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Going, going gone digital
Manteca Unified rates efforts with classroom tech so far as B+
New Haven School fifth and sixth graders in teacher Tiana Houxs class work on their devices. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Manteca Unified is no longer Going Digital.
The school system with 24,000 students has — as Superintendent Jason Messer puts it — gone digital.
“It is basically another tool for teaching,” Messer said.
And when that tool — as defined by electronic devices — was distributed nearly two years ago to every student it was done so not with specific marching orders from the top down, but rather from the classroom up.  The strategy was not to force a cookie cutter approach on employing technology wedded with digital personal devices but to offer general guidelines to allow teachers to use the devices as they deemed appropriate to drive home lessons and open more doors to students.
“The effort at this stage is a B+,” noted Deputy Superintendent Roger Goatcher.
The grade is based on several things including addressing early hardware flaws primarily defined by broken screens and mechanical issues, impact on student learning, teachers and school sites creating lessons attuned to the idea and principles of 21st century learning, and having needed tech support in place.
How the devices have transformed and enhanced learning might be best illustrated through how they have invigorated the learning process involving specific disciplines.
Goatcher noted during site visits to special education programs, as one example, he has observed primary students collaborating on making power point presentations. In one setting it was about a favorite animal.
“The magic of these group projects (using the devices) is the collaboration that occurs within these student groups,” Goatcher noted. “The emphasis was not on the technology they were using; it was on the conversations they were having about hat aspects of the animal they wanted to showcase, what pictures others would like to see about the animal and what would they say to the class about the animal. The technology was only a tool they used to show all the other more important work they did. Technology was the tool that helped them have a stronger voice in the classroom.”
Goatcher noted that working at home for many students is a challenge that technology is helping address. He added that it can often turn into a chore for parents as well as students.
Speaking on a more personal level, Goatcher said he was happy to “see an increase in excitement and more of a willingness” from his son to do his homework thanks to it being delivered through technology.
“The use of the device in reading has brought a new level of interest that he has not had before,” Goatcher said. “He has asked to do more reading and when certain areas began to get too difficult, the ability to read sections and to have other sections read to him, allowed for him to stay at the age group level instead of moving down levels and getting somewhat lower.”
Some of the software employed in Manteca Unified classrooms via the devices allow students to scale back to a level that is easier for them to comprehend and then move forward at their own pace or to ratchet up the difficulty when they are ready. That way a teacher with 24 students of varying abilities can tailor instruction to individuals such as with reading.
“With math, it became more like a game and he began wanting to jump on the device and do more math, “Goatcher said of his son. “As a parent, these small victories remind me why we need to press on in welcoming technology as a tool in our methodology toolboxes. Twenty-first century learning in our public schools is critical for our future ready students.”

Settling into replacement
& updating routine
While a $30 million price tag was placed on Going Digital, Messer noted that wasn’t spent all in one year. A large chunk went to putting a backbone system in place that could handle the demand, have redundancy, be secure, allow software updates with ease, and employ hardware that is as bullet proof as possible.
“Redundancy is extremely important when you are using technology in a classroom,” Messer said. “If it (the Internet goes down) you can’t use it to teach.”
The district has Tech Champions as well as Tech Experts, and tech program coordinators at various school sites to keep tech up and running.
The district now has at any given time less than 1 percent of the students — or 240 max spread across 40 campuses ranging from elementary to high schools — with device problems. On most days, though, it is only a handful.
Problems run the gamut from students forgetting to charge devices to broken screens.  Most problems are resolved the same day. But if it takes longer, loaner devices are available so the students stay connected to digital learning.
In a way, it is much more effective than simply relying on textbooks. If a student loses a textbook and there isn’t an extra one, it could take weeks to get a replacement.
As for replacing devices, Manteca Unified has started a three-year cycle. That means it is an annual cost of perhaps $3 million as opposed to the initial $12 million initial one-year expense to buy 24,000 devices.
The emphasis on student safety has prompted the district to be diligent when it comes to keeping an eye out for issues that require firewalls or restrictions that will block content as well as block access to certain parts of the devices. That has led to some slowdowns in fixing or updating some of the student devices.

What’s up next regarding
the devices and learning
One of the things coming next year will be a “typing agent” software program for first through eighth graders. It is age appropriate software that focuses on the fundamentals of touch typing to allow students to become more proficient on the computer.
Help with touch typing has been a repeated request of teachers who believe it will better prepare students for the transition to college as well as careers.
The district is continually evaluating hardware. They have currently settled on the Dell 3160 device for this school year and next fiscal year. The device was picked as it allows students to capture the benefits of a tablet device by having a touch screen mechanism along with a full size keyboard that allows students to utilize keyboarding functions.
Manteca Unified is continuing to design curriculum that recognizes lesson design as the most effective element of teaching practices. To that end technology is being made available to teachers  to incorporate as they see fit to help students each goals. That is being done while keeping four objectives in mind: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and student choice/ownership of work and standards.
Goatcher added that having teachers lead the way with where, when, and how technology is interwoven with lesson plans continues to pay dividends.
“We often hear of teachers coming up with wonderful ideas on how to use technology in creative way to help students understand the basic concepts or standards of the classrooms,” Goatcher said.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email