Last summer, we highlighted Prince William County Public Schools (PWCS), a large suburban school district in Virginia that boosted their bandwidth speed from 2 to 20 Gbps to keep up with growing demands for digital learning. Recently, we interviewed three 5th grade teachers who shared more about the transformational role technology plays in student engagement at PWCS.
In the Q&A below, we’ll share the perspectives of Cathleen, Shakera, and Veronica, who have been educators for 2 years, 11 years, and 25 years respectively. We appreciated hearing how their years in the classroom have shaped their opinions on the evolution of digital learning and the exciting opportunities that lay ahead.
Veronica: “Let’s start with Cathleen, we love her freshness and her rejuvenated ideas as a new teacher!”
ESH: Before your upgrade, how did the level of Internet access impact teaching and learning?
Cathleen: If we didn’t have reliable Internet, we wouldn’t be able to use any of the technology given to us. It’s like having a car with no gas. We have a lot of amazing technology, but it all relies on the Internet.
Kids are teaching us as well. They can do that because we’re giving them tools through the Internet. We as teachers are able to learn from our students [about apps and technology]; that’s a big difference between last year and this year. Just yesterday we were discovering features we never knew before [from our students].
Previously, I shared an iPad cart which wasn’t as user-friendly, so we didn’t use [technology] as much. It’s been a game changer being able to use the Internet smoothly and in my classrooms, we have 1:1 devices.
Veronica: I started with a chalkboard and an overhead projector. For me, it was difficult to make the transition initially. Because of the way things have changed over the last 25 years, I had no choice [but to learn how to use technology] if I wanted to stay in the profession.
One of the reasons I love working with Cathleen and Shakera is that they’re so advanced technologically. The beauty of it is: we can watch an idea evolve among the three of us, and honestly it comes out to perfection. Because I can bring the perspective of how it looked to me 15 to 20 years ago and how it should look now, I can help execute an idea.
ESH: In what ways have teaching and learning been impacted since PWCS got high-speed Internet?
Veronica: One thing I’ve noticed is that attendance-wise, kids are able to keep up and access whatever is going on in class even when they have to miss school. The kids know that if they’re absent, they can catch up at home because whatever we show them in class, we transfer to OneNote. Parents have everything we have. OneNote does it all. We can take those worksheets that we do and go completely paperless. We even have the textbooks online.
Cathleen: I love being able to incorporate language arts and STEM through project-based learning using technology. Recently, my students explored how to create different kinds of bridges and there was a website and interactive videos to help me facilitate the lesson. Once students came up with a bridge they wanted to design, they then worked in groups and transformed their ideas into something tangible, something they could actually hold and test.
Whatever we present to our students, we try to make it so that they have to work with someone else. They have to communicate with a teacher, peer, or someone else for help. There’s that collaboration piece that shows them that everyone is an expert. We don’t want to teach them that Internet and technology is the “end all be all.” We’re always looking to see how we can use the Internet to complement other skills.
ESH: How has the upgrade impacted student engagement with the material?
Cathleen: Student engagement has skyrocketed – they spent their precious recess time on [their bridge project] and would tell me: “We gotta test our bridges!” What got them [to this level of engagement] was being able to do that research piece on their own. Our upgrade to high-speed Internet is useful for [our students] in every subject.
We also use a lot of websites, and I get updates on whether kids have used them. For example, we have one where students take math quizzes, and over 6,000 questions were answered over snow day. My kids have read about 500 ebooks on their devices; they read a ton, and watch a bunch of videos.
Veronica: Shakera was my son’s teacher from last year. He’s now in middle school, but during the snow day, Shakera’s husband gave my son an old laptop. Now he goes on his laptop and practices his math or finishes his science homework during snow days without skipping a beat.
ESH: Are there any current challenges or opportunities with using technology in your classroom?
Cathleen: One of the things we have to make sure we talk about is their digital footprint. We have to trust our students and also teach them how to be trusted. [Technology] can be a dangerous tool. We constantly remind them how [things they do online] will impact their lives. That’s something they don’t quite get yet, but that’s something we continue to teach.
Veronica: What’s important to note is that technology and laptops really just complement our teaching. [Education technology] can’t replace teachers, but what it can really do is help us engage students. With this younger generation, [technology] is their reality. For me, I didn’t grow up with handheld technology, and we still have to teach kids how to use it safely: how to learn 21st Century skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.