DOD Schools Engage Students With Technology

WASHINGTON — When chil­dren walk into a Defense Depart­ment school this year, they may be hand­ed a lap­top or elec­tron­ic read­er, or per­haps they’ll be asked to build a robot or try out a sim­u­la­tor on the school lawn.
Tech­nol­o­gy has long since changed the nation; it’s now time to use these advances to trans­form its schools, the act­ing direc­tor of the Depart­ment of Defense Edu­ca­tion Activ­i­ty said.
“It’s about 21st cen­tu­ry learn­ing,” Mar­ilee Fitzger­ald said in an inter­view with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice. “And 21st cen­tu­ry learn­ing is infused with tech­nol­o­gy.”
With new ini­tia­tives, state-of-the-art equip­ment and a stu­dent-cen­tered mod­el of edu­ca­tion, the edu­ca­tion activ­i­ty is enter­ing a new tech­nol­o­gy-based era, she said, that’s aimed at ener­giz­ing and engag­ing its stu­dents.
DOD schools are mov­ing away from an edu­ca­tion mod­el that calls for all chil­dren to be on the same page, learn­ing the same infor­ma­tion, all at the same time, Fitzger­ald said, to a mod­el that is about a child’s indi­vid­ual needs and learn­ing styles.
Now, rather than all stu­dents being on Page 45 in Chap­ter 4, they’re divid­ed into learn­ing cen­ters. A vis­i­tor to a 1st or 2nd grade room may see chil­dren at one table work­ing on writ­ing, and oth­ers work­ing on vocab­u­lary or read­ing at anoth­er. And at each table, the stu­dents are work­ing at dif­fer­ent lev­els based on their abil­i­ty and inter­ests.
“It’s a very stu­dent-cen­tered approach,” Fitzger­ald not­ed.
The activ­i­ty also is lever­ag­ing vir­tu­al tech­nol­o­gy to fur­ther engage stu­dents. Vir­tu­al class­es have been a resound­ing suc­cess, she said, with 1,000 enroll­ments in its vir­tu­al learn­ing pro­gram.
The vir­tu­al pro­gram gives stu­dents options based on their inter­ests while also help­ing them to avoid edu­ca­tion­al gaps, Fitzger­ald said, which is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for mil­i­tary chil­dren who may move, on aver­age, six to eight times over the course of their school career.
A stu­dent may have tak­en three years of Japan­ese at one school, but can’t fin­ish a fourth year at anoth­er since the lan­guage taught there is Ger­man. Through vir­tu­al class­es, stu­dents not only can take Japan­ese, but also can do so with a class in the same time zone or even anoth­er, with one-on-one atten­tion from a teacher, Fitzger­ald said.
“In the 20th cen­tu­ry, you’d be told, ‘Love Ger­man,’” she said. “‘We can’t offer Japan­ese, so fall in love with what we have to offer you.’ But we’re offer­ing a dif­fer­ent approach.”
Oth­er class­es, whether vir­tu­al or not, will reflect the nation’s empha­sis on the impor­tance of embed­ding sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics — or STEM — into schools, Fitzger­ald not­ed. Last year, offi­cials launched a new lit­er­a­cy pro­gram cho­sen for its focus, not just on his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, but on advances or peo­ple in STEM fields.
This year, stu­dents will show­case their knowl­edge of STEM with spe­cif­ic activ­i­ties, she added, such as sim­u­la­tors or robots being built on a school field.
Tech­nol­o­gy also is trans­form­ing DOD class­rooms, Fitzger­ald said. In a 20th cen­tu­ry class­room, com­put­ers are rel­e­gat­ed to a lab and, with­out wire­less tech­nol­o­gy, are spaced at inter­vals along the wall to plug into out­lets and con­nec­tions.
But today’s class­rooms include mobile, flex­i­ble tech­nol­o­gy, she said. For exam­ple, rather than screens embed­ded into a wall, teach­ers have “smart boards” on rollers that can be moved from one class­room to anoth­er.
“The 21st cen­tu­ry class­room is designed to accom­mo­date learn­ing,” she said. “The tech­nol­o­gy should be almost trans­par­ent to the learn­er.”
