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Classroom of the future : Local school adopts all digital curriculum
Steven Stone, a third grader at Ballico Elementary School, focuses on a vocabulary assignment that is part of an online module. - photo by JAYDEEP BHATIA / The Journal

In the small farm town of Ballico, a room full of people are working on their computers. They’re using interactive software, they’re browsing the web and some of them are even making presentations on Google’s Cloud based platform, Google Drive.

However, these people aren’t employees of a software company or college students working on a late night project, or even a room full of tech savvy gamers.

They’re third graders who just got back from recess.

Starting this school year, the Ballico-Cressey School District began the implementation of an all digital curriculum in their schools. Instead of using traditional textbooks and paper based activities, all 330 students in the district are now doing all their school work on 12 inch screens and online modules. Superintendent/Principal Bryan Ballinger said the purpose behind the switch was to encourage students to become better critical thinkers.

“I want our students to be able to take problems, find and gather the information, come up with a solution, apply it, and the digital curriculum allows us to do that,” said Ballinger.

Along with encouraging a new form of problem solving, Ballinger said the digital curriculum will  teach students practical technology skills that he believes are  in line with what future employers will be seeking.

“I want to put the students in this district out in front of everyone else,” said Ballinger. “It’s a global marketplace and it’s a global demand for university space as well.”

The implementation of entering a digital realm began last summer, when the district purchased 140 Netbook computers for sixth to eighth grade students. 

For Ballinger, however, that wasn’t enough. He wouldn't be satisfied until the district saw a complete digital curriculum, and that’s where he says Pearson, an education publishing company, came into play. 

“Having the devices without a curriculum did not meet our needs. It wasn’t cohesive enough,” Ballinger said. "Pearson came to the table as full partners, providing a real digital curriculum and making sure teachers were trained to use it.”

Along with the Pearson curriculum, the district also purchased an additional 195 Google Chromebooks, essentially having one computer for every student, from second to eighth grade. The older students also received high speed Internet hot spots to take home, along with their computers. The total cost of the digital implementation, including the computers and the curriculum, was around $319,000, an investment that Ballinger says is completely worth it.

He also stated that the new curriculum will give his students an advantage for when the state adopts the new, more rigorous, Common Core Standards next year.

“It’s pretty incredible to think that we’re a full year ahead of everyone else,” he said. 

However, what Ballinger said surprises him the most about the new digital format is the level of interaction that the students have with their schoolwork. He said the new system allows students to be less distracted, and more focused on their task at hand.

“Sometimes, it gives me goose bumps to see a room full of fourth graders so concentrated like that,” said Ballinger. “They walk in and get right to work.”

The system does, however, come with its own set of problems. Glitches, slