GRACE & Technology - The Truth About Our Technology Compass

GRACE & Technology – The Truth About Our Technology Compass

As the pace of technology change continues its rapid march forward and as information about those changes becomes less centralized, it’s a good practice from time to time to address the big picture of how GRACE envisions using technology, both now and in the future.

Our fleet of computers is on overlapping 3-year leases and so every year we have some devices that are coming off of warranty. This gives us an opportunity, every year, to evaluate the effectiveness of our past choices as we plan for the future. For many years, Apple provided an unparalleled product for the education market. However, in the last five years, other manufacturers have been closing what used to be a very large price/performance gap.

We sat down with IT Director, Dana Morrison and asked him some candid questions about the GRACE technology program, the selection of student and teacher devices and his vision for the future.

Question: Why are we using Chromebooks in some grades?

For the 2017-2018 school year, we decided to switch to Chromebooks for students in 4th-6th grades for the following reasons:

  • Apple has not upgraded the chipsets in their 11” MacBook Airs that we use and we are hearing chatter that the model might be discontinued. While Apple has neither confirmed nor denied this, the possibility was enough to prompt us to look for alternatives should this come to pass.
  • Apple products have always been and continue to be more expensive than alternative products. When the 1:1 program was started, this expense was justified by the superior product being offered. This justification is no longer true. We can be better stewards of our tuition dollars and invest in other curriculum enhancing tools with the cost savings from replacing a $1,250 device with a $330 device.
  • The most common product repairs for the MacBooks (liquid spills and screen damage) are not covered by the AppleCare warranty. For example, replacing a screen in an 11” MacBook Air averaged $700+ in out-of-pocket expenses for our families. Replacing a screen in a Chromebook costs under $50.
  • More and more of the resources we use are online or could be online.  With the knowledge that many of our resources can be cloud-driven, the specific device used to access the cloud becomes less important.

Question: Are we moving away from Macs?

As part of our 1:1 program, we have always focused on the advantages that technology can have on learning. It has never been about the brand name on the device, but how that tool can be used to maximize student engagement and content retention in each subject area. There is a benefit to our students having experience on multiple platforms. It allows them to see the similarities and differences and become nimble at learning variants of programs. Students will continue to learn how to use word processors, spreadsheets, video editors, and presentation software to be able to meet the learning objectives of their classes. The brand of those applications is less important than knowing how to effectively use each tool.

Question: Have you had to lower curriculum standards to adapt to Chromebook use?

Chromebooks have not affected what we teach in the classroom. In some cases it affects how content is taught, but the teachers have not weakened their content in an effort to adjust for a change of student devices.

Question: Why don’t we use something with a removable keyboard or something “better” than the basic model selected?

Chromebooks do come in a variety of styles. We have used the Lenovo 11e Chromebook for the 3rd grade keyboarding instruction for several years and with great success.  Though there are models with flip/touch screens, our decision has been based on what makes the most sense for effective classroom and home use. As it relates to the flip screens and removable keyboards, more moving parts typically translates into more things to break. Looking ahead, we will continue to research the available options to procure the best device to meet our overall educational goals.

Question: Will students on the Upper Campus switch to Chromebooks in 2018-2019?

There are two very different dynamics that affect technology use on the Upper Campus when compared to the lower campus

  • Students across multiple grade levels can be enrolled in the same class. This is especially true for math and language classes, but also true in many upper level science classes.
  • Teachers teach a variety of classes, across multiple grade levels within their subject area with some teachers teaching both middle school and high school courses.

Because of this dynamic, we are waiting at least one year before we make a device change on the Upper Campus to give us additional time to think through all the ripple effects. Due to the dynamics described above, it is likely that the device used by Upper Campus students will need to be the same across all six grade levels. Since some of our MacBooks will be out of warranty for the 2018-2019 school year, we have budgeted extra funds to cover any repair costs that may be needed for those machines.

Within the TAG department, we have begun testing how a replacement device might be deployed. We are working with vendors and want to have all the information we can before making a decision. Regardless of the device selected, you can be assured that we take this transition very seriously and will select a device that best fits the mission and vision of the school.

Question: What’s your long-range vision for technology at GRACE?

It would be easy to think that the discussion on what device we buy is the point. But it’s not. Devices in the hands of students are just one piece of a bigger picture. The real future of technology at GRACE will have roots in solving real world problems.

We were recently awarded a Maclellan Grant to help us as our students develop real-world problem solving skills. Where teamwork, collaboration, and 21st century skills have become “common words” used to describe technology in education, we intend to take our focus to the next level with a fresh and new approach to technology in the classroom. Our computer science curriculum will now include the following elements as part of this vision.

  1. In our Introduction to Java elective class, students will be given the opportunity to work collaboratively on building drones and programming them in Java from scratch. Teams of students will work with a budget to make purchases, design their drone, 3D print the drone chassis, debug circuit control issues, and test their product.
  2. In our Computer Build / A+ Certification elective class, students will build a high end computer to be used in the computer lab. Students will have hands on roles to play as they spec their computer, purchase the parts, build the computer, and test it.
  3. Our Introduction to Python elective class will focus on the Raspberry Pi product with students taking a closer look at circuit design and sensors. From their research, they will use Raspberry Pi’s and programming to solve a variety of problems.

Some of the tasks outlined above are already happening as we empower students to take initiative in our existing computer science classes. We already have students working on a sample machine for the computer lab and another student working on building a drone from scratch to use as a demonstration model for next year.

Every year we are adding more opportunities for our students to gain experience with technology, coding, and computer science principles. Already

  • we have introduced programming logic all the way down to Kindergarten, have a Girls Who Code club for 6th graders as well as a co-ed technology club
  • our technology curriculum is designed to seamlessly transition our Lower Campus 6th grade students into Upper Campus 7th grade Computer Science classes
  • our Upper Campus computer science classes offer “stretch” projects to keep advanced students on a continual learning path

To conclude, we desire to place our students in a position where they can leverage their knowledge and skills for their future.  We want to get out of the way and let your students become what God desires them to be.