In the 21st century classroom, students learn with the help of YouTube and virtual field trips to locations thousands of miles away. Teachers can judge their progress through real-time assessments made possible through interactive whiteboards. Outdated, understocked textbooks are a thing of the past. And every child, rich or poor, has access to the same material.

But in Hawaii as well as the rest of the country, districts are having to revamp their schools. Basic infrastructure needs improvement, classroom culture must change and new policies implemented that dictate how technology can be used.

More than half of Hawaii schools don’t have reliable Internet access, and the Hawaii Department of Education can’t afford to give every student a digital device.

Still, interactive whiteboards are commonplace and some island classrooms even have high-tech distance-learning capabilities.

“The whole concept of how to deliver education is being turned on its head right now,” said John Halpin, vice president for strategic programs at the Center for Digital Education, adding that education is in the throes of a “messy” decade.

The vast majority of “school districts are still figuring out what the right approach should be,” he said. “There are 14,000 school districts. There are almost as many ways that they’re approaching this issue.”

The DOE, according to Halpin, seems to be on the same “messy” page as most of those school districts.

Local efforts to ensure every kid has access to his or her own digital device — a goal that underpins the e-learning revolution — are off to a rocky start, largely because of budget cuts. And access to digital resources in the first place requires a reliable, high-bandwidth wireless network — a system that the district has yet to implement at more than half of its schools.

As of now, just 105 of Hawaii’s public schools are plugged into a standardized Cisco Systems network. The rest of the 286 public and charter schools are still using older devices for their Wi-Fi, many of which don’t have the capacity to support the kind of dynamic computer-based testing that’ll be commonplace within a few years.

The department hopes to connect all schools to the Cisco network by the end of next year, according to DOE Assistant Superintendent and Chief Information Officer David Wu. The system will in part be possible through a federally funded fiber optic internet connection that the DOE expects to build at every school by the fall.

Still, Wu stressed that most Hawaii schools are equipped with certain basic technology that characterizes 21st century classrooms, such as projectors, with most of the gear concentrated in math and science classes. Many classrooms, he said, also have interactive whiteboards, which allow students to connect with the boards through tools such as clickers and, increasingly, personal devices using apps or websites.

And a few classrooms are even outfitted with Cisco-based telepresence teaching, allowing high-quality distance learning for a few courses, according to Wu.

The efforts are all part of the DOE’s Strategic Plan, which aims to enhance access to reliable technology resources and the Internet.

“Basically, students have access to a digital curriculum that they need to meet their educational goals, changing classroom instruction so that it’s leveraging all of the 21st century standards,” Wu said. “It’s technology-centric rather than traditional chalkboards.”

But aside from select schools participating in exclusive national initiatives, high-tech tools have yet to trickle down to individualized resources for students. Just a handful of Hawaii’s schools are piloting one-to-one computing programs, which give each student a laptop or tablet to use in and out of the classroom.

And without a fully implemented standardized wireless network, Wu said, the DOE doesn’t yet promote BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), a concept that is quickly becoming policy in some school districts. BYOD students bring their own smartphones, laptops, tablets and even game players to school to support classroom instruction.

Experts: Digital Learning Improves Student Success

E-learning is rapidly becoming commonplace in classrooms across the country, shifting the role of teachers and driving a sea change in the way student learning is done and measured.

“States and districts and schools all over the country are working hard to incorporate learning technologies into their curriculum and into the workflow for really good reason,” said Karen Cator, Digital Promise CEO and former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

E-learning, she said, is evolving to accommodate how people learn in the 21st century: through digital content and resources and the kind of collaboration possible via the internet.

Advocates also stress that classroom technology levels the playing field. According to Cator, technology enables instruction for students with disabilities, gives students in rural areas access to courses that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to take and allows kids to share their music compositions, movies and other creative content with a broad, global audience.

Such resources, she said, can come in handy for students in Hawaii, giving them the tools to engage in what she called “digital participation.”

“For those who would like the opportunity, it provides a way of breaking down that isolation,” Cator said. “They can visit people in other places and understand what’s happening around the world just as if you’re sitting in the middle of New York City.”

Interconnectivity is happening within school districts, too, through learning management systems onto which students can upload documents, connect with teachers and, oftentimes, participate in online forums. The state DOE for its part has used Blackboard Learn since 2011.

