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Learning With Less: Making Computer Classes More Than A 'Parking Lot'

Standards are going up for Oregon schools at the same time they’re absorbing deep budget cuts. OPB is tracking that challenge through our ongoing education series, “Learning With Less.” For the second time this week, we visit Beaverton’s schools, and its computer issues. Today’s dilemma is about how to teach technology skills. The district wants every grade schooler to have a regular technology class — but budget cuts eliminated its elementary computer teachers. Rob Manning reports.

Beaverton Superintendent Jeff Rose sent shockwaves through Oregon’s third largest district last spring, when he recommended cutting 344 positions. At that school board meeting, budget advisors detailed the effects of those cuts. Administrator Brenda Lewis said the new staffing strategy eliminated whole categories of teachers from grade schools.

Rob Manning/OPB

Lewis said, “This model eliminates the following certified specialist positions: media specialists in all elementary schools, and arts specialists and technology specialists in the few schools that provide these programs.”

When the school board approved the budget, the nine-or-so elementary schools with certified technology specialists, lost them.

But Beaverton officials still wanted to offer technology – and realized that by cutting specials, like PE, music, art, and computers, they’d created holes in the schedule.

So, the district mandated technology classes at every elementary school. But teachers’ union president Karen Hoffman notes the budget crunch meant one big change.

Hoffman explained, “There is not a certified teacher in the class, it’s supervised by an instructional assistant, a classified person, who is paid significantly less. So it was a money-saving thing.”

“Alright 4th graders, it is time to be logging off,” Renee Williaims tells students.

Williams is one of the instructional assistants called on to lead technology classes. It’s very different from what she was doing last year, helping with English as a Second Language.

Technology teacher Doug Bundy at Raleigh Hills School, in Beaverton.

Technology teacher Doug Bundy at Raleigh Hills School, in Beaverton.

Rob Manning/OPB

“I came from being an ESL instructional assistant, so I was more used to small groups. That was my main worry, was being with whole classrooms. That was different, than being in a small group of one or two kids, helping themindividually,” Williams said.

As a matter of policy, instructional assistants cannot teach classes, though they can supervise students.

So teachers, like Doug Bundy, saw another problem awaiting Beaverton’s 20,000 grade schoolers.

“I didn’t want that time to be, what we call a “parking lot” where you just park kids on machines. And we didn’t really know at that time what the technological expertise was going to be of the instructional assistants, we didn’t know — we didn’t know anything,” Bundy told OPB.

So, Bundy started corralling content and organizing it in a Web-based program. He designed some of the lessons. Others came from former students, or from material he found online, or from some combination, like this lesson meant to help kindergartners learn how to get around a computer.

Rob Manning/OPB

“Uh-oh, I can’t see the whole screen. Don’t panic everybody. Let’s move this over, and use this corner … “

Bundy’s effort culminated in a Web-based application called “Student Source.” It’s attracted half a million page views in just the first few weeks. Bundy says most Beaverton grade schoolers are using it.

On this morning, fifth grader Yvonne Dominguez-Jimenez is testing what she knows about preventing online bullying. It’s a Student Source lesson she’s doing with a friend.

She says aloud, “What do you need to do before you post photos of your friends online? Ask permission!”

Other students were testing their typing skills, coordinating emergency responses to virtual disasters, even pretending to be the President of the United States.

Administratorssay Student Source is really helping the technology transition work in elementary schools.

Raleigh Hills School Prinicpal John Peplinski

Raleigh Hills School Prinicpal John Peplinski

Rob Manning/OPB

Prinicpal John Peplinski explained, “Some of the instructional assistants are feeling very successful — I know ours is extremely successful with the program.”

Peplinski, the principal at Raleigh Hills K-8, where both Doug Bundy and assistant, Renee Williams, are on staff. Peplinski says Student Source has something to teach school administrators,too.

He said, “It could be a gateway for how we do education in the future. That type of thinking – of you can individualize instruction, if you have the right people doing it, and the right cultivation of the content. And you can do it in a different way, that may be more economical. Let’s just be honest – we need to find ways to be more efficient with staff, and this is one way.”

Doug Bundy kept his job as a technology teacher, because he’s at a K-8 school. Bundy doesn’t believe that instructional assistants and online lessons can replace the eliminated teachers.

He said, “I don’t have any delusions that a machine with some curated content – however well-intentioned — will ever replace a passionate human being in the room who is immersed in that and has a love for that.”

But Bundy does agree with the goal of individualizing instruction. Student Source does that automatically. There are only so many lessons, though, and creating new ones takes time, effort, and some expertise.

Raleigh Hills fifth grader Mason Forland

Raleigh Hills fifth grader Mason Forland

Rob Manning/OPB

Bundy has students who have moved past Student Source learning to design video games. Fifth grader Mason Forland has created a frog for his.

Forland said, “I’m not completely done with it yet, but like I’m going to design the movements of him. This is how he moves, back here. And I’m on like number two, and this is all that we need to do.”

Forland is on step two out of more than twenty — but he expects to finish all the steps in one class period, with little prompting. His teacher, Doug Bundy, wants to channel interest in video games into developing instructional content. Bundy says it’s working.

Bundy said,”I think they get into it. We actually had some students creating videos the other day, where they actually brought kindergartners up to be in the videos, to get excited about the game. It was a Curious George, it was a painting game, but it also had some data analysis in it. We had some students doing voice-overs for a video in the next room, they were doing it, 30 and 40 and 50 times over, to get it right.”

Beaverton school officials say Student Source is just one way the district is testing the best ways to use computers to teach students.

Raleigh Hills School

Raleigh Hills School

Rob Manning/OPB

One Beaverton administrator is studying whether online learning can save money.Online learning specialist, Paul Ottum says he’s found little evidence online instruction can provide an equivalent education for less money. But studentscan resolve scheduling conflicts and other problems, by accessing content online. The reason it doesn’t save money, Ottum says, is because to be effective, you still need a qualified teacher to check in with students.

As part of our “Learning With Less” series, OPB is following the Beaverton School District over the course of the school year. If you’re a teacher or parent in the district, you can share your experience for the series through our Public Insight Network. Find out more at insight.

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