EDUCATION: Schools’ need for Wi-Fi grows

As more Inland schools encourage students to go online to speed learning, conduct research and use Web versions of textbooks, educators say they need to expand wireless Internet access.
Many schools haven’t upgraded their classroom wireless networks since the years when teachers marched their classes down to weekly computer lab sessions.
Now students’ use of iPads, smartphones, laptops, Kindle Fires, iPod Touches and other devices to access the Internet is overloading some school wireless systems.
Districts across the Inland area are updating their plans and looking for money to accommodate better Wi-Fi access. It’s not just for district bragging rights. School officials say students comprehend more by using wireless devices.
Wireless Internet access will be central to the classrooms of tomorrow, said Thomas Pike, an assistant superintendent in the Corona-Norco Unified School District.
His district’s newest school, Ramirez Intermediate in Eastvale, has that wireless access. Some schools have upgraded, but some have not in almost a decade, said Ben Odipo, information technology officer for Corona-Norco.
Learning improved when Riverside schools started encouraging students to bring their own laptop computers, iPads, smartphones or other small computers, said Judi Paredes, an assistant superintendent with the Riverside Unified School District.
Some schools started issuing tablet computers instead of textbooks beginning in April 2010 and they encouraged students to treat the devices as though they were their own.
“The turning point was when we developed a 24-7 policy,” Paredes said. “When they (students) have that ownership, it’s theirs; it really did turn the corner for our use of technology.”
The Riverside Unified School District supplemented the city’s Wi-Fi access with fiber-optic cable through the Riverside County Office of Education and put access points in most classrooms at Ramona High. At Ramona, grants also paid for tablet computers for all students.
Students say the tablets save time. They can send homework to their teachers as soon as they finish and they can easily access dictionaries, calculators, Internet research and other tools from the 7-inch screens.
“It’s easier to study with,” said 12th-grader Maricella Vielma. “We get all our notes on it,” including copies of the teachers’ PowerPoint lesson presentations.
Students said they also appreciate a feature that shows grades for each class and any missing assignments.
It’s too soon for the school to have results, such as higher test scores, but teacher and instructional technology coach Monica Ward said parents and students are both more aware of students’ progress. She said students are paying more attention in class and are more involved in their learning.
HURDLES
Expanding school wireless access will be expensive, said Odipo, the information technology officer for Corona-Norco.
The district, with 54,000 students, is looking at total technology needs of about $65 million, which covers replacement of old cables, new fiber optic cables that will last 10 to 15 years, large routers for campus-wide wireless network connections, servers and other infrastructure.
Corona-Norco, like other districts such as Yucaipa-Calimesa, Lake Elsinore and Jurupa, is considering whether it wants to ask voters for a bond measure to pay for technology infrastructure.
San Jacinto Unified included $1 million in technology upgrades on its latest capital improvements list. Alvord Unified, which covers parts of Riverside and Corona, updated its technology plan with a wish list of $720,000, which the district acknowledges it can’t afford now.
Better Internet capabilities will be even more important as the state moves to change its standardized tests to match new requirements of the nationwide Common Core Standards, which most states have adopted. The new state tests are scheduled to be given online beginning in spring 2015, said Paredes, the Riverside assistant superintendent.
BENEFITS
The Murrieta Valley Unified School District is seeking to expand wireless access at its schools at an estimated cost of $950,000, district spokeswoman Karen Parris said.
People who haven’t used iPads or other small, fast new devices to access the Internet may not appreciate their power, she said.
Such devices will never replace classroom teachers, Parris said, but students will learn far more using the power of the Internet.
McPhail agreed. Students can look up math formulas online, but they need a teacher to learn to apply them.
And school districts’ Internet access filters out inappropriate content, so parents can be assured their students’ Web access at school will be much safer than whatever access restrictions they set up at home, said Pike, of Corona-Norco.
Educators from Moreno Valley, Rialto, San Bernardino and Nuview Union School District recently met in Riverside to observe how algebra students use iPads at Earhart Middle School.
As part of a pilot project last year, two Earhart algebra classes used iPads instead of textbooks. In the iPad classes, 78 percent of students scored in the proficient or advanced ranges on last spring’s state test, compared to only 59 percent of their peers with the same two teachers using textbooks from the same publisher.
Parents are supplying iPads this year to keep the project going, Principal Coleman Kells said.
Prices are coming down for digital devices, too. Ramona High paid $165 for each student’s tablet computer, slightly less than the cost for two new high school textbooks. The device replaces textbooks for all of the students’ classes.
So far, much of the available online curriculum, such as the “Fuse” algebra app Earhart uses, requires an Apple device, Odipo said. “That market also is evolving,” he added.
School districts have also delayed replacing textbooks during the state budget crisis, using older ones longer. McPhail predicts that when schools adopt new textbooks, they will adopt digital, interactive versions.
Students will be able to access the textbooks their own districts adopted as well as online lessons to fill any gaps they don’t understand.

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