For elementary students, pencils, paper and crayons have long been staples of the learning experience.
And for much of the last few decades, computers have been native to young students starting out on their educational journey, but a small part of the overall landscape.
But in 2020, those tools have evolved quickly into laptops, electronic tablets and Smartboards, cutting-edge technological advances that enhance the interactive educational experience and help prepare those students for a modern school and world environment. Teachers and administrators in South Dakota constantly work to put that latest technology in the hands of their students, allowing them a chance to learn their nuances.
Joe Graves, superintendent of the Mitchell School District, said the district began integrating technology directly into classrooms 18 years ago and has continued to develop and refine its use to the benefits of its students.
Now, the district’s approximately 1,100 elementary students are utilizing technology in ways generations of the past can only imagine.
“A couple of years ago, we extended the one-to-one program to the elementary school, so now each student has a Chromebook that they can use, but don’t take home,” Graves said. “The design is such that we have an increasing number of software programs that students can access as a supplement to the classroom.”
Graves, who is in his 20th year with the Mitchell School District, said computers and technology have moved on from being solely a science to be studied to a tool to be utilized in enhancing the learning experience for students.
“When I first got into this in the mid-1980s, there was a computer here and a computer there. And punch cards,” Graves said. “But it was more of a field of study.”
It’s not anymore. As technology becomes more available, schools have had to adjust to stay ahead of the curve.
Changes over the years
Josh Oltmanns, elementary principal for the Hanson School District, said new technology has become a higher priority in just the last decade. Oltmanns became principal at the district 10 years ago, and he has seen firsthand how modern technology and equipment has weaved its way into the lives and classrooms of his young students.
“I remember when we got the first ones in elementary school. When I first came here we had one computer lab, maybe a traveling laptop cart, and we thought we were pretty advanced,” Oltmanns said.
The Hanson School District has come a long way since then. Now, every student in kindergarten through fifth grade works on a Chromebook laptop and classrooms at the school incorporate Promethean smart boards, large interactive flatscreens that can communicate with those laptops in more dynamic ways and take the traditional place of whiteboards at the front of the classroom, Oltmanns said.
Like learning a second language, the younger students latch on to the new technology quickly, giving them a leg up when it comes to incorporating that technology into classwork as older students and, later, in life and the workplace.
“They’re a lot more comfortable as they get up to junior high and high school, and you see a renewed interest in their learning,” Oltmanns said. “I don’t want to say it makes them grow up fast, but it prepares them for what’s about to come.”
Rod Weber, superintendent and elementary principal for the Woonsocket School District, said the district uses Apple iPads with its youngest students and gradually changes the technology as they advance in grades to better suit their classroom assignments, such as book reports or longer written essays.
“We actually still teach typing and start with that in kindergarten. We then use Chromebooks in junior high. I think it’s a good variety for the kids,” Weber said. “They get the first feel of tech with kindergarten, and the iPads have worked well for us. And they’re more likely to have that type of tech at home and can master it at that level.”
Like Oltmanns and Graves, Weber remembers the days when student interaction with computers was limited to a dedicated computer lab room, where desktop machines were available on a first-come, first-serve basis and access to resources like the Internet were just a dream. The opportunities out there for students today far surpasses what he could have utilized in school.
“We did have a computer lab, but it had the desktop computers. There were no laptops in backpacks, so it’s pretty amazing how it’s changed,” Weber said.
Bringing teachers up to speed with the latest equipment can be a challenge, but instructors are enthusiastic and willing to learn for the sake of their students, leaders say.
“That’s a credit not just to our teachers, but to teachers in other schools. They may have to change philosophy or techniques to adapt to the kids, and our staff is always willing to make those adjustments for the kids,” Weber said.
In some cases, the students pick up on the nuances of the machinery faster than the adults and are helping their teachers learn the ins and outs of the new equipment.
“Kids are sometimes teaching them how to use the technology,” Oltmanns said.
Administrators say educators do what they can to help students avoid too much time working directly with a screen - it’s important to develop social skills with teachers and other students with face-to-face and in-person interaction. But the need for technology skills isn’t going away.
Addressing the costs
The continued integration of electronic equipment into the classroom does also come with some drawbacks. The cost of supplying such equipment to students has only increased as the technology continues to evolve and has become more ubiquitous in schools. A cost that practically didn’t exist 20 years ago is now a major budget item.
“We budget about $50,000 a year, and that’s not including some of the teaching technology we need, like overhead projectors and those types of things,” Weber said. “We have to update about every 10 years, so it’s quite expensive. But I think not only with our school, but every school has to stay on top of that.”
Equipment gets old and must be updated, even if it’s something as simple as new software. When technology is connected so strongly with student classwork, it must be kept up to date and fully functional for it to be of any benefit to student learning.
“We have a specific tech budget that we set aside, and we keep our laptops and devices on a rotational basis,” Oltmanns said. “Our tech coordinator does a good job of letting us know when things have to be replaced. We don’t have a lot of downtime with our devices.”
Graves said keeping up with technology continues to be a substantial budget item, but notes that the state of South Dakota provides support and cost-saving services to schools that many other states do not.
“It can be difficult to budget for, but the advantage we have is that South Dakota has the capital outlay budget and that assists with it. The state has been very supportive, it provides our Infinite Campus and provides our email and all the wiring,” Graves said. “The state has been extraordinarily supportive, very tech-friendly.”
Governors dating back to Bill Janklow, Graves said, have all been highly supportive of making modern technology available to the state's school districts.
“It’s been consistent from the governor’s office, and you don’t see that that often,” Graves said.
Graves said the district will continue to implement the latest available technology to give their students a leg up in the classroom. It’s something that has been on his mind as he looks toward the construction of a new Mitchell High School in a few years down the road. He hopes there will be features incorporated into that building that will continue to serve the older students for the district for decades to come.
But change will continue to come for all students, he said. And Graves hopes both teachers and students will continue to embrace those challenges into an even more technologically-advanced future.
“The change has been dramatic, and I don’t think we’ve even seen the cusp of it. The real changes are coming, and coming fast,” he said.