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North Hills Monthly

Technology in the 21st Century Classroom

Jul 31, 2016 08:12PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

It’s a great time to be a kid. In K-12 classrooms in and around Pittsburgh, educators are developing innovative ways to engage and motivate students through the use of technology.

“Technology is ubiquitous and it will be a part of these students’ lives in the future,” explained Mary Claire Kasunic, president of Oakland Catholic High School. “By integrating technology into their education, we serve our mission to develop intelligent, competent and responsible global leaders.”

Three elements are usually part of the discussion about technology in the classroom, according to Tim Winner, director of educational technology at Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh. One component is technology integration—how technology is used by teachers to enhance and support students’ learning. A second is technology curriculum—what students are actually learning in the area of technology, such as coding or creating a PowerPoint presentation. A third aspect is teaching students to use technology in a responsible and appropriate way. 

Both Kasunic and Winner emphasized that utilizing technology in a classroom cannot be a matter of just translating the same content from a chalkboard to a Smart Board, and that effective use of technology requires thoughtful planning on the part of educators. Both schools are doing some exciting things to enhance students’ learning.

Oakland Catholic’s Mission Forward program, now entering its third year, ensures that each student has a laptop computer. More than just a convenient accessory, Kasunic said the laptops allow educators to engage students in new ways. For example, teachers might utilize a ‘flipped classroom’ model where students in a social studies class watch the evening news, respond via a class blog that night, and then use the next day’s class time for a more thoughtful discussion and higher-level analysis of the events. While the idea of a flipped classroom is not new, Kasunic explained, access to technology offers teachers and students innovative ways to interact with the content and gives students access to more and different kinds of information than they might have without it.

Winner cited a number of ways that educators use technology to engage students of all ages at Shady Side. For a second grader, he explained, it might be intimidating to have to read a story he wrote out loud in front of the entire class. Give that same child an iPad so that he can record himself reading the story, and the student will hear his mistakes and often self-correct the written piece. Instead of being embarrassed and focused on the errors, the student gains confidence in his ability to correct mistakes and is able to create a better final product. 

With older students, Winner added, technology allows almost limitless opportunities to demonstrate knowledge in innovative ways. For example, instead of making a poster about George Washington’s life, students might create a mock Facebook page that George Washington would post—the content would go well beyond relevant dates and events, asking students to consider how George Washington might present himself to the public and what would be important to him to share with an audience. Such a creation requires higher-level thinking and not just recall of facts. 

At Connoquenessing Valley Elementary in the Seneca Valley School District, school leaders created ‘Inspiration Station,’ which is designed as a learning environment to support collaboration and provide enrichment for students through multiple technology resources. The room houses a Smart Table, Smart Board, document camera, iPads, and a SMALLab. The SMALLab is an immersive environment that allows students to engage kinesthetically with computer games and programs. 

Inspiration Station has been a tremendous asset, according to DeeAnn Graham, principal of Connoquenessing Valley. “Students can’t wait to visit, and once there, are actively and enthusiastically engaged in learning,” she said.

According to Graham, one of the most inspiring aspects of the lab has been the collaboration among peers in and across different grades, different schools, and even with the college student programmers who are involved in the project.

“It has been amazing to witness how the Inspiration Station extends the thinking of individuals of all ages,” Graham said. “Students as young as first and second grade have been able to grasp concepts such as fractions, sound waves and the order of operation because the embodied experience allows them to see and interact with concepts, bringing the learning to life and making it concrete for them.”

When technology is incorporated thoughtfully, it can do much to enrich the learning experience. As with any tool, however, not all uses are helpful. Winner explained that one big issue for school leaders is determining how much filtering–such as blocking harmful websites or banning cell phone use during school hours—is appropriate. Many schools and school districts, for instance, block students’ on-campus access to social media websites. 

“The question is, do we give kids the opportunity to make mistakes in a relatively safe environment, or do we protect them as much as possible from making the mistakes?” Winner asked.

At Shady Side, the school has opted for a more permissive policy and filters relatively little content at the high school level. The school’s strong faculty-student advising program makes this an effective option for the school, Winner said, because students are engaged with teachers who know them well and have regular contact throughout the day. The goal is to teach students to use technology wisely, and thus prepare them for life after high school. 

Kasunic expressed similar sentiments. “Part of the educational process is learning how to manage the use of technology—including when you should turn it off,” she said, describing a recent Oakland Catholic service trip to Appalachia, where students were asked to turn in their phones for the week in order to emphasize that the experience was about building interpersonal relationships.

Another aspect of appropriate technology usage is helping students evaluate content. Kasunic explained, “For example, what constitutes a valid research site? What kinds of things do you post on social media?” 

Though each school or district must determine the approach to technology that best suits its own learning community, school leaders say that the benefits to both students and faculty far outweigh the costs.

Technology at Oakland Catholic High School

Our world changes around us each and every day. As movers and shakers of technology companies brainstorm ways to implement software and apps into everyday life, we are continually offered new ways to engage with one another. This has brought the world closer together, transcending distance and time constraints that were present in the not too distant past. Today, someone in Pittsburgh can easily meet with a colleague in Beijing face-to-face over a hand-held smartphone.

