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From virtual reality to online libraries, how technology is revolutionizing education in GR

Jason Siko

As classrooms throughout West Michigan are teaching us, technology isn't just preparing our children for tomorrow. It's inspiring them to look at the world differently today, and Grand Rapids Public Schools and Grand Valley State University are connecting students with the technology that's reshaping our education field—and our whole world.
If you could work in any field you wanted and money wasn't a factor, what would you be?

Who knows how many students have chosen a career path with this very question? There are, no doubt, some still asking it this very moment. As classrooms across the nation and many in West Michigan are teaching us, however, a more appropriate interrogative would ask not where students would rather be tomorrow, but what they would rather learn today.

From virtual online classrooms built by such companies as Microsoft and Switch to the massive open online courses from providers like edX, Coursera and Udemy, and even distance learning programs facilitated by our own brick-and-mortar universities, the walls of modern classrooms are often anything but metaphor. While the blackboard may remain the same--although it comes in white and clear versions now, too--the substance of technology education has been significantly redesigned by the capabilities of the technology being used to educate.

Some classrooms have integrated iPads, Chromebooks, and even makerspaces (essentially community spaces with tools) for years now, while others are just beginning to take advantage of such innovations. With updated equipment, new software and access to a library of online resources, the Grand Rapids Public Schools district is looking forward to added gains in learning this year. Explorative spaces installed at Grand Valley State University will help older students test and build the devices that tomorrow's learning environments may rely on.

Students of Burton Elementary School use iPads during classtime

Technology is an integral part of the educational experience, and while introducing the latest devices may improve learning retention and efficiency, it's never been a replacement for good teaching. It's the methodology behind the teaching, and not the tools, that's making the most of the technologies available to today's educators.

Much as we see emerging technologies iterate and evolve into new forms each year, the same can be said for the state of technology education, and education in general.

GRPS is currently responsible for some of the most innovative learning centers in the country. Under the superintendency of Teresa Weatherall Neal, the school district has grown up and out. The district's Innovation Central High School is anchored by its four distinct academies of modern engineering, health sciences and technology, design and construction, and business leadership and entrepreneurship, each an example of innovative technologies and techniques.

Innovation Central High's development of young entrepreneurs in technology and health care has attracted a partnership with the Grand Rapids-based venture capital fund and business incubator Start Garden. The relationship will funnel young leaders into the most advanced opportunities in the the city. Start Garden's work with the city's SmartZone (which re-invests tax revenues into incubator space, support services for entrepreneurs, and more) is assuring that there is plenty of fertile ground for developing high tech projects in West Michigan through incentivized "technology parks" and "smart clusters.” In other words, places where business accelerators, research facilities and technology firms share talent and tools with healthcare and higher learning institutes. GRPS’ Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs John Helmholdt is also on the SmartZone Local Development Authority Board, and says it has potential to bring the superintendent's vision for programming, coding, technology and “Internet of Things” interests to other academy schools.

New technology at GRPS

The district has a lot to be proud of, but Helmholdt is quick to point out where the seeds of its growth were planted. The J Everett Light Career Center (JECC) in Indianapolis, and High Tech High in San Diego are two unique institutions in the fields of STEM workforce development and learning, and inspiration for some of GRPS' latest experiments in cross-curriculum education.

At JECC, students are taught how to fix smartphones, as well as create their own apps, skills that are all but guaranteed to be in high demand in the coming years. At High Tech High, the last period of the day for many means testing out new ideas and prototypes in a makerspace. And Helmholdt says the same hands-on learning environments could soon be implemented in GRPS as part of the district's transformation plan, funded by the $175 million bond issue approved in November.

Ten million dollars of that bond is earmarked for technology, including devices for students, faculty and support staff. GRPS hasn't had any updates to its hardware since 2004.

“Those computer labs are now 12 to 13 years old, and that's not what real 21st century learning technology looks like anymore," Helmholdt says. "Now, more than ever, it is important that our students have that same equal access learning opportunity and access to tools such as an iPad, a Surface Pro, or laptop."

GRPS' Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs, John Helmholdt

GRPS will provide each student between 6th and 12th grades with an iPad or laptop, as well as one in every five elementary students, along with every single teacher and administrator.

"This includes comprehensive professional development, so we can really begin to utilize technology as a tool and resource for teaching," Helmholdt says. "The superintendent sees technology as a tool and a resource to be utilized by the teacher as opposed to something that should be replacing one."

That's not to say the students won't enjoy the new hardware. GRPS has a number of initiatives in the works, including a million dollar grant from Apple over at Burton Elementary that will provide each student with an iPad, and every teacher with an Apple computer, and in many cases Apple televisions. The preloaded applications have been vetted by teachers and proven to enhance learning, Helmholdt says. And in partnership with Grand Rapids Public Library, the district has created an online library with tens of thousands of titles for students to access.

"While we're still fortunate to be able to have libraries with physical books in them, keeping them refreshed and replenished is not necessarily the highest priority. We're trying to make sure students have textbooks, and the future of those textbooks is starting to go toward those online opportunities," Helmholdt says. "We're excited because we also know that as a district we need to do more to encourage student interest in the college career pathways around technology."

