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August 19, 2013

Private Schools Keep Watch On Educational Technology

PHOTO/Matt VOLPINI Jason Epstein, left, chief information officer at Worcester Academy (with student intern Divinity Sebag), said it's important to stay a step ahead of new technology, but not before the school culture is ready to utilize it.

In this age when information is instant and mobile devices — in some cases more than one — are in every hand, students not only want technology integrated into their school day, they simply expect it.

But due to constraints in expertise and budgets that are based largely on endowments and enrollment fees, private schools in Central Massachusetts vary widely in their technology adoption.

As Jason Epstein, chief information officer at Worcester Academy, noted, the key to keeping up is constant evaluation and assessment because technology-based learning is a relatively new area in education.

“People talk about 21st century learning — but we have to remember that a century's a hundred years, and we're just a little bit into it,” he said.

Worcester Academy is one of the local private schools ahead of the curve. In 2010, it implemented a 1:1 laptop program; all students enrolled at the school receive a Macintosh laptop for the year, each of which is equipped with $5,000 to $7,000 worth of software, according to Epstein.

Similarly, Worcester's Bancroft School has a 1:1 iPad initiative, which requires every student in Grades 6-12 to purchase the handheld device and download more than a dozen mandatory note-taking, word processing, dictionary and movie-making apps.

But because of tight budgets, other schools haven't been able to make such technological strides.

St. Peter-Marian in Worcester, for instance, tries to keep technology “as up to date as possible,” aided in part by a technology fee assessed to students, according to technology director Dawn Van Riper. But it's not enough to implement programs similar to Bancroft's and Worcester Academy's, or, as she would like to see, Wi-Fi across campus and a lab of tablets.

Tools And Teachers

“The biggest challenge right now is that our school depends on enrollment to pay the bills and hire faculty,” said Van Riper. “Due to demographics and the economy, we have had some really tough years. The biggest need is faculty and money to make us the very best in the area of technology.”

Worcester Academy's Epstein, for his part, noted that his department's budget is good, but he called it a “completely active and dynamic” process.

“There should never be a time when you're not evaluating your budget,” he said.

The goal is to ultimately keep ahead of where things are going, he said, and essentially “future-proof” yourself by not making big capital investments in things that are sure to fizzle out.

The school's 1:1 program has been successful, and was based on research that students with laptops are more active learners, more readily engage in problem solving and critical thinking, and develop better writing and computer skills, according to the school's website.

Bancroft, meanwhile, chose iPads because, according to its website, they allow students instant access to information, thus reducing downtime. They also enable cloud-sharing and provide unlimited access to primary source data and immediate data collection.

It's a “truly personal learning tool” that allows each student to “choose apps that make the most sense for their learning style,” the school's website reads. Also, “textbooks are no longer limited to delivering information to a reading audience. Information is delivered in a multimedia manner.”

Likening technology to other essential educational tools — say paper or pencils — Epstein noted that “it's interwoven into the everyday.”

In Worcester Academy's case, that includes iPads, video cameras, microphones, and tripods available for checkout in the library; SMART Boards and LCD projectors in most classrooms; and high-speed Internet across campus. The school is also renovating some classrooms and integrating video, sound, and projection capabilities, Epstein said.

Most notably, starting this upcoming school year, Worcester Academy has launched a new department, Innovations in Design and Technology, which offers courses based around computer science, 3-D design and 3-D printing, and will also house a robotics team. The program will be fluid, Epstein said, and might eventually branch to other areas such as video game or app design, game theory, and even electrical and mechanical engineering.

Following Societal Trends

“It really depends on where society takes it,” Epstein said, stressing that the goal is to not get “too far ahead of yourself” and create something that becomes quickly outdated, or is so outlandish that it doesn't fit in with the overall school environment. “You have to find that balance,” he said.

St. Peter-Marian, meanwhile, has equipped each of its high-school classrooms with mounted projectors and at least one desktop or laptop, according to Van Riper, and also has a STEM lab with a cart of 25 laptops, a media center with 40 desktops, and a lab of 25 computers that can be signed out for class use. Students can also purchase online books or iBooks in lieu of textbooks.

On the curriculum side, the school offers computer courses focused on Photoshop, InDesign, and HTML. It also has a Virtual High School, offering web-based courses such as forensics and Chinese. Enrollments in the program have doubled, Van Riper said, and the program has done so well that a new teacher was recently added.

Ultimately, Epstein said, technology in education is an “ongoing conversation that has to stay dynamic and fluid.”

In doing so, Worcester Academy has a technology committee comprised of faculty and administrators. Epstein works with an internal and external peer network, and is also involved with METAA, the Massachusetts Educational Technology Administrators Association. Meanwhile, two full-time technology integrators constantly upkeep systems and work with faculty.

“A lot of it is maintenance and steady growth,” he said. “Training personnel and giving teachers support is really paramount. I could bring in everything in the world, but if teachers aren't ready for it, if the school culture isn't ready for it, it's going to fall flat, no matter how good it is.”

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