Here’s how schools in Northwest Austin schools are embracing the new digital age

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As public schools in Northwest Austin incorporate more technology in the classroom, educators said they are seeing an increase in collaboration and inclusivity among students.

For educators, digital consumption is unavoidable for this generation of students. A report compiled by the Sesame Workshop—the nonprofit creators of the “Sesame Street” TV program—found that children ages 8-10 are exposed to an average of eight hours of media per day.

As digital literacy becomes more important, educators in Northwest Austin aim to incorporate tech into the classroom and teach students how to use it in effective ways, said Kevin Schwartz, Austin ISD’s technology officer of learning and systems.

“It’s darn near mandatory,” he said.

A spectrum of tech use in districts

Although each school district in the area has different tech policies, sources from all three districts agree the increase in technology has had more positive effects on their students than negative.

All three districts—AISD, Pflugerville ISD and Round Rock ISD—have computers on wheels, or COWs, which are carts stocked with laptops that can be checked out by teachers for their classrooms.

RRISD has incorporated laptop-lending programs at its high schools—including McNeil and Westwood high schools—in which students without access to technology resources at home can check out Google Chromebooks.

AISD has also moved toward one-to-one technology policies, Schwartz said. With the district’s EVERYONE:1 program that started this fall, every high school student has access to his or her own Chromebook, and throughout the district there is one laptop for every three students.

PfISD, however, has moved more cautiously into the digital age, said Kathryn Ives, instructional technology coordinator for the district.

“I think the adoption is very slow, but that’s good because that means we’re really considering how all that actually impacts the classroom and [the]students,” Ives said.

Until last year, only 600 laptops were available across the district. Now the district has about 8,000 laptops using Windows 10 and 3,500 iPads. Victor Valdez, the district’s chief technology officer, estimates about 5,000 of the laptops get used each day throughout the district.

More engagement, inclusivity

Research collected by the Pew Research Center reports that technology encourages isolation, but technology officers from each district all said teachers have reported an increase in collaboration in the classroom.

Jeff Uselman, RRISD’s director of instruction technology, said the added tech allows students to have real-world examples of how to use digital resources to solve problems and allows them to take charge of their learning.

“One of the greatest benefits I see in classrooms is student engagement,” Uselman said. “We see a great amount of collaboration between students in the classroom and with [educators].”

On the other hand, Ives said the collaboration she sees in PfISD has less to do with the technology and more to do with the kind of assignments students have.

“I was in a classroom today, and I saw collaboration without technology and with technology,” Ives said. “I think it just depends on how well-versed the teacher is and how she facilitates those discussions in groups and group work with technology.”

AISD sees value in its EVERYONE:1 program because it bridges the gap between low-income and middle-class students, Schwartz said.

“Austin is a very diverse city, and we have every end of the spectrum at AISD,” he said. “If you don’t have access to computer or tablet, it is a stumbling block.”

By allowing students in the district to check out laptops to take home and making sure every student has one at school, Schwartz said AISD is more inclusive.

“The broader thing is when [technology]becomes ubiquitous, we don’t have issue of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” he said.

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