The district's plan for the future includes investing in what's working: investing in talent recruitment, retention and development; and investing in stability and growth, Helmholdt says. Along with an investment in physical technology, however, the school is also looking into new methodologies that disrupt traditional educational models.

"By and large, we put students in a box, and arrange them in rows with the teacher standing at the head of the class for five days a week, nine months a year and then everyone goes home to work on family fun," Helmholdt says. "Even our calendar is still aligned really with the tourism and agriculture industries. I think what schools like High Tech High challenged us with is to really start to think how we think different."

The Museum School is GRPS' reimagined educational experiment. Through public and private partnership and collaboration with other partners like GVSU, Kendall College and the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the school has been able to thrive and provide students with new ideas. It was one of only 10 schools in the nation to win the $10 million XQ Super School Project award, for which applicants offered ideas on how to create educational models that best challenged students to be critical thinkers and take on real world problems, and the school shines as an example of design thinking and technology education.

The Museum School uses the entire Grand Rapids Public Museum as a classroom.

Along with opening up to the latest technologies, Helmholdt says, the district is testing out new teaching models as well. He notes that, in public education today, the focus is heavy on high-stakes tests, which students, schools and districts are penalized for failing.

"That's unfortunate because those one-size-fits all tests are inherently stacked against high needs, high poverty students, particularly African American, Hispanic and Latino students," Helmholdt says. "Statistics across the country prove it. Mackinac Center, a big conservative think tank, said the same thing. The state's top to bottom list, arrange them next to the free and reduced lunch rate and it lines up almost identically."

GRPS’ diverse makeup is certainly affected by these issues, and in order to develop a more vibrant culture of STEM careers for the future, it is actively engaged in improving the education of its students. The concepts of design thinking and disruption can be applied here as well. "What we don't put enough value on is in fact how failing can be a good thing. How do we use failure to build our knowledge? I think that's a fine line and it's a new way of teaching," Helmholdt says.

Gamification in learning

Design thinking--using an innovative, human-centered approach to problem solving--has provided technology education with a vast new world of ideas and options, perhaps even no more evident than in the world of game design. Jason Siko, assistant professor at Grand Valley State University’s College of Education, asks his students to make educational games on easily accessible software platforms like Microsoft Powerpoint.

"When you think of educational games, you probably think of some apps that are basically drill and practice, or some sort of Jeopardy review game," Siko says. "Those are just kind of review-based drill and practice games. It's necessary, and it's helpful, but it's not necessarily transformative."

Jason Siko, Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at GVSU

You might attach a dollar value and introduce some competition, but for the most part it's just a typical worksheet, Siko says. Introduce other variables and a narrative, and something else starts to take shape.

"There's a lot that goes into the construction of a game," Siko says. "The video game industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with programmers, designers, and storytellers. And part of what makes game design a different form of learning is the fact that you're not only learning different kinds of content, but also doing things like writing across the curriculum, putting an element of creative writing into science."

Using PowerPoint or Google Slides is a way to set the bar to learning low. It allows Siko's students to focus on the substance of computational thinking or debugging before style. It also helps structure a tree of choices a "player" can make, determined by the questions and answers programed into the game. In this area, students need to rely on psychology and sociology as much as technology, finding plausible yet incorrect answers to populate multiple choice questions with.

"Throwing that all together, you have something that someone may be interested in--having some creative input into the development of a game, to actually have to do the science," Siko says.

It's not only interesting, it's a better way to learn, for many. Bringing together different disciplines under one project showed educators how such classes improved learning, Siko says, as more and more the student performance in game design settings have outpaced students in the traditional classroom. It's not necessarily the technology that has changed, as is evidenced by PowerPoint, but the strategies.

"I think you'll see in the future with all these initiatives of technology being rolled out in schools, unless you're changing the strategy, you're not going to see the changes in performance," Siko says.

He points out that we've seen more and more technology in classrooms since the mid 1980s, yet there's not been a very strong correlation in learning outcomes.

"I joke around with my students and ask what kind of advancements in education we saw when we switched from chalkboards to whiteboards?" Siko asks. "Nothing, of course. If we're just typing our lecture notes and putting them on a Google doc, there's not a lot of change there."

A Michigan native, Siko received his doctorate in instructional technology from Wayne State in 2012 before joining GVSU. Prior to that, he received a degree in future studies from the University of Houston. He says if trends are to be trusted, the future may indeed see less technology in the classroom, or at least fewer devices. As Siko notes, the world is moving toward a convergence in media.

"We're getting to this point where we just have one device for everything," he says. "You see this with our communications, our televisions, our media. We're going from desktops, to laptops, to tablets, to phones. There's this big push to kind of converge everything into one device that you may even be able to plug into a screen just so you can have access to something larger if you need to."

When that one device is released, there's a good chance it may show up in GVSU's Technology Showcase, which as its website explains, “provides faculty, staff and students with an interactive and engaging environment to discover, learn and share how innovative emerging technologies can enhance teaching and improve student learning at GVSU.”

