Bluffs students help Google test technology, classes get to keep prototype gizmos -
Published Monday, December 2, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:10 am
Bluffs students help Google test technology, classes get to keep prototype gizmos

Bethany Hayes pointed to the dots on the screen of her 7-inch Nexus tablet and asked her 25 kindergarten students at Council Bluffs' Edison Elementary how many they saw.

They counted three. She said she wished she had six. How many more would she need?

With their fingers, they each drew three more dots on the rubber-cased tablets clutched in their hands. Then they wrote what they'd done as a math equation: 3 + 3 = 6.

“We're working really hard on making our number sentences, aren't we?” Hayes told her tiny scholars.

The tablets, Google's version of Apple's iPad mini, were part of a test the Council Bluffs Community Schools just wrapped up with a neighbor, the Internet giant Google. Though the test is over, the tablets remain at the school.

Like the last time the Council Bluffs district participated in a Google pilot program, the test wasn't necessarily focused on a specific computing device but on the programs and systems that make it go.

This time, the district was among 50-some schools across the United States trying out the company's new Google Play for Education site, which went live Nov. 21.

The site, which features teacher-approved educational apps, videos and other materials, is part of the Google Play store. Teachers can search the education portion of the store by subject, grade and standards, including Common Core.

Council Bluffs also is among about 20 school districts and colleges that have been invited to participate in a Google think tank aimed at finding what students, teachers and administrators need in educational tools.

“Google wants to pick the brains of people in technology and curriculum,” said David Fringer, the Council Bluffs district's chief information officer. He will participate with Corey Vorthmann, the district's director of secondary education.

The first meeting will be held in early March. At least three more are expected to follow over the course of the two-year project. “It is really an honor to be asked to participate,” Fringer said.

The Council Bluffs district's first pilot program with Google occurred in 2011. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company, which has a $1.5 billion data center in Council Bluffs, gave the district 500 prototype notebook computers featuring its then-new operating system, Chrome. The school district was one of a handful nationwide to participate in testing the system, which also was vetted by businesses and individuals.

Google's line of Chromebook notebook computers went on sale a few months later. The Council Bluffs district since has purchased thousands more Chromebooks, with 7,000 now in use throughout the district.

Students in grades six through 12 have their own Chromebooks. Those in grades six through eight use them only at school. The rest keep them 24/7, even over the summer. Next year the district plans to put them in the hands of students down to third grade, completing a goal set in 2009.

The relatively inexpensive notebook computers — they retail for $279 — have spread to school districts across the country, including the Lewis Central district in Council Bluffs. The Council Bluffs district continues to host visiting educators interested in checking them out. One group came from the Kearney Public Schools, which plans to distribute Chromebooks to high school students later this month.

So when Google contacted the district again and asked whether it was willing to try another test, officials were game.

Fringer said the schools were asked to try specific apps and features and report how they worked. The schools also participated in an online discussion group.

The district received 120 tablets, all placed at Edison, for $100 each. They'll retail for about $400, he said. The district also got $30 in an account for each device to explore and purchase apps. More are coming online all the time.

The store's setup, he said, allows teachers to manage apps and quickly send them to students' tablets without having to touch them. Nor does it require expensive management software.

That feature allowed Hayes to push out different apps to different students according to their individual skill levels. If they have an extra 10 minutes between lessons, she can ask them to practice their skills with a math or reading app geared to where they're at.

Soon they'll study living and nonliving things as part of their science curriculum. Hayes plans to have students take pictures of each kind, email them to her and then put them into a presentation.

“I don't use the tablets to be the instructor,” she said. “I use them to enhance the instruction.”

She finds the tablets help keep students' attention in a way worksheets don't.

After she demonstrated turning several more addition and subtraction problems into number sentences on the tablet's whiteboard app, Hayes sent pairs of students off to come up with their own. They soon returned to their seats on the rug at the front of the room to show her their results.

“We just love to mix it up so they have the variety of experiences,” she said.

Contact the writer: Julie Anderson    |   402-444-1223

Julie splits her time between K-12 education, covering several area school districts and private schools, and general assignment stories.

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