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Despite leaving consortium, Kaneland, Batavia districts embrace blended concepts

Julie Sengenberger, a sixth-grade teacher at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, said the Chromebooks issued to the school’s sixth-graders have become a valuable part of the classroom.

She said the technology helps with “bringing the community into the classroom.” The Chromebooks are devices that run the Google Chrome Web browser. They allow students to use the Internet, as well as applications, and educators tout their ability to enhance the learning experience.

For instance, Sengenberger said her students were able to interact with a science-fiction author who was able to blog with the students and then eventually come in and meet with the class. She said students are able to share what they create in class with students outside of the building.

The Batavia Chromebook experience is one example of how school districts are embracing technology, but the paths they will take still are evolving. For instance, the Batavia and Kaneland school districts recently dropped out of a blended learning consortium with the Wheaton-Warrenville, Naperville and Indian Prairie school districts. But officials at both Batavia and Kaneland say that there is much the districts already are doing with the concept of digital learning, and there are plans to do much more.

At both districts, cost was cited as the reason to leave the consortium. Kaneland officials said the cost for the second phase of the plan – $96,450 – was higher than previously expected. Kaneland opted out by a vote of 5-2. In
Batavia, the result was the same, but the vote was 4-3. At Kaneland, officials said they expected other opportunities to come up. At Batavia, Brad Newkirk, chief academic officer, said the question in the district “has turned to ‘how’ and ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ we should expand student access to technology.”

“We will be processing options with the board of education this spring,” Newkirk said.

Both districts already engage in some form of blended learning, and there are plans for more in the future.

At Kaneland, a discussion about technology was a part of the most recent school board meeting. Superintendent Jeff Schuler said the cost of Chromebooks had come down, and that “you would be surprised, as a board, how much you can buy.” Tim Wolf, the district’s director of technology, said the Chromebook is “an excellent device for a school district.”

Wolf said there are some models that cost less than $250. He said it allows students to use Internet access to do research. He said they can take notes and collaborate with classmates. He said they are solid devices and “there are literally no viruses. They are not susceptible to hacking.”

Sengenberger said the Chromebooks are working out well at Batavia. The biggest issue, she said, is that their use is limited to sixth-graders. The program is in its second year, she said, noting she talked to seventh-graders about the experience of going without the devices after a year of using it.

“They said it was very difficult,” she said. Ideally, she said, the students would take their Chromebooks to seventh grade, and additional devices would be given to next year’s sixth-graders. Instead, she said, sixth-graders will turn them in at the end of the year.

Officials acknowledge that there are some who question the need for such technology in the classrooms and are concerned about the cost. But they also say there are advantages to using it. At Kaneland, discussion about the consortium suggested that it eventually could have increased course offerings. For instance, if there was only one student who had interest in a class, it’s unlikely the district would consider offering it. But that class perhaps could be available through the consortium, or a similar future group.

At the recent Kaneland board meeting, Erika Schlichter, the district’s director of educational services for sixth through 12th grade, brought up another point – some companies providing content for Common Core no longer are making textbooks or paper options. Plus, she described the online offerings as “truly interactive learning suites” and not simply a PDF of a textbook page.

Schlichter said such blended learning “really enriches” the students’ experience. She also said it prepares them for colleges and careers, and she said that some college classes are partially online. She said it is “very, very valuable” for students to be able to learn in the online environment.

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