By Julie Weckerlein, Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
When children walk into a Defense Department school this year, they may be handed a laptop or electronic reader, or perhaps they’ll be asked to build a robot or try out a simulator on the school lawn.
Technology has long since changed the nation; it’s now time to use these advances to transform its schools, the acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity said.
“It’s about 21st century learning,” Marilee Fitzgerald said in an interview with American Forces Press Service. “And 21st century learning is infused with technology.”
With new initiatives, state-of-the-art equipment and a student-centered model of education, the education activity is entering a new technology-based era, she said, that’s aimed at energizing and engaging its students.
DOD schools are moving away from an education model that calls for all children to be on the same page, learning the same information, all at the same time, Fitzgerald said, to a model that is about a child’s individual needs and learning styles.
Now, rather than all students being on Page 45 in Chapter 4, they’re divided into learning centers. A visitor to a 1st or 2nd grade room may see children at one table working on writing, and others working on vocabulary or reading at another. And at each table, the students are working at different levels based on their ability and interests.
“It’s a very student-centered approach,” Fitzgerald noted.
The activity also is leveraging virtual technology to further engage students. Virtual classes have been a resounding success, she said, with 1,000 enrollments in its virtual learning program.
The virtual program gives students options based on their interests while also helping them to avoid educational gaps, Fitzgerald said, which is particularly important for military children who may move, on average, six to eight times over the course of their school career.
A student may have taken three years of Japanese at one school, but can’t finish a fourth year at another since the language taught there is German. Through virtual classes, students not only can take Japanese, but also can do so with a class in the same time zone or even another, with one-on-one attention from a teacher, Fitzgerald said.
“In the 20th century, you’d be told, ‘Love German,’” she said. “‘We can’t offer Japanese, so fall in love with what we have to offer you.’ But we’re offering a different approach.”
Other classes, whether virtual or not, will reflect the nation’s emphasis on the importance of embedding science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or STEM — into schools, Fitzgerald noted. Last year, officials launched a new literacy program chosen for its focus, not just on historical figures, but on advances or people in STEM fields.
This year, students will showcase their knowledge of STEM with specific activities, she added, such as simulators or robots being built on a school field.
Technology also is transforming DOD classrooms, Fitzgerald said. In a 20th century classroom, computers are relegated to a lab and, without wireless technology, are spaced at intervals along the wall to plug into outlets and connections.
But today’s classrooms include mobile, flexible technology, she said. For example, rather than screens embedded into a wall, teachers have “smart boards” on rollers that can be moved from one classroom to another.
“The 21st century classroom is designed to accommodate learning,” she said. “The technology should be almost transparent to the learner.”
Even the furniture reflects a new style of collaborative instruction and use of technology, she noted. In the past, students would sit at a desk with a chair that’s connected. Now students may sit around tables or at desks that can be shifted to suit the lesson. Or they may sit auditorium-style, surrounded by a panoramic screen and listening to instruction from a teacher who is in another classroom and simultaneously teaching another class. And in either case, they may have a handheld device or electronic reader in their hands, she said.
Fitzgerald said she visited an elementary class that was using a smart board. The teacher, she recalled, was teaching a grammar lesson. A list of nouns and verbs appeared on the board, and two icons became swirling vortexes. Children had to come to the board and drag a noun over. If the noun was wrong, the vortex spit it out, or pulled it in if it was correct.
“They love it,” she said. “The teacher could really engage the learner. It’s real. It’s exciting. It captures their attention.”
In another classroom Fitzgerald visited, every child held a clicker. The teacher, she said, would ask a question, and the students would press a button that matched their answer. Through technology, students’ responses were plotted into a graph so the teacher could see the number of right and wrong responses. And the students could learn about pie charts and other graphs.
“It’s conceptual thinking,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not just simply in the old way of taking a sample. It’s instantaneous graphical representation.”
But this technology doesn’t serve a purpose if teachers aren’t able to access it quickly and efficiently, Fitzgerald noted. It would defeat the purpose, she explained, if it took teachers 20 minutes to pull down a video clip to show to their class.
To ensure they can use technology in real time, she said, the education activity will be increasing its schools’ bandwidth beginning this spring so technology can be used without downtime.
Renovation projects and new construction also will help to ensure technology can be used in a meaningful way. The education activity’s schools are older, Fitzgerald acknowledged, and many fall into the lower two levels of quality standards. These issues aren’t related to safety, she added, but to issues such as plumbing.
To remedy this, the Defense Department launched a program last school year to renovate or replace 134 of its 194 schools worldwide. The DOD programmed $3.7 billion so the activity can bring all of its schools up to the top two quality levels by 2016, Fitzgerald said, and Congress appropriated nearly $400 million in fiscal 2011 to aid the effort.
This effort is aimed not only at modernizing the schools, but also at accommodating learning. Gone will be the wires and evenly spaced plugs along a wall, she said.
“We’ve reached a point where we need a purposefully built environment,” Fitzgerald added. “We’re transforming learning and teaching, as well as transforming the buildings in which we operate.”
Whether at work or at home, people’s lives are infused with technology, she said, and “our children should be learning in the way we live today.”
Fitzgerald said it’s especially gratifying to offer these opportunities to children from military families. Military members make great sacrifices, she noted, but their children’s education shouldn’t be among them.
“When our military members do the very important work they have to do to defend our nation, they want to rest assured their children’s education isn’t compromised due to their career choice,” she said. “I want parents to know that when they come into a DoDEA school we’ve got it, we can do it. And it will be relevant to them.”