Exploring new technologies

Eric Kunnen, Associate Director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies at GVSU, has spent the last 24 years focused on technology in higher education. He has led Grand Rapids Community College's online learning efforts into the digital age, and left as director of the college's distance learning department to pursue his dreams at GVSU.

As Kunnen saw the university's new Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons being constructed, intentionally embedded with the latest technology, designers were faced with rethinking what a library looks like in the 21st century. Books are still important, but services are of utmost importance to connected students. One of those services developed into the Technology Showcase.

"That's an emerging innovative space where faculty and students can access virtual reality devices, augmented reality, and anything else," Kunnen says. "We are looking at the Internet of Things and wearable computing, asking questions like, what would it look like if all of our students wore Google Glass?"

Much like High Tech High, JECC, and GRPS, and a number of other makerspaces in the region, GVSU is piloting such hands-on experimentation with high hopes, and a 3D printer.

Along with Kunnen, nine other GVSU staff members work in the eLearning group, leveraging technology to assist educators. Part of their work involves trying out and offering students and faculty the chance to explore the latest devices, determining effectiveness and utility inside the classroom and out.

"We are monitoring some of those major trends in [virtual reality, augmented reality], mobile, and 3D printing right now," Kunnen says. "We have a lot of different drop-in space for students and faculty to experiment and play around with technology, to imagine what it would look like if we used these in teaching, and how it would make us more effective. The ultimate purpose is to solve instructional problems to meet students needs so that they're successful."

It's important to keep the faculty on their toes, and the two-pronged approach of technology and design is also helping motivate educators who may be stuck in the old ways of doing things. Kunnen says GVSU's design group, with instructional designers and digital media developers, helps faculty to think differently about how they sequence and structure their instruction, weaving technology in where it makes sense.

"One of the challenges to putting courses online, and just in using technology in the classroom, is faculty sometimes need a little bit of help in developing custom content," he says. "Digital media developers help create some video content, and we can use an innovative device called the Lightboard, or Learning Glass."

Those watching the videos will see the instructor as they're solving that mathematical equation or drawing something out on a board.

"You're standing behind glass and writing with fluorescent markers on a piece of glass that's lit with LEDs," Kunnen says. "It creates an engaging lesson. You can see the instructor and you get that kind of context, that personal touch, rather than just a whiteboard recording. We're seeing a lot more adoption of that."

Along with a growing adoption of hybrid courses at GVSU, splitting online work and real life classroom periods, isn't the only trend the school is developing. As the university launches initiatives into big data and open educational resources, it's tackling the long-standing college issue of textbook bills.

More and more, publishers are making course materials available online at a lower cost than buying a physical book, which may go out of print the same year. Kunnen says the average material costs for students today can land above $2,500, which makes an online library a welcome resource for many.

Looking to the future

 A system update takes time. Whether that's redirecting last period art class to a more experimental makerspace, or revamping an entire district's teaching methodology, there is a learning curve. But, as with all technologies, this can be indispensable once adopted.

Helmholdt remembers the last time he stopped taking notes on paper. He had gotten his first iPad in 2010, and while his handwriting isn't in any better shape, his efficiency and organization is.

GRPS students offer valuable insight on the importance of investing in technology as well. Just a few years ago, the district laid claim to two robotics teams. There was even a third, but so little attention had been paid to the programs, it went unaccounted for until 2013. Under Superintendent Weatherall Neal, and along with the help and resources of Consumers Energy and Steelcase, GRPS robotics grew from three teams to 10, and later to 23.

Students from GRPS are now winning competitions and bringing home awards in every school.

It's not cheap. To run those 23 teams it costs a quarter million dollars. But it is the future, and when tomorrow's engineers and scientists are coming out of GRPS, it's a more diversely populated and educated future. West Michigan's technology centers are quite willing to invest in that.

A partnership with Switch could soon develop into virtual learning passports for GRPS students using the data center's Planet3 technology. And when you've got the attention of the region's most technologically advanced pyramid, others tend to follow.

"There's great energy and excitement around GRPS. Having a partnership with Start Garden and SmartZone, Innovation Central High. Exploring Planet3 as a pilot. We're starting to really get ahead of the curve, or at least get caught up," Helmholdt says. "We as educators are just now really starting to question what more we can do for our students, teachers and our support staff, and how can we use technology to improve."

Technology is one of tools that helps us build the future. But it's not without experimentation and failure itself. Whether you ask educational scions like Salman Khan, dog loving astronauts like Leland Melvin, or the many school leaders we have in West Michigan, the most important foundation we can build on is one of learning and exploration. Strong teachers and methodology can provide that, and technology can help them provide it better.

This is part of a 12-part series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. With this series, Rapid Growth delves into the question: What are businesses and organizations doing to leverage technological advances to create an impact within our region, and what are the stories behind these agents of sweeping change in our society? This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies (OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.

Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at m.s.russell@gmail.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Photography by Adam Bird
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