.

More classrooms also are using Smart Boards, an interactive whiteboard projector.

Tech-zealous teacher Glen Varga worked with Sowa to incorporate technology in his ninth-grade language-arts classes at Oquirrh Middle School. Now, as soon as students walk through the door, they check out a laptop.

"I'm a geek," Varga admitted. "I'm the definition of the technology age in this generation, so I see its benefits and how it can enhance learning in the classroom."

Varga isn't a lone geek. A teacher at the Salt Lake City School District's Northwest Middle School believes technology is one of the best ways to engage students in his class.

Roger Haglund says his students are "digital natives" who understand technology and respond to its use in the classroom. For one class, Haglund used iPods loaded with quizzes for in-class work. Before he began using the gadgets, students would try to get out of doing math problems he assigned, he said. But with the iPods, they were asking for more.

"They learn through technology," Haglund said. "It has become a necessity."

Granite School District was the first in Utah to assign every teacher an iPad and every student an iTouch in one school. Kearns High, the pilot school for the program, used iTouch applications in day-to-day instruction.

The devices were purchased with a federal technology grant.

"These technologies are really engaging students," said Rick Anthony, who works with instructional technology in the Granite district.

Davis School District has yet to jump on the social-media wave, but, like Granite, is trying to get more computers into the hands of students.

Roger Martin, the district's director of tech support and integration, said technology must have a purpose in the classroom and teachers must know not only how to use the technology but how to integrate it effectively.

"Most districts in the state are still struggling with the ramifications of how much they can use and what they should or shouldn't be doing," he said.

"The whole idea is striking at our students with what they are already familiar with."

For school districts buying laptops for mobile computer labs or integrating social-networking skills into lesson plans, the next step will be determining how well these pilot programs are working and whether students are learning more as a result.






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