MOBERLY — Matt Bills' classroom is quiet. Two students work in the corner, several are at their desks and two more are in the hallway of Moberly Middle School.
The students are so engaged in their work that Bills, an eighth-grade language arts teacher, said he could walk out of the room and they wouldn't stop working. How come?
Well, for starters, his students' noses are stuck in their Lenovo laptops.
Two years ago, the eMINTS National Center received a federal grant for innovative technology in classrooms. Because the Moberly School District had expressed interest and was in a rural community, the center chose the middle school to receive 360 laptops for 18 classrooms, principal Kelly Briscoe said.
Enhancing Missouri's Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies, or eMINTS, attempts to incorporate laptops, SMART Boards and data projectors into classrooms. The program is headquartered at MU. According to its website, 260 of Missouri's 524 public school districts have eMINTS classrooms, including Moberly.
There, in all core classes — math, science, social studies and communications arts — in the seventh and eighth grades, each student has access to a computer during that class period. The added technology, the funding for which will end soon, has changed the structure of the classroom.
"It’s not just the teacher standing up at the front lecturing," Briscoe said. "It's more of, how can we get these students to learn through real-life types of situations?"
In Columbia in the early 2000s, two schools had a student-to-computer ratio of 2 to 1, but these schools decided to go in another direction, said Julie Nichols, the manager of instructional technology for Columbia's school district.
Back then, the Columbia district didn’t have the infrastructure or the budget to expand the 2 to 1 ratio in its schools, Nichols said. Now, there are no official eMINTS schools in Columbia, but every classroom has a SMART Board and a data projector. Schools have computer labs available for teachers and students, Nichols said, and every teacher in the district now has an iPad.
All students at the soon-to-open Battle High School also will receive iPad Minis to use as textbooks and notebooks. Additonally, at Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools, students in Advanced Placement classes will have iPad Minis, Nichols said.
eMINTS in Moberly
To date, the eMINTS teachers at Moberly have spent 175 hours in training to learn the best way to use the laptops and SMART boards they have in their classrooms.
The training provided to teachers is the reason eMINTS is successful, said Nichols, who coordinated the eMINTS program in Columbia.
"It's all about training the teachers to use the technology and trying to change the way that teachers actually teach in the classroom," Bills said. "So it's not just bringing the technology in and saying, 'OK, you were doing paper and pencil tests. Now, you're going to do tests, the same kinds of tests, on the computer.'"
Teachers describe it as a more student-based way of teaching.
"You’re writing a paper about elephants," Bills said. "Well, let’s get online and contact some zoos or contact some people who actually know about elephants. Email them. Find out what they know. Maybe you could pull in some video that we found from somewhere."
Briscoe said it's too early to see whether the laptops have directly led to improved test scores. Overall, the response to the technology has been positive among administrators, teachers, parents and students.
Teachers and technology
Although generally receptive, teachers' responses vary about how much of a difference the laptops make. Ashley Moore, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, started teaching in 2011, the same year the laptops arrived.
"You didn’t have to say, 'Oh, I taught like this for three years and now I have to do something brand new,' " she said. "It was just you step in, and you did it. It wasn't like you were changing something completely."
However, some teachers who had been at the middle school before the laptops were implemented experienced improvements with their lessons.. For Kyle Schroer, a seventh-grade social studies teacher who began teaching at the middle school two years before the grant money came in, the laptops simplified teaching, making "social studies come off of the page."
"Before having the laptops and all of the technology, it was, 'OK, I got to try to reserve the computer lab because everybody else has access to it; what outside resources can I bring in that I can use in the classroom?' It just made the process ... more time-consuming," Schroer said.
Paul Shriver, who has taught for 14 years at Moberly Middle School, said there’s no big difference between what he was doing when he started and what he's doing now, except for the 1 to 1 student-to-computer ratio in his room.
Despite the small impact, he does admit he's grown accustomed to the technology in his room.
"At the beginning of last year, it would have been no problem to go back, but I use the technology on a daily basis," Shriver said. "It would be challenging to go back to not having that."
The biggest change is teachers' ability to expand their lessons and teach students skills that will give them an advantage when they enter the workforce because of the strategies and technology provided to them at a young age, Briscoe said.
But challenges exist.
Servicing the students
The amount of expansion on those lessons depends on what skills students already have. Some students might not know how to use the technology the teacher plans to use, and teachers need to keep that in mind, Briscoe said.
"We always talk about this being the technology age and they all are proficient, but that's really not the case," Shriver said. "If we wanted them to use Facebook and text, there would be no issues, no problems. But computer applications, they still need a lot of instruction."
Schroer said he still has students who use paper and pencil for everything because using computer programs is outside their comfort zones. Alternatively, he has students who, eschewing paper and pencil, have transitioned to using only the electronics available.
"Kids who have Internet access at home tend to do a lot better with the laptops than kids who don’t," said Aimee Swift, a seventh-grade science teacher who started working in Moberly the same year the laptops began to be utilized.
Bills, who says video games, Facebook and texting are examples of how students use technology at home, also sees this happening in his classroom. He chalks this up to their socioeconomic differences.
"The kids from low-income families," he said, "you ask them, 'Well, can you work on this at home? Do you have access to the Internet?' 'Not really.' So it's even more important for those kids, I think, to get the chance to be exposed consistently to the technology that we have here at the middle school."
Briscoe said the school never will be able to ensure students have Internet access or even a computer at home, but there is a way to ensure everyone has the same opportunities at school.
"The one thing that's important that's stressed to these teachers is that not everybody knows what you're going to be using," Briscoe said. "It's just like if you were teaching them a new concept."
If teachers employ lessons with new programs, they need to teach students how to use that program, she said. Swift said she plans time into her lessons for just that.
"By the end of the year, if they're using it on a regular basis, they learn very quickly once they have the access and exposure to it," Shriver said.
Bills said the technology makes his students more engaged because they immediately see the connection between the skills used and the content produced. Students more quickly understand the application of what they’re learning as opposed to a more traditional setup with only textbooks, he said.
When the grant ends
At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the grant money used to fund the laptops and the training of the teachers will be gone.
"We've talked about what are we going to do in the future when the laptops start getting older and not getting as well," Swift said. "It’s going to be a challenge. It's just a great resource."
Right now, the district is working on a long-term plan for what happens once the grant money runs out, Briscoe said.
"To say we have a definite long-term plan at this point, we don't," she said. "But that is something that we are continually working on and looking into how we can support the program even further."
A potential solution is having students bring their own devices to use in their classrooms, but that has its pros and cons, Briscoe said. One of the cons is whether or not the students' families could afford those devices.
The Columbia School Board, reflecting a larger decision by the Missouri Board of Education, approved the use of personal electronics April 8. Also, when desktop computers reach the point of being replaced, usually every four to five years, employees at each school decide how they want those desktops to be replaced, Nichols said. That means either new desktops or new mobile devices, depending on what the school thinks will best help their students learn.
For right now, the students have access to innovative technology. Back in Bills' classroom in Moberly Middle School, the two boys in the corner are working on a collaborative short story with their laptops. Another is editing a comedy short he and his friends recorded over the weekend.
In a traditional classroom, students would be listening and talking to the teacher to gather information. But thanks to the laptops, students are having that same conversation on their screens.
"It's good for them to do that," Bills said. "But at the same time, it's really weird to be in the same classroom with everybody together. And it's all very quiet, and kids are just typing away and having this conversation silently."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.