What's Up with Technology at School?
by Diane S. Kendall
The annual fall "Parents Night" or first face-to-face parent-teacher conference looms in the not too distant future. Do you have your list of questions about how the home-school technology connection will work in your child’s classroom ready?
As your kids get older and the amount of homework done on the computer continues to grow, it’s important to know the rules for what can and cannot be done on the computer. It also can be essential to find out what the policy is on plagiarism and Internet safety rules. And don’t forget to inquire about some plain old logistics like what system they are running at school just to make sure your home computer can play nicely with others.
Speaking of playing nicely with others, let’s clear up one issue that always seems to emerge at this time of the year – Macintosh computers versus PCs that run Windows software. THERE ARE NO SERIOUS DIFFERENCES! For example, if you have a Gateway or Dell computer at home, it's no big deal that your kids are using Apple Macintoshes at the local school or vice versa. Software programs and Internet sites work exactly the same on both kinds of machines and the vast majority of kids have no problems moving from one kind of machine to an another nor will they when they are adults out in the workforce. Sometimes techies and consumers get a notion that one particular machine or system (and only one machine or system) is the right tool. Both kinds of machines/systems have some pluses and minuses, but the truth is that both kinds of machines/systems can (and do) exist side-by-side in the real world and share files. For example, files created in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint can be read on both Macintosh and PC machines/systems. Your child’s only issue with a difference in platforms comes when they take disks from home and try to run them at school or vice versa. If that's going to be an issue in your case, ask that question up front.
That settled let's look at some other basic questions in five different categories. All of these categories are inter-related, but you may find it is easier to get answers if the questions are divided up this way. This list is not exhaustive, but should serve as a platform for further discussions with the educators and technology specialists at you child’s school..Hardware
Take a look around your child's classroom. These days most classrooms should have at least one or more computers with about 4 or 5 being an optimal number for students to use in small groups or in rotation to get individual projects done. These machines don't have to be the newest equipment in the world to still be effective tools for learning to write, type, and run most standard software. Somewhere at school - in a computer lab, for example- your child should have access to some more up-to-date equipment so they can create and display simple multimedia presentations.
Make some mental notes about where the computer or computers are in the classroom and their appearance. Do they look like they are integral to what is going on in the classroom or are they pushed to the back of the room, dusty, and appear like they are never turned on? If your child's teacher can't answer your questions about equipment, try to stop by and chat with the principal or technology resource teacher.
Software and Internet Sites
- What platform (PC or Macintosh) does the school use?
- What system software is in use? Mac OS 9 or X? Windows 98, NT, 2000, ME, XP ?
- How old is the equipment?
- What are the district/school plans to cycle in the newer technologies?
- Are there computers in the classrooms as well as the labs?
- Are the computers networked together? (In other words are they all connected so they can communicate with each other?) Is there a server in the school? Is there a district server? Who maintains the network and keeps it running?
- What other technology is available for students and teachers to use such as scanners, digital cameras, and digital video cameras?
- What about physical set-up of the computer stations? Is your school still using folding tables and chairs? (Schools need to be mindful of studies showing that having the right furniture set up is important for maintaining kid's posture and preventing other stress r elated injuries.)
- Are the computers in a safe environment? (Generally, schools are not allowed to have wires, plugs, or electrical work on floors or accessible to children. Extension cords are a no-no in a school).
These days schools can buy site licenses to use software or particular educational sites on individual machines. This means that you may or may not be able to duplicate the software and web sites your child is using at school at home. But it still pays to know what standard software, in particular, your child is using especially which word processor the school is using and recommends.Ask:
- Ask for a list of titles of the software tools and web sites that students use regularly (word processing, spreadsheet, art, reading, research tools, etc.). Ask also which of these programs the teacher or technology resource teacher would recommend for home use.
- What versions of the software (especially word processing) are loaded onto the computers? Newer versions can usually run older versions of files, but older programs sometimes cannot run a newer file. For example, if you have the latest and greatest word processor loaded on your home computer and your child does all of his/her work at home, it may not run under the older version of the SAME program back at the school.
- Especially in the lower grades, ask for a list of the instructional programs and web sites, divided up into subject areas, which are used in the classroom. Ask also which of these programs or sites the teacher would recommend for home use if they are available in the home market.
- Request to be kept up on new products and sites, what the kids like to use, or suggestions for remedial products and sites.
In the best of all school situations your child should be learning to use all kinds of computer applications- word processing, spreadsheets, databases, art programs, and presentation programs like PowerPoint as well as software and web sites that are integral to topics under study. They should also receive some instruction in typing starting around grade three or four when their hands are big enough to over the keyboard. (Many schools do this in middle school.) They should learn how to use the Internet as a resource including searching techniques and how to take electronic notes and receive some instruction even at the elementary school level on how to avoid misinformation and plagiarizing. These experiences with the computer should not be a once a week excursion to the computer lab, but part of everyday classroom experience.Ask:
Internet – Research and Safety
- How is technology being integrated into daily lessons?
- What does the teacher suggest can be done at home to enhance that integration?
- What computer applications are students expected to master? Will they be part of project assignments?
- Who is responsible for integrating technology into the curriculum - the teacher or the computer resource teacher?
- If students do go to the lab once a week for instruction, what do they do there and how is this related to ongoing curriculum?
- What is the job of the technology teacher - to teach students or to assist teachers? How much of their time is taken up in maintenance of the computers or network? (If the answer is more than 25%, ask what parents can do to help change that.)
The Internet has become a research tool in most connected classrooms these days. Be sure your school is part of this plethora of information, but has also thought about safety issues.Ask:
Homework and The Computer
- Are the computers connected to the Internet? If not, are there plans to do so?
- Is there an "Acceptable Use Policy" in place at your school? (Also called an AUP, this is a written agreement between the school and the child (agreed to by the parents) about proper use of the Internet and the consequences for not doing so.)
- Is the AUP used? How is it enforced?
- How is the Internet used in instruction?
- Are the children monitored when they use the Internet? What safety rules are followed?
- Will the teacher discuss the problems of misinformation, fair use, privacy, and cyberbullying (especially for students in middle and high school)? (For more on these issues and others see Internet Smarts at http://www.powertolearn.com/internet_smarts/index.shtml)
Teachers often think students should intuitively know how computers fit into the homework process but this is usually not the case. Help your child discover what the ground rules are and how to work smarter with the aid of the computer.Ask:
- What are the class rules about what kinds of homework can be done on the computer? Can everything be done on the computer or only special assignments/projects? Will the kids be informed on a project to project basis?
- Is the Internet always allowable as a resource or it sometimes restricted? Why?
- Will kids be instructed how to cite Internet resources?
- Is there access before, during and after school for kids who don't have computers?
- What are the basic recommended computer software tools (wordprocessor, math programs, encyclopedia, etc.)?
- Is there s list of recommended web sites and will students be given web sites that can help them get started on various projects?
- What about plagiarism? Will it be discussed and the penalties laid out for students? What about strategies for avoiding plagarism?
- Will the tenets of Fair Use – in other words what kids can and can't leaglly copy off the Internet for projects and homework – be reviewed?