Berkeley Heights Board of Education Members Go ‘Back to Schooi’ During Technology Demonstration

Berkeley Heights school district technician 'instructs' a virtual class at Thursday's school board meeting. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
School board president Doug Reinstein makes a point during Thursday's meeting. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ—Members of the Berkeley Heights Board of Education joined assistant superintendent Scott McKinney as “students” in a virtual classroom demonstration of the district’s technology tools during Thursday’s school board meeting.

During the demonstration, conducted by district technician Kevin Rafferty, board members sat in the front row of the Columbia Middle School vocal music room meeting place as Rafferty equipped each of them with an I-Pad. Images of each of their devices were projected onto a screen in the front of the meeting room through the use of Apple TV.

Rafferty, playing the role of the teacher, demonstrated how instructors in district classrooms, using Apple School Manager/Classroom, can “lock” student devices onto apps the class is working with and set up different groups of students to work on separate projects while still monitoring and having control over their devices. 

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McKinney, playing the role of a student who was not “on task,” because he was viewing an online football site while the other “students” were engaged in classroom work, was brought back into the virtual classroom fold when Raffety “locked” his device and sent him a virtual signal that he had been detected, then put the “student’s” device back on track.

Other technology methods, presented by Governor Livingston High School Principal Rob Nixon, Vice Principal Tara Oliveira, Columbia Principal Frank G. Geiger and district technology coordinator Mike D. Skara, showed how the students themselves were able to present their own virtual lessons.

In one student-produced video, students “investigated” a “crime scene” at Gov. Livingston and were able to “solve” the mystery by tracing fingerprints and “notes” written by “perpetrators,” played by school staff members, and by collecting hair samples and comparing footprints of “suspects” with those found at the “crime scene.”

Students in a second video “taught” their teachers the entire structure of a cell using a virtual demonstration.

Another example of student initiative assisted by technology was presented by Geiger, who noted that, during a weekend last year, a teacher had started a project using Google Docs and had to be called away from her virtual classroom on a family matter. Students completed the project on Google Docs while she was away.

The officials noted that, with student IPads, if repairs are needed the devices can be replaced by substitute devices within the same day so that learning is not interrupted. Students and the district share in the costs of repairs of devices damaged while in student possession.

They added that the SAMR Model for educational technology is working well in district classrooms and administration.

The SAMR model involves four stages:

  • Substitution, during which teachers or students use only new technology tools to replace old ones, for example, Google Docs to replace Microsoft Word.
  • Augmentation, with those in the classroom in the substitution mentality, but adding functionality, for example using Google Docs not simply to write and save a document, but also using services like auto saving, auto snycing and auto sharing in the cloud.
  • Modification, where technology is used not only to do the same task using different tools but also to redesign new parts of the task and transform student learning.
  • Redefinition, where “students use technology to create imperceptively new tasks,” such as when students connect to a classroom across the world where they each would write a narrative of the same historical event using the chat a comment section to discuss the differences and use voice comments to discuss the differences they notices and then embed this in the class website.

Although connection with students in other countries and use of the technology to connect with areas outside the classroom is not yet widespread, the officials noted the technology enables a poetry group to operate across districts and superintendent of schools Judith Rattner to prepare agendas for the regional meeting of a supervisory group and have other members of the group contribute agenda items.

The officials also noted that digital teacher assessments are becoming much more common as school staff gets more comfortable with the technology.

As for the spread of IPad use in the schools, the officials noted that new iPad Air 2s were made available to all high school students this past summer, iPads, passed down when appropriate from high school students who previously used them, would be available for all middle school students early in the current school year, and professional grade WiFi has been installed in grades two-to-five schools to support use of iPads and laptops and functionality and consistency of networks,

Responding to questions from resident Dimitriy Agatanov, Rattner said the district began investing in iPads in 2012 and has been pleased with student and staff response and the administration has recommended the continued use of the devices based on the foundation it has built with them.

However, Agatanov noted that recent statistics show 51 percent of districts have decided to switch from iPads to Chromebooks. He also complained some of the functionality of iPad 2s makes them much slower than other technology, and noted that the iPads are more expensive than Chromebooks.

 Agatonov pressed the board to supply him with the specific written documentation about how the decision to invest in and continue use of iPads was made.

Board member John Sincaglia, noting that the district would continue to evaluate its needs, replied the district had made the iPad decision as an investment and had invested in staff and training and determined that, at this time, iPads were the proper and effective vehicle for Berkeley Heights students.

On another matter, Sincaglia reported he and representatives from a number of neighboring districts had met with state senator Thomas Kean, Jr. on state school aid and other issues.

Sincaglia said the majority of the State Senate supported a proposal by senate president Stephen Sweeney to convene a bi-partisan commission to discuss state school aid, but the Assembly had not yet signed on to the proposal.

The board member added, Kean felt special education aid was not adequate, and the school board member group also discussed the fact that districts such as Hoboken and Jersey City that received funding as Abbott districts probably no longer need the extra funding.

He said Kean supported repeal of the state-mandated “cap” on superintendents’ salaries and was concerned with a move in the Assembly to eliminate standardized testing as one of the components of teacher evaluations. He also said it was felt PAARC testing should not be eliminated as a teacher evaluation component without a suitable replacement.

In official action, the township school body:

  • Accepted donations of $27,570 in gifts to Livingston school and teams from the Highland Boosters Club and $143,670 from the six Berkeley Heights PTOs in teacher grants, student enrichment programs and assemblies, and equipment gifts to the schools
  • Approved Rattner’s completion of a goal pertaining to pursuading township elementary school students to continue their educations at Livingston and recommended that the Union County executive superintendent of schools authorize the township superintendent’s merit increase for attaining that goal.
  • Okayed contract renewals for buildings and grounds director Anthony Amiano at a salary of $100,644, Thomas Long, assistant to the superintendent, at $109,440 and Skara at $131,151.

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