By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Jeremy Harder’s fourth graders on March 20 were intently following his instruction for tying butterfly-shaped knots in parachute cord, attempting to make wilderness survival bracelets.
The complexity of the knot was evident in some of the students’ frustration, but Harder encouraged them by saying they could YouTube the instructions, or visit paracord.com, when they got home.
Learning with the Internet, or other technology, is no stranger to these young students. Each of Harder’s fourth graders uses a Google Chromebook tablet during daily instruction. By fall 2015 the goal is for every student in the Big Sky School District to have access to his or her own device as part of the 1:1 technology program, according to Technology Education Teacher Matt Bakken.
“We’re the first [three] schools in Montana to be certified in digital citizenship,” Bakken said, referring to BSSD’s Lone Peak High School, Ophir Middle School and Ophir Elementary.
Students are taught that what they post on the Internet will be there forever, and they learn about cyber bullying and citing information they find on the web properly in their own work.
Bakken said the school formed a technology committee three years ago, with a three-year vision to implement the 1:1 program. A $200,000 Yellowstone Club Community Foundation grant awarded last spring allowed the district to purchase devices and invest in professional development, as well as fund the Mobile Device Management System, which is software that controls the devices.
A continuation grant of $100,000 from YCCF will allow the district to buy the rest of the devices this summer to complete the 1:1 rollout.
“The biggest challenge is the infrastructure to support it all,” said Technology Director Andrew Blessing, who was hired at the end of February, referring to the Internet bandwidth and wireless framework that students will need, especially as enrollment grows in the future.
“We keep learning and evolving just as the kids are,” Blessing said. “We went from about 80 computers [last year] to 360-380 devices once the rollout is complete this summer.”
Blessing said content filtering is another challenge. Teachers need access to educational sites while the technology team has to make sure students can’t access inappropriate content. The school is trying to move in a direction where the teachers have more power to access curriculum they’d like to use without having to vet it through the tech team.
Harder attended the second annual EdTechTeam Napa Valley 1:1 Institute featuring Google Apps for Education (GAFE), Jan. 10-11 in Napa, Calif. Harder, who was certified along with BSSD math teacher Nancy Sheil as a Google Educator in October, said he was the only attendee from outside California, where some teachers were just beginning to use applications he’d been teaching for two or three months.
On March 28-29 at Montana State University, Harder presented Google tools for science and math to a group of k-12 science teachers from around the state. He will also present some of the curriculum he’s integrated into his class at the first Montana GAFE summit in Missoula on May 2.
On Fridays, from 7:45-8:15 he holds a voluntary tech meeting for other teachers, and hosts a conference for parents every couple of months.
“This month only three parents showed up,” Harder said in March. He joked that this could be a result of parents being overwhelmed with the technology, but the students in his class seem to get it.
Brielle Gunderson says she uses Chromebooks to write notes when they’re working on Newsela, a news-based literacy program, and they often use the online file sharing system Google Drive to work on presentations, write papers and build graphs.
“For me, [Drive is] easy to use,” Gunderson said. “I can access it at home, and sometimes I [use it to] work on homework.”
Kate King has a personal computer at home and is familiar with much of the software and programs used in Harder’s class. But her home computer is pretty slow, she said, and the Chromebooks are a lot faster and easier to use.
Harder’s class uses the technology 80 percent of the day, four days a week, he said, for English language arts, social studies, science and math. During that time an app called “Move It” pops up every 15 minutes. The app signals when it’s time for students to stretch their legs and gives them fun activities – like choreographed dance moves – to get them moving.
Currently, all Lone Peak High School students have Surface Pro 3 tablets they’re allowed to take home. At Ophir Middle School, Harder’s class has a cart of 30 Chromebooks, and there are two roaming carts with 30 Chromebooks apiece for the rest of the fourth through eighth graders. The carts are mobile-charging systems that update the devices’ software and are locked when the students aren’t using them. At Ophir Elementary the kindergarten through third grade classes share one cart of 30 iPads.
The school district plans to buy 90 more Chromebooks and 60 more iPads in the near future, according to Bakken.
“[1:1 is] a true technology advancement and proficiency for any school, large or small,” said BSSD Superintendent Jerry House. “When you think of the fast-paced world of tech … it’s deeper than just getting the device. Students can explore concepts, the work of other students, and businesses anywhere in the world.”
House said he’s impressed at how quickly the teachers in the district are learning the new technology and curriculum. He attributes much of that to the collaboration between the teachers, including Harder’s Friday morning sessions.
A recent $20,000 donation to the school will also help. Jim Mace and his wife Pam Russell – second homeowners in Big Sky – donated the funds in early March for faculty training in technology and curriculum.
“If you want good quality people in [Big Sky] you need to educate their children,” said Mace in a phone interview from his home in Reno, Nev. “The rule is you need to teach the teachers, so the teachers can teach the kids.”