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PLUGGED IN: Middle School Utilizes Digital Classrooms

Students in Mrs. Brittany Smith's class at Adair County Middle School incorporate technology into their classroom assignments on a daily basis.

By:  John Overby, Assistant Editor, Adair Progress, October 18, 2018 Print Edition

When walking into Mrs. Sarah Antle’s eighth-grade math classroom, how the room is set up jumps out immediately. The desks are not in rows. They are instead divided into four separate clusters, most facing different directions. On one side of the room, Antle sits nestled in a swivel chair, positioned at a semi-circle desk with a group of students seated around her.

Technology is everywhere. There are two smart boards positioned in different corners of the room. When the students walk in, they each grab a Google Chromebook laptop, a calculator, and their own personal dry-erase board with markers, which they use to take notes by working out problems and taking photos of it with their Chromebooks.

As students get settled in, Antle quickly reviews some recently learned material on one of the smart boards — that day’s lesson was scientific notation — before they start working on their next assignment. In a dark room lit primarily by the glow of Chromebooks, eighth-graders work quietly at their own pace, only stopping if Antle calls them to the front desk or if they have a question of their own to ask her.

On the other side of Adair County Middle School, Mrs. Brittany Smith’s seventh-grade science classroom features a slightly more conventional setup. Smith is set up at a traditional teacher’s desk. The student’s desks are technically in rows, although which side of the class they are facing depends on the day. What Smith’s and Antle’s classrooms have in common, though, is the technology. As the seventh-graders walk in, they, too, grab a Chromebook before heading to their seats. On this particular day — a test review day — all of the students are logged in to their laptops, following along on a giant smart board at the front of the room as Smith goes over the test. Not only are they able to see what questions they missed on their own personal computer, they are also able to see how the rest of the class did on each question — as well as how the other classes did, for that matter.

Learning in a Digital Classroom

These technology-driven, paper-eschewing learning spaces are referred to as “digital classrooms.”

“A digital classroom uses the tools available with electronic devices to bring instruction and assessment to the students,” Smith explained. “Articles and slide presentations can be assigned and viewed online.  Students can collaborate on projects using shared documents and files.  Students can submit assignments electronically.  Classwork can be accessed by the students 24/7.”

“We still do everything a traditional class does; it’s just on computers,” Antle adds.

For principal Alma Rich, creating digital classrooms at ACMS became a goal several years ago. As she put it, students were already so comfortable with technology that using that familiarity as a learning tool was only a natural transition.

“They know so well how to operate it, we thought this might spark a little bit more interest in learning if they were using technology more in the classroom,” Rich says. “It’s always been of interest for us to find more innovative ways to reach kids. Technology is one of the biggest things in our world, especially with our kids.”

That push toward starting digital classrooms began with Antle, who is in her fifth year at ACMS. Before that, she taught at Bate Middle School in Danville, which she refers to as “a school of innovation.”

“New ideas and new teaching methods were highly encouraged, if not demanded,” Antle says of Bate. “That is when I began blended learning, using Chromebooks and online curriculum.”

This is currently Antle’s seventh year doing some form of a digital classroom, and the one of the only consistent aspects from year to year has been the constant change.

“This is year seven for me doing a digital classroom and I have never done it the same way,” she says of her teaching style in the technology-based environment. “I am constantly working, revamping old lessons and trying to find the best practices. I have done many things consistently but maybe in different ways … I have done a flipped classroom, self-paced, blended and more traditional. It really hasn't been the same two years in a row.”

Smith, a seventh-grade science and seventh-and-eighth-grade agriculture teacher, is currently in her fourth year at Adair County Middle School.

Before coming to ACMS, she taught at Cumberland County Middle School, and during her last year there, she was able to go “1:1, which means every student picked up a Chromebook when they came to school and used it in every class, every day.”

“I saw the potential in that experience and wanted to be able to do that with my kids at ACMS, too,” she says.

Benefits of the Digital Classroom

Both teachers agree that most students are happy with the digital classroom setup, although Antle adds that some students “complain at the beginning of the year” but change their minds once they realize they do not have to keep track of paperwork outside of the class.