But according to Cator, having access to a solid network infrastructure is key to making innovative classroom technology a reality. Experts agree that virtually all schools in the country have some form of Internet access, in large part because of a federal program that provides discounted telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

“As your bandwidth goes up, so do the number of devices,” Cator said.

Hawaii Struggles To Get A Digital Device In Hands Of Every Student

The state Department of Education is facing a $28.5 million shortfall in funding for its Common Core Digital Materials initiative, which aims to equip each student with a digital device such as a laptop or tablet. DOE Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe has said the initiative is integral to the department’s reform efforts because it’ll “streamline” adoption of Common Core — a federal effort aimed at aligning state education standards.

The Legislature this session gave the DOE just $8 million to test out its initiative for the 2013-14 school year — millions less than the $29.4 million or the $36.5 million that Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the Board of Education in their biennium budget proposals requested for the Digital Materials program, respectively.

The $8 million is expected to help the DOE pilot the initiative at select school complex areas, but the budget cuts mean that, over the next two years, the department can’t lease out devices to students, according to Wu.

The district won’t be able to give devices to as many students as originally planned, Wu said. The DOE is still unsure exactly how each device will be paid for, though officials hope they won’t have to charge students.

Currently, there are about 2.8 students for every device, whether portable or a desktop computer, Wu said. (In turn, many local private schools have long-standing one-to-one initiatives, including Punahou, Iolani, MidPac and La Pietra.)

Still, experts cautioned against using the 2.8 ratio as a proxy for digital access in Hawaii’s public schools, particularly because Common Core’s online testing program — which is slated to go into effect in less than two years — requires that all devices are updated and meet certain size requirements. Most of the devices calculated into that ratio are likely old computers, Halpin said, noting that many states are likely to encounter severe technological glitches when rolling out Common Core.

Moreover, advocates say Hawaii has a long way to go before its digital program serves as many students as it should.

“The bottom line is that every student needs their own device so that they can keep their own portfolio, own work, own research and have access to their learning outside of their schools,” Cantor said. “I tend to think about those kinds of things not as replacing the teachers, but rather replacing the textbook.”

Halpin said that one-to-one programs are gaining traction in some districts in Arizona, Georgia and Colorado. And all school districts in Maine have for the last 11 years provided every middle school student with a digital device.

But experts say that integrating technology into education is about more than providing devices and improving internet connectivity. It’s also marks a fundamental shift in student learning and how teachers guide that process.

“Moving to a digital education is more than putting computers in front of kids,” Halpin said. “It’s revamping the content itself.”

Advocates argue that technological advances are phasing out traditional teacher-centric, textbook-based education styles.

“The definition of learning has changed,” said Jim May, a school development coach at New Tech Network, which partners with districts across the country to redesign public schools by integrating technology and project-based learning. “Your ability to make meaning of information has changed … technology enables students to have more control over their learning.”

In 2010, the Network partnered with Nanakuli High and Intermediate School and Waianae High School’s creative media program Searider Academy to develop New Tech schools through a grant that ended this year. May visited the schools regularly to coach teachers and principals and help guide the redesign process.

Getting Teachers On Board

Experts say one of the biggest challenges facing the e-learning revolution is ensuring that all teachers have the expertise, confidence and willingness to fully incorporate technology into their teaching.

“Now people are learning from an online ecosystem of people and data and content and multimedia that’s providing entirely new opportunities,” Cator said. “Teachers are orchestrating learning in a way that’s different than the way they themselves learned in schools in many cases.

“I don’t think teachers don’t know how to use this stuff — I think it’s hard to rethink the kind of assignments, the kind of engagement.”

Wu agreed, noting that systemic barriers pose one of the biggest challenges to Hawaii’s tech initiative.

“There are a lot of teachers out there that have been teaching the same way for many, many years,” he said.

For its part, UH’s College of Education has made it a priority to prepare teachers for digital learning, according to Assistant Professor Kavita Rao. The college offers courses that teach students how to use various multimedia applications and other web-based and mobile technologies.

But Halpin said the e-learning revolution is also contingent on how schools are run as a whole, how teachers are assessed and how classrooms are set up.

“There are very few guidelines just yet — it’s an evolving process,” he said. “Education is an institution, and institutions don’t change very well or very quickly.”

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