With these technological advances also comes the responsibility of an increased global awareness. Education must prepare students to navigate this evolving world with intelligence, competence, poise, and grace. Oakland Catholic High School equips young women to understand the impact of global interconnectedness through the Global Competence Initiative (GCI) program. This intensive certificate program gives students the chance to engage with other cultures outside of the classroom setting, encouraging them to understand the importance of issues that impact humans cross culturally.

The GCI program was established in 2014 by Cindy McNulty, Oakland Catholic High School’s English Department Chair and Social Studies instructor. McNulty was inspired by the University of Pittsburgh’s Global Studies Center and her sabbatical travels. The GCI program requires two years of World History, one year of World Literature, Foreign Language proficiency, and a research paper paired with a public presentation. In addition, students must attend twelve “Encounters” and three “Engagements” throughout the four year program. Encounters consist of lectures, seminars, films, and cultural events. With Oakland Catholic High School prominently located in the heart of the educational and cultural center of Pittsburgh, there is no shortage of activities to get students engaged in the program. Lectures are readily found at two nearby higher education institutions – the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Engagements are different in that they provide a more intensive time investment, allowing students to connect on a deeper level with the international world. Examples of Engagements include international travel, the World Affairs Council Summer Institute, and the GCI Book Group. After each encounter and engagement, students must write a reflection on the event. They are encouraged to challenge their thinking outside of their immediate environment and cultural norms, putting emphasis on a broader understanding of the concerns and achievements that impact the broader world.

The Global Competence Initiative program uses technology on a regular basis to help students engage with material. Using the online learning management system Edmodo, participants in the program are notified of upcoming events. GCI Book Group discussion starts face-to-face and continues online outside of group meetings, allowing students to continually develop and share thoughts around the material. 

The Global Competence Initiative program is another offering at Oakland Catholic High School that encourages young women to become globally conscious agents of change through immersion in cultural experiences and formulating thoughtful discussion on issues. The addition of technology into programs like this allows for engagement with the material on a higher level than what can be discussed or touched upon within normal time constraints. This allows students to have a deeper understanding of the world and effectively communicate with each other and with a broader cultural audience as they become tomorrow’s leaders. 

Technology at Shady Side Academy

Shady Side Academy provides comprehensive technology education and resources for students across all grades PK-12. This technology-enriched academic experience helps students get the most out of their SSA education and prepares them for a lifetime of success in a world of rapidly evolving tools and systems.

From prekindergarten through grade 12, Shady Side students experience age-appropriate exposure, instruction and freedom to learn about contemporary technologies, how they work, and how to use them to support their learning in all curricular areas. Teachers in every classroom use SMART Boards, iPads, laptops and desktop computers, plus a variety of software, apps and multimedia resources, to meaningfully enhance student learning across disciplines. Modern technologies are viewed not only as necessary skills to be learned, but also as valuable tools to be leveraged, allowing students and teachers to collaborate, engage and express themsleves in exciting and creative ways.

At the Junior School (PK-5), students are introduced to the technology tools that will allow them to be successful learners throughout their time at SSA. A traditional computer lab, creative-space Idea Lab and Library Media Center provide a supportive environment for learning technology skills. Students receive formal technology instruction through computer classes beginning in kindergarten. Across all subject areas, technology is used to engage students as collaborators, designers, performers and scientists. iPads, apps, programs and online tools allow students to demonstrate their learning and share their work with parents. Videoconferencing tools allow students to collaborate with peers around the world and meet their favorite authors. In science, students are introduced to robotics in a new robotics and maker space.

At the Middle School (6-8), a 1:1 iPad program provides every student with an iPad to use in and out of class, enabling them to capture ideas and evidence of their learning anytime, anyplace. Students are introduced to formal programming in computer classes using computers, iPads, robotics kits, and programmable, controllable hardware. Across all disciplines, teachers utilize technology to enhance instruction and engage students more deeply. Students learn to use technology and the power of cloud computing to collaborate and create. Written works, screencasts, movie trailers and interactive presentations complement class notes and digital portfolios, all stored online where they are accessible and sharable. 

At SSA Senior School (9-12), students are introduced to true college-preparatory computer programming in computer science classes, where problem solving and data structures build the foundation for advanced studies in game design, robotics, mobile app design discrete structures and advanced programming. Across the curriculum, teachers use technology to deliver, supplement and extend classroom instruction through an online Learning Management System, flipped-classroom videos and screencasts, cloud-based sharing and collaboration, and social media. Students in the arts use technology tools to create and capture their works for self-critique and assessment. Students in math and science use digital text and resources, analyze collected data, and present findings and solutions using local and online tools. Students in humanities and world languages use mobile technologies to research, create written works, and engage in conversations with peers around the world. 

At all grade levels, Shady Side students learn safe and responsible computing practices. Younger students are guided into the online world to begin safely collaborating and sharing their work. Older students are given more freedom to experience all that technology has to offer. Students learn ethical and responsible online citizenship through guided exercises and authentic experiences.

Beyond the classroom, students in grades 3-12 have the opportunity to join robotics teams at each division and compete in local, regional and state competitions. 

Link in editorial above goes to SSA Middle School robotics video on YouTube at

Video about Shady Side Academy