Jackson is plugging in and getting fully on board with the nation's increasing push toward technology. The city and C Spire have teamed up to provide 1 gigabit per second fiber—100 times faster Internet access—to the homes of Jackson residents, but the advancements don't stop there. They're in schools.
This year marked the beginning of Alignment Jackson, an initiative to improve Jackson Public Schools by increasing professional development, creating teacher teams and, most popularly, providing a MacBook laptop to each ninth grader. The policy change also allows students to bring their devices—like cell phones—to class with them.
Matt Bengloff, the interim board chairman of Mississippi First, an education-policy think tank and project director for Clarksdale's Race to the Top, a grant program, advocates the use of technology in the classroom as a tool to engage through hands-on teaching.
Using technology—as students do in other areas of their lives—can create an individualized experience for students, give them the tools to search for answers themselves and is a way for students to take ownership over their education, Bengloff said.
At a Jackson 2000 meeting on Oct. 8, JPS Superintendent Cedrick Gray spoke about the hurdles JPS has leaped in the last few years. The school district, for example, is no longer fighting a lawsuit against the city for funding and is now in full compliance of special-education requirements after having been lacking in accommodations for special-needs students.
What stuck out at Gray's visit, though, was JPS' push to use more technology in the classroom. "This is a move to usher our students into a realm of how they learn as opposed to how we want to teach. We want to put a textbook in front of them and lecture to them for an hour, and that doesn't work for our young people anymore," Gray said.
The Institute Society for Technology in Education claims that tech tools can increase student achievement and better prepare students for college. The institute cites research showing improvements in project-based learning, independent class work and student engagement due to technology from a one-year study.
Gray said youth today struggle to concentrate without gadgets. Students can receive a lecture from a textbook "for about 10 minutes, and they need something else to engage in, and most of the time it's that little device that's on their hip or in their pocket," Gray said.
Research has shown that the effect of a technology-integrated education is especially powerful for young people, whose brains can potentially lose the ability to sustain attention.
"Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing," said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston in The New York Times. "The worry is we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently."
Bengloff believes the benefits are great, even if technology can create distractions.
"You can say that this generation is too plugged in, and everyone is going to have terrible ADD, and I won't disagree with you. But this is taking place in all facets of kids' lives, and if school is the only place where they have to go with a pen and paper, and listen to a teacher at the front of the room, they're probably not going to be too invested in it," Bengloff said.
How Much Is Too Much?
While public schools rush to fill their classrooms with the latest technology, many people worry that the use of technology stunts independent thinking and takes away the benefit of human interaction.
Today's young people aged 8 to 18 spend twice as much time in front of screens as in school, San Francisco researcher Vicky Rideout found. This presents a variety of challenges, even beyond short attention spans that can hurt focus and even lead to early onset of anxiety and depression, as research shows.
For one, they may have difficulty making independent decisions. "The underlying issue is that they will become dependent on the Internet in order to solve problems and conduct their personal, professional, and civic lives," said Paul Gardner-Stephen of Flinders University.
"Thus, centralized powers that can control access to the Internet will be able to significantly control future generations."
The Pew Research Internet Project found that millennials will both benefit and suffer from their increasingly "plugged in" lifestyles. Some education experts caution that increased reliance on the Internet and technology will result in ineffectiveness in its absence.
Others, including representatives from Microsoft and Yahoo, who admittedly have a reason to be biased, argue that brains are being rewired by the use of technology for the better and that young people's cognitive ability will improve vastly.
This push-pull on technology means that many educators and institutions are looking for ways to balance the benefits of technology with avoiding over-use.
The Waldorf Schools of North America, of which there are around 160 across the country, focus on teaching students through hands-on tasks. Even though many of the parents who send their kids to Waldorf use technology in their work, especially at Waldorf School of the Peninsula where 75 percent of the parents work for high-tech companies, the private school doesn't allow computers in the classroom.
In fact, the school discourages the students' use of technology outside the classroom as well. Instead, teachers at Waldorf engage students through human engagement and interaction like doing physical exercises or teaching a skill like knitting, which they find more beneficial.
Currently, the school begins letting students get acclimated to tech tools in the eighth grade, but for JPS, it seems no age is too early to start integrating technology into education.
"Our children are innovative. We have to catch up with them. ... We'd love to put a tablet in the hands of each of our kindergarten, pre-k (teachers)," Gray said.
Helping with Common Core?
Edutopia, an educational foundation tasked with finding better teaching models, reports that technology integration happens effectively when the use of technology in the classroom is routine and has a clear curricular goal. Edutopia also stresses the importance of the Internet’s role, which can connect students to experts.
Bengloff stressed that meaningful planning and teacher preparation are required for technology to have the positive impact for students the school district desires and, if done correctly, can even enhance the implementation of Common Core requirements.
“Common core is not about the answer, it’s about the process. … I think technology is way more suited for that … technology allows you to figure out problems with more of a critical thinking lens,” Bengloff said.
He said computers can help gauge whether or not students actually understand and absorb the material better than traditional homework and testing. With computer programs that can give students questions with varying difficulty based on their previous answers, each student can have an individualized learning experience. ISTE reiterated in a statement that technology will help students reach Common Core standards as well.
Gray reminds community members and parents that change is hard, especially in regards to new education standards. But to excel, Jackson must get on board, he said.
“When something new comes out, we don’t embrace it. We push against it. And you’re going to push against it so much that by the time the rubber meets the road and you’re going to have no choice but to embrace it, we’ll have waited too late,” Gray said.
“We’re trying to stay above that fray … it’s a work in progress.”
Comment at jfp.ms. Email Anna Wolfe at firstname.lastname@example.org.