Eye on Education

Central San Joaquin Valley schools making huge investment in technology

With big black headphones covering his ears, 8-year-old Juan Jose listens to instructions in his native language, then presses his tiny fingertip to an iPad to put a group of letters in alphabetical order.

The Ronald Reagan Elementary second-grader, who emigrated from Colombia to Sanger earlier this year and speaks only Spanish, quickly picks "G" followed by "H,I,J,K,L." He flicks to the next question, this time with answer choices written in a language he is just beginning to learn: English.

Juan and his classmates take out their tablets several times a week to use the digital reading application Lexia, which gives students freedom to work at their own pace as they learn vocabulary and spelling -- and in Juan's case, a new language.

When it's time for iPads, teacher Maria Westbury said, her pupils are always eager to learn.

"It does excite them, and it's something they really enjoy," she said.

The power of digital learning is becoming apparent as California schools become increasingly technology-centric, educators say. Universities like Fresno State are experimenting with technology, with plans to subsidize tablets for at least 1,000 students next year.

RELATED: Fresno State readies for tablet experiment

And many Valley districts are buying up tablets and laptops by the thousands, largely because of the state's move away from paper-and-pencil standardized tests to computerized versions.

But the trend is much bigger than a new set of electronic tests, Valley teachers and administrators say.

The digital push aims to transform the way students learn. They do lessons at their own pace on gadgets they're used to, like smartphones and tablets. Teachers do less lecturing and have more time to help students answer questions online or work with classmates.

EYE ON THIS SERIES: The second of quarterly special reports on education

There certainly is a debate over which electronic devices and textbooks are most useful. And it's also not clear whether youngsters actually learn more when they use technology. But teachers say digital devices help keep students engaged more than ever -- which could help districts' efforts to combat longtime problems like achievement gaps and high dropout rates.

A new kind of education

Teenagers are buzzing around Joni Sumter's Clovis High science classroom, which is arrayed with posters of the periodic table of the elements, a life-size skeleton wearing a hat, beakers, microscopes and other bits and bobs.

Sumter wants them to measure how much water evaporates from a leafy tomato plant. Huddled around a contraption of tubes, funnels and clamps, the students reach for their smartphones to time their experiments.

It's not unusual to see teens using their phones or tablets during class, said senior Morgan Miyake. She says Sumter encourages them to use whatever digital gadgets they have available, be it their own smartphones or a tablet from the classroom set of iPads.

RELATED: Clovis techie teacher uses the tweet method

At Vang Pao Elementary in southeast Fresno, a cluster of youngsters are using laptops to work on vocabulary assignments.

Demetrio Ordas, 10, reads aloud to himself as words flash across his screen. " 'Pablo felt squeamish when he saw the wound on his leg.' I think (squeamish means) easily sickened," he said, sliding his fingers across the laptop mouse pad to pick the right answer.

The school isn't "one-to-one" yet -- education-speak for schools where every student has a computer -- but administrators are working toward it.

When it comes to paying for new computers, more affluent districts like Clovis or poorer districts like Fresno Unified are all getting a big check.

RELATED: Money, priorities and distance contribute to a digital divide

The state's decision to test students on computers instead of paper came with lots of money attached -- a total of $1.25 billion, which districts have used in part to buy new tablets and computers. Fresno Unified already has paid $7.8 million for 15,000 Asus tablets; Clovis Unified spent $4.5 million on 6,500 Lenovo laptops.

The new devices are a big improvement, said Sumter, who has long used technology in her classroom. She remembers her students using laptops a decade ago, but said slow Internet access and frequent computer problems made them an albatross, not an asset.

The iPads are much more user friendly, she said, and have transformed the way she runs her classroom. When students use the tablets to answer quiz questions, their responses are sent directly to Sumter's computer. With one quick click, she can see who understands the concepts, and who doesn't.

It's natural to use the devices for research, too. Instead of lecturing about cellular respiration, she asked her students to use the iPads to gather information on the topic.

The goal is to "get them to try what they're learning and not squash what they came to us with, which was a desire to experiment and to play around with things," she said.

The shift is part of the state's adoption of a new set of academic standards, called Common Core, but many educators say the influx of new devices will be a boon for education at large.

It's the biggest statewide investment in technology in decades, and part of a plan hatched by the state's top education leader to give every California student a computer in school within five years. California Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson said the state is 25% to 40% toward reaching that goal.

"It's a little surprising that California, that invented most of this educational technology, is behind the rest of the nation," he said. "We're doing everything we can to close that digital divide."

Paper to pixels

Tablets and laptops may now be in hand, but many school administrators are scratching their heads about which digital books or tools make the most sense.

Swap hardbound texts for digital ones? It's not that simple, many educators say.

"The big (textbook publishing) players are just now releasing (digitized versions). It's a lot of money, so you don't want to jump before it's ready," said Kurt Madden, Fresno Unified's chief technology officer.

Madden makes the district's big technology decisions. He works in an airy basement office in the district's downtown headquarters, surrounded by black screens that take up much of the wall space and seated at an oversized table scattered with shiny devices -- tablets, smartphones and miniature laptops he is experimenting with.

The district's techie has his own ideas for digital textbooks. Interaction is big, Madden said. Students should be able to manipulate the content they're learning so they can dig deeper. Adaptability is just as important: A computer program should adapt or adjust its content to a student's abilities, he said.

The problem is, publishers haven't quite caught up.

"They're definitely interested in trying to figure this out, but the resources really are not where we would like them to be yet," said Michael Gielniak, director of programs and development for the Michigan-based One-to-One Institute, an education technology nonprofit.

Textbook publishers have the benefit of access to an immense bank of information from the books they've published over the years. But Gielniak said translating that content into an interactive digital format is costly -- not to mention difficult from a programming standpoint.

To be sure, publishing companies have made great strides from just a few years ago, when scanned PDF versions of textbooks were as good as you could get.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for example, has an interactive digital math curriculum and plans to create interactive English, social studies and science books soon.

"We're trying to be ready to meet a district wherever they are," said Paul Murphy, vice president for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's New Markets Studio. "Sometimes that can be along the lines of digital versions of a textbook. More and more, I think we're starting to see higher expectations about what they want to do with technology."

Clovis is proposing to buy some digital math textbooks next year. There are obvious benefits, such as easier and cheaper updates, said Robb Christopherson, curriculum and instruction administrator for Clovis Unified. Paper workbooks also will be available as schools transition into a digital-only format, he said.

Improvement remains elusive

State and local education officials argue students inevitably will learn more if they have greater access to technology.

RELATED: Parlier High students rave over iPad tablets

But critics worry districts are making multimillion-dollar tech investments without much proof of the benefit to students.

Enthusiasm among educators and students is high, but with limited research proving that gadgets actually improve student achievement, some say it's risky to stake education's future on technology.

Larry Cuban is a 30-year education veteran who has dedicated much of his career to studying education reform. In 2008-10, the Stanford University professor emeritus of education looked at how teachers and students were responding to a new laptop program at a high school in San Jose. While many of the teachers adjusted their lesson plans to integrate computer usage, he found that effort didn't translate into higher state test scores.

"There are usually three reasons given for why technology should come into schools," Cuban said. "The first one is, it will improve academic achievement. The second, it will transform teaching and learning, and the third one is, it will get them ready for an information-driven society. In all cases, none of these have happened."

He acknowledges there was a "novelty effect." The San Jose teens initially were excited about having a computer at their fingertips, Cuban said, but that wore off by the end of the study.

Some researchers say there is proof that technology can make certain subjects like astronomy or physics easier for young minds to understand. Digital devices can help simulate scenarios, such as how the seasons change or the size of the solar system, that can't be duplicated in a hardbound textbook, said Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at Harvard University.

Schneps theorized that an interactive iPad application might be more effective as a teaching tool in some situations. So after giving a difficult astronomy test to 152 students at a Massachusetts high school to measure their knowledge of the subject matter, he let them play around on an iPad loaded with an astronomy application called Solar Walk.

RELATED: Online math is fun and games for Central Unified students

Students' comprehension of the material improved after only 20 minutes of manipulating planets and stars in space, his 2013 study discovered.

"What we found is yes, the iPad did produce learning," he said. "We knew from previous studies with these same tests, when kids did a traditional astronomy class with books, the kids hardly learned at all."

Other studies reveal mixed results.

Students involved in a 2007 study of nearly 200 Michigan schools reported that computers helped improve their researching skills and kept them attentive during class. But when it came time to take Michigan's standardized math and English test, just over half of the seventh-graders involved outperformed students without computers.

Keeping kids' attention

Shaggy-haired Jose Sandoval, 15, brushes the hair out of his eyes and pushes up his glasses to focus on the MacBook screen in front of him. He and a classmate are using iMovie to produce a short video about TOMS shoes, a popular retailer that donates a pair of slip-ons for every pair it sells.

Up on the whiteboard, a question jotted down in capital blue boxy letters by Riverdale High history teacher Tim Warden reads, "How can you change the world?"

Using their computers, in-class microphones and their own smartphones, Warden's 10th-grade students are making movies about charitable groups taking big steps to improve society.

Jose talks with his hands when discussing his TOMS project. He points to his partner's screen, where they're stitching together audio and visuals for a short vignette about the organization.

Then the topic turns to whether having a computer has helped him enhance his presentation. Jose moves one hand to his heart.

"I seriously believe it's a big help," he said, "because it's more interactive, you get more immersed into it, you really fall in love with what you're doing."

Technology has become as ubiquitous as textbooks in the classrooms in this small town north of Lemoore. Every Riverdale student from second to sixth grade has a laptop to work on every day. Older students have computers in certain classes.

"The way it has changed teaching and learning is phenomenal," said Rick Jex, Riverdale's director of technology services. "Kids are more engaged, and I think that in itself changes the way kids learn."

RELATED: Robots, 3-D design, video excite students at Sequoia Middle

That's the new mantra of many school districts across the Valley. The drive to modernize classrooms has led many to ink multiyear contracts with big-name technology companies.

Each of Central Unified's 15,500 students will get an Asus tablet this fall to use during class and at home. They will come equipped with a 4G wireless plan from AT&T paid by the district at about $3 per device monthly.

It's a "quantum shift" for the district, Superintendent Mike Berg said. He believes the tablets will help close long-standing achievement and life-experience gaps among his students, many of whom never have visited nearby Yosemite National Park, let alone the Pacific Ocean.

"At the end of the day, it isn't A, B, C and 1, 2, 3 that's important to us, and certainly it isn't the test score that's important to us," he said. "It's the activity in the classroom and the knowledge the student leaves with that's applicable to real life."

RELATED: Digital literacy resources for parents, teachers and students

Related stories from Fresno Bee