Conference teaches educators how to use technology to enhance learning experience

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Posted Oct. 14, 2011, at 8:29 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 14, 2011, at 10:08 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If you’re tired of seeing members of the younger generations bent over their cellphones, wiling away the hours on Facebook or competing with one another in the virtual worlds of video games, consider this: Someday they’ll need those skills to survive.

That was the premise behind a two-day conference in Augusta where hundreds of educators from across Maine gathered to learn how they can further integrate technology in public schools. For some of them, Friday was a day to pay homage to a virtual guru in the tech world, former Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs. Several of the participants donned Jobs’ typical attire of a long-sleeved black shirt and jeans, but their focus was more about Jobs’ vision than his clothing.

“Our children are going to need to know technology in order to function in this world,” said Cherrie MacInnes, a third-grade teacher from Brewer Community School. “If we’re not exposing them to technology, we’re not preparing them for the real world.”

Even with students in the infancy of their reading skills, MacInnes has seen first-hand how cutting-edge technology can enhance the learning experience. She said it occurred to her three years ago that her students could use Skype — a free Internet tool that allows live video chatting — to talk with their peers in Minnesota. Today MacInnes’ program, which she calls Chatting Across the USA, is being used in all 50 states and some European countries, and all it took was an Internet connection.

“You can bring the world into their classroom for less than $100,” said MacInnes. “How can there be anything wrong with that?”

For her efforts, MacInnes was honored at the conference as a finalist for 2011 Educator of the Year, which is bestowed annually by the Association of Computer Technology Educators of Maine. According to ACTEM’s president, Crystal Priest, who is director of technology in the Guilford-area SAD 4, MacInnes’ project is just another success story in a state that in many ways is leading the nation in using technology in the classroom. The 10-year-old Maine Learning Technology Initiative, a program that provides laptop computers to every middle school student in the state, is revered across the country and around the world, said Priest, but that’s only part of it.

“Any time I go to conferences or training outside the state, everyone knows about our MLTI program,” said Priest. “To this day, no other state has been able to pull it off.”

But what use are computers without good Internet connections? And what good is the Internet for a young learner forced to sift through thousands of reputable and not-so-reputable websites? According to Priest, Maine has conquered those challenges with high-speed Internet in virtually every school and library and the advent of the Maine Virtual Library, also known as Marvel.

In Auburn, educators have taken technology in the classroom to the extreme by putting Apple iPads in the hands of every kindergartner. Peter Robinson, the district’s technology director, said the program is successful because the iPad gives nonreading 5- and 6-year-olds access to a computer without the confusing interface of a keyboard and mouse. Some simple — and usually free — computer software can teach kids the alphabet so the teacher can focus on what Robinson calls “higher-level skills.”

“What world can we imagine 10 or 15 years from now that doesn’t have all this technology?” he said. “It’s unimaginable.”

Despite these successes, Priest and others are worried that tight financial times might roll back some of this progress as local school boards are forced to make tough decisions about technology.

“When they’re faced with that choice, you kind of need someone in front of the classroom,” said Priest.

Tough times are showing themselves in other ways, as well. Attendance at the ACTEM conference, which is in its 24th year, has slipped by about 175 in the past two years to about 750, according to Craig Dickinson, the organization’s business manager. On top of that, he said more and more teachers are paying their own way to the conference and in some cases, reimbursing their districts for the cost of a substitute teacher. But Dickinson isn’t worried about the future of the conference or the future of technology in schools.

“In schools now, technology is like electricity,” he said. “You have to have it.”

Dean Emmerson, director of technology for schools in the Bath-area RSU 1, agreed. He said he sees educational video gaming — including games that students create themselves — as the next wave of technology that will wash over education.

“Our district has almost 20 teachers here,” he said. “In addition to all the training sessions, it’s that time we’re spending together with our colleagues we never see. We’re all sitting around the table together talking about all the different apps that are available and how they can engage kids in different ways.”

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