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NY SCHOOLS
Where Teaching Meets Technology
New York City Is Ramping Up Its Classroom Tech Efforts
June 26, 2014 9:40 p.m. ET
Scott Larsen's first assignment in front of a New York City classroom might have daunted even the
most experienced educator: Lead a health class for high-school seniors—the day before prom.
Unfazed, Mr. Larsen had students watch video clips on their laptops of famous dances, from the
Charleston to moves by actors John Travolta and Uma Thurman in the movie "Pulp Fiction." Then,
he asked students to re-create the movements using an online interactive 3-D model of the body.
"Nothing like a good trial by fire to find out if you're suited for something," said Mr. Larsen, who
taught the class last spring and just completed his first full year of teaching at Sunset Park High
School in Brooklyn.
Environmental Science teacher Scott Larsen, right, one of the 'blended' teaching fellows at Sunset Park
High School, works with students at the school in Brooklyn. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
By SOPHI A HOLLANDER
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Tablet Styluses That Keep It Old School
For years, school districts across the country have been experimenting with how to integrate online
learning into classrooms—sometimes eliminating in-person teaching sessions altogether. Now, New
York City is ramping up its efforts.
In late May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
announced a $20 million investment in new devices
and software to increase classroom connectivity—and
a $650 million capital investment over the next five
years.
And on Friday, city officials are set to announce a
series of summer courses for teachers on the topic—
offered through partners including PBS, Google and
Microsoft—to meet the expanding need. The courses
will be free and include in-person and online elements.
Last spring, the Department of Education started a Blended Learning Institute to train science
teachers like Mr. Larsen how to teach with technology more effectively. This year, it launched a
track in computer science; classes led by the 60 newly trained high-school teachers will begin next
fall.
But the program can't keep up with the growing number of schools experimenting with different
models, which can range from posting homework assignments to offering entire lessons online.
Sometimes they issue tablets or laptops for in-class use—even as cellphones remain banned.
In the 2011 to 2012 school year, 124 city schools reported offering blended learning—where some
teaching is shifted online—in at least one class. This year, the number more than doubled, with
blended programs in at least 260 schools, affecting more than 27,000 students in grades six
through 12.
Supporters say classes conducted partially, or entirely, online allow students to study at their own
pace, access a broader range of materials and viewpoints, and have greater control over how and
when they learn. There is the broader benefit of equipping them with skills to navigate a 21st-
century digital-heavy landscape.
Critics say there are few studies supporting these benefits.
While there are potential rewards, adding technology "doesn't translate easily yet into improved
student outcomes," said Patricia Burch, an associate professor of education at the University of
Southern California who co-wrote a book on the promise and risk of digital education.
That is particularly true for lower-income students who might not own a laptop or have a working
Internet connection at home, she said: "The digital divide is absolutely still real."
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And there are in-school glitches as well. Mr. Larsen said most students couldn't complete his 3D-
dance-modeling assignment on their individual laptops due to technical and logistical issues, so
they did it as a group. The laptops used in class are "not the greatest," he said, and as the year
progresses, software and hardware issues multiply. "This is something teachers deal with almost
daily."
Still, investment in education technology tripled nationwide from 2002 to 2011, Ms. Burch said. As of
this year, a handful of states required students to take an online course to graduate high school.
New York isn't among them.
City schools experimenting with blended learning range from the most troubled academies—where
blended classes can allow students to catch up on missed work or retake courses—to system stars,
such as Brooklyn Technical High School, which offers an additional advanced-placement course
entirely online.
Brooklyn Tech's online AP microeconomics class addressed a specific problem, said principal
Randy Asher : While Tech students "have the capacity to learn more," their packed schedules make
additional classes during the day impossible.
Students who enrolled in the class, which was taught by their AP macroeconomics teacher, were
able to work at their own pace, he said. That included evenings, "when they're a little more alert
than they are at 8 or 9 in the morning."
School officials are now exploring the possibility of having Brooklyn Tech teachers lead online
courses for students from other schools with fewer resources, Mr. Asher said. The program could
start as soon as Sept. 2016.
Although two-thirds of teachers at Brooklyn Tech incorporate some online elements into their
courses, including posting documents on class websites, tracking assignments digitally or hosting
class discussions on chatboards, students are discouraged from bringing laptops into the
classroom, he said.
"It's more important that you pay attention in class, take your notes and be an active participant,"
Mr. Asher said.
Teachers at Sunset Park High School take a different approach.
During a science class this spring, students hunched over school-issued laptops as they designed
infographics about tornado preparedness. As the teacher, Zohar Ris, moved through the room
answering questions, students researched facts and formatted them into clear steps people could
take to protect themselves.
The finished graphics were uploaded to student websites, which contained their work from the year,
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said Mr. Ris.
When the school began incorporating digital learning, some students resisted, he said. Some
preferred writing notes to typing them, as teachers now urged. Students could no longer say they
missed an assignment, since the instructions now lived online.
"They can't get away with things," Mr. Ris said. The increased efficiency and accountability has
meant "the amount of work they produce is probably doubled or tripled."
Now, most students have embraced the changes, he said. There are clear benefits: If students are
confused during a lesson, they can just click or swipe back on their own devices. Tools like audio
textbooks let them multitask, tackling homework while doing other things such as exercising or
chores.
In past years, if senior Marybelle Rivera didn't understand something at home, she said she felt
stuck. Now, "if you have a question for a teacher, they can message you right back," she said. "It's
refreshing to have somebody there when they're not really there with you."
Write to Sophia Hollander at sophia.hollander@wsj.com
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