“Their math work is all organized and not scattered,” Antle says. “There is no more worry about forgetting their book or notebook at school or losing the worksheet.  There is a dramatic decrease in missing or late work, and there is an increase in engagement when students realize that they can use the tools they are familiar with to help them learn.”

Smith cites that her students enjoy the fact that they don’t get zeros on their assignments because they get credit for the work they have done. She also notes that using technology to do their assignments is advantageous for them because it is “the way their brains are wired to think,” and even the students who don’t use technology as often outside of the classroom see the benefits because they are getting to use the learning tools now that they will have to use at the higher levels of education.

“I believe the middle school classroom is the best place for them to learn how to use technology,” Smith says, “as it will become more and more of an expectation as they get in higher grades and postsecondary opportunities.”

For the teachers, the programs they use — including Google Classroom, Edulastic, Socrative, Khan Academy, and a wide array of other helpful education tools — allow for instant data collection and analysis. In one example during a test day, Smith was able to see a high volume of students missing one particular question in her third-period class as they were taking the exam. By the time the rest of her students in later classes were set to take the exam, she had already determined that there was a flaw with the wording of the question and was able to give credit to students who chose one of two answers, as well as retroactively do the same for her previous classes.

“Instant data analysis makes our job at analyzing student performance much easier,” Smith says. “We are able to track class performance to see if the concepts were taught effectively and to determine content that may need to be retaught.”

“The data shows a direction of where your class should go, what students know or don’t know,” Antle adds.

In turn, the students are also able to reap the rewards of that data much sooner than students were able to even 10 years ago.

“It makes student self gratification much more effective since they see a quicker response to their hard work,” Smith says. “On the other hand, it also shows students who do not perform as high as their potential the instant consequences to the choices they make, like whether they study or whether they pay enough attention to their class work.  What used to take a few days to a week to process can now happen in a matter of minutes.”

This type of data analysis also allows each student to work at his or her own pace. Antle notes this is crucial because, within each class, there are “several different levels of students.”

“I can see with the data collected who is struggling … in real time,” she says. “I can pull those students to work one-on-one and re-teach them the concept they are missing. I can also see the students who are flying through it. I can assign them the next lesson, they can watch videos if they need help or I could pull them to a small group also.”

Digital classrooms are also a pathway for students to learn about the importance of technology outside of social and entertainment purposes.

“So many students live on technology outside of the classroom, and that is not always a good thing, whether it is on social media, Fortnite or other online entertainment opportunities,” Smith says. “We work to show them there are good uses for technology and try to teach them the responsible way to use it to collaborate, learn, and present knowledge rather than just for entertainment.”

The digital classrooms are also an avenue for  teaching middle school students how to be responsible “digital citizens.”

“They are kids, and kids will be kids,” Antle says. “They will sneak and listen to music, or be looking up their favorite singer. It happens, and there are checks our district has in place to minimize this. However, just like many things, responsibility has to be taught and responsible internet and devise usage is not different.”

“As a middle school teacher, I believe it is not only my job to teach kids science content, but to also teach them to be good people,” Smith adds. “Part of that is learning to be responsible, and in my classroom, I can teach that with the Chromebooks. I can always take the ability to use Chromebooks away from the students as a way of showing the consequences to misbehavior, and I want students to see that they must respect the opportunities that are given to them in order to be able to continue to enjoy them.”

Simple Solutions to Potential Problems

While both teachers acknowledges the benefits of technology in the classroom, there are problems that have to be addressed from time to time. For one, not every student has access to the internet or technology outside of school.

Antle is a firm believer in letting “kids be kids” and assigning them little to no homework assignments, but in the rare occasions this becomes an issue, she notes that the fix for students with no access to technology is to be flexible and willing to give an alternate assignment or give them the assignment in a different format.

Similarly, Smith offers students the ability to print off anything the class does digitally as long as the student notifies her in advance.

As long as students have some type of Wi-Fi or data connection available to them, though, these types of issues are rarely a problem.

Teachers who rely on technology also have to be flexible when there are equipment malfunctions in the classroom. According to Smith, though, being flexible and adaptable is common for teachers in all classroom environments.

“As a teacher, you always have to have a backup plan,” she says. “Whether it is issues with the Chromebooks, the internet in general, or a scheduling change, we adapt and go on.”

Antle also credits the Adair County Schools’ IT department for helping to fix problems promptly whenever they arise.

“Teachers are good at coming up with something on the fly; sometimes you have to,” Antle says.

An Ever-Evolving, Collaborative Process

Despite their wealth of experience in teaching in a digital classroom — both teachers are Google Certified and Rich refers to them as “experts” in the area — Antle stresses the importance of staying current in the always evolving world of technology. She says she never misses the chance to go to a Professional Development or have a meeting with the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative.

“I went to every session on technology in the classroom and would try to bring back one or two things to try,” Antle says. “Sometimes, I liked them but the students hated it or it could have been the other way around … It really is like starting over as a new teacher, surviving the first year and growing and learning every year after that. Just like technology changes fast, the teacher has to be willing and able to adapt to it.”

While they have many years of experience using technology in the classroom, both teachers have made a concerted effort to go completely paperless in recent years, with Antle in her third year and Smith in her first year. Working their way away from using paper in the classroom has provided its own set of challenges, but it is one that both teachers embrace.

“When I went completely paperless three years ago, I had to force myself to keep with it,” Antle says. “It was easier to just go run off copies; I didn’t know of all the resources that were there to help as I do now. But I stuck with it and have a personal library built of activities.”

Both teachers find it very helpful to have another digital classroom teacher in the building as an extra resource, especially as they both make this transition.

“Sarah is awesome,” Smith says. “If I ever have a question — no matter how crazy it is — I know she will do her best to help me and answer whatever I need to know.  And, with technology, the only questions you have seem to be last-minute, need-to-know-now types of things.”

“It is very exciting to have someone who loves it as much as I do,” Antle adds about Smith. “She finds new ideas that I have never heard of and shares and I do the same.”

‘The Future of Education’

Antle believes education is a profession that has “changed very little” in comparison to other occupations over the past 40 years.

“I would bet if you asked someone who went to school in the ‘70s about their math class — or really any class —  at any level,” Antle says, “they would say they sat in rows, watched a teacher do examples on the board for 50 minutes, had 20 or more practice problems and what was left over was homework. Then the process repeated.”

For her, digital classrooms are a way to change that. As society has changed in that time, she says, so has the way that students learn.

“Our students are different,” Antle says. “They have access to everything on the internet. There are apps that will solve equations for them. To teach them using a textbook and paper-pencil is a disservice to them. They are 21st-century learners, and we should be 21st-century teachers.”

Smith adds that as school districts begin seeing the benefits of digital classrooms through various assessments, these types of learning environments will start becoming more of “the norm.”

“When we are not appropriated money for textbooks, the internet gives students an unlimited amount of resources at their disposal to learn from,” Smith says. “As we are able to increase the number of Chromebooks in the school, I believe we will continue to see an increase in their usage in each subject area”

While Rich agrees students will only see more and more technology as a learning tool in the coming years, she was reluctant to say that all classrooms would be fully digital in the near future.

“Digital classrooms are not for every child,” she says. “Some attention spans can’t handle majority of their work being on Chromebooks … I think, for us, it’s been a great way to make some of the kids more interested in learning, but there are some students that kind of shy away and don’t really want to do work on it.”

For now, Rich says that ACMS is “constantly gathering data” on how students are performing in digital classrooms versus traditional others.

In the meantime, Antle and Smith will both continue striving to perfect the use of technology in their classrooms.

“It has become a true passion of mine,” Antle says. “I am constantly looking for new ideas and wanting to find the best practices … I think it is the future of education.”


Students in Mrs. Brittany Smith's class at Adair County Middle School incorporate technology into their classroom assignments on a daily basis.

Students in Mrs. Brittany Smith's class at Adair County Middle School incorporate technology into their classroom assignments on a daily basis.  (Photo/Caption Credit:  John Overby, Assistant Editor, Adair Progress)

Seventh-grader Hallie Burton works on her Chromebook.

Seventh grader, Hallie Burton, works on her Chromebook. (Photo/Caption Credit:  John Overby, Assistant Editor, Adair Progress)


Article with accompanying photos/captions published online with permission from the Adair Progress newspaper, Wes Feese, Editor.  The article first appeared in the print edition of the Adair Progress on October 18, 2018.  The article with accompanying photos/captions was written and provided by John Overby, Assistant Editor.


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