Even the fur­ni­ture reflects a new style of col­lab­o­ra­tive instruc­tion and use of tech­nol­o­gy, she not­ed. In the past, stu­dents would sit at a desk with a chair that’s con­nect­ed. Now stu­dents may sit around tables or at desks that can be shift­ed to suit the les­son. Or they may sit audi­to­ri­um-style, sur­round­ed by a panoram­ic screen and lis­ten­ing to instruc­tion from a teacher who is in anoth­er class­room and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly teach­ing anoth­er class. And in either case, they may have a hand­held device or elec­tron­ic read­er in their hands, she said.
Fitzger­ald said she vis­it­ed an ele­men­tary class that was using a smart board. The teacher, she recalled, was teach­ing a gram­mar les­son. A list of nouns and verbs appeared on the board, and two icons became swirling vor­tex­es. Chil­dren had to come to the board and drag a noun over. If the noun was wrong, the vor­tex spit it out, or pulled it in if it was cor­rect.
“They love it,” she said. “The teacher could real­ly engage the learn­er. It’s real. It’s excit­ing. It cap­tures their atten­tion.”
In anoth­er class­room Fitzger­ald vis­it­ed, every child held a click­er. The teacher, she said, would ask a ques­tion, and the stu­dents would press a but­ton that matched their answer. Through tech­nol­o­gy, stu­dents’ respons­es were plot­ted into a graph so the teacher could see the num­ber of right and wrong respons­es. And the stu­dents could learn about pie charts and oth­er graphs.
“It’s con­cep­tu­al think­ing,” Fitzger­ald said. “It’s not just sim­ply in the old way of tak­ing a sam­ple. It’s instan­ta­neous graph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”
But this tech­nol­o­gy doesn’t serve a pur­pose if teach­ers aren’t able to access it quick­ly and effi­cient­ly, Fitzger­ald not­ed. It would defeat the pur­pose, she explained, if it took teach­ers 20 min­utes to pull down a video clip to show to their class.
To ensure they can use tech­nol­o­gy in real time, she said, the edu­ca­tion activ­i­ty will be increas­ing its schools’ band­width begin­ning this spring so tech­nol­o­gy can be used with­out down­time.
Ren­o­va­tion projects and new con­struc­tion also will help to ensure tech­nol­o­gy can be used in a mean­ing­ful way. The edu­ca­tion activity’s schools are old­er, Fitzger­ald acknowl­edged, and many fall into the low­er two lev­els of qual­i­ty stan­dards. These issues aren’t relat­ed to safe­ty, she added, but to issues such as plumb­ing.
To rem­e­dy this, the Defense Depart­ment launched a pro­gram last school year to ren­o­vate or replace 134 of its 194 schools world­wide. The DOD pro­grammed $3.7 bil­lion so the activ­i­ty can bring all of its schools up to the top two qual­i­ty lev­els by 2016, Fitzger­ald said, and Con­gress appro­pri­at­ed near­ly $400 mil­lion in fis­cal 2011 to aid the effort.
This effort is aimed not only at mod­ern­iz­ing the schools, but also at accom­mo­dat­ing learn­ing. Gone will be the wires and even­ly spaced plugs along a wall, she said.
“We’ve reached a point where we need a pur­pose­ful­ly built envi­ron­ment,” Fitzger­ald added. “We’re trans­form­ing learn­ing and teach­ing, as well as trans­form­ing the build­ings in which we oper­ate.”
Whether at work or at home, people’s lives are infused with tech­nol­o­gy, she said, and “our chil­dren should be learn­ing in the way we live today.”

Fitzger­ald said it’s espe­cial­ly grat­i­fy­ing to offer these oppor­tu­ni­ties to chil­dren from mil­i­tary fam­i­lies. Mil­i­tary mem­bers make great sac­ri­fices, she not­ed, but their children’s edu­ca­tion shouldn’t be among them.

“When our mil­i­tary mem­bers do the very impor­tant work they have to do to defend our nation, they want to rest assured their children’s edu­ca­tion isn’t com­pro­mised due to their career choice,” she said. “I want par­ents to know that when they come into a DoDEA school we’ve got it, we can do it. And it will be rel­e­vant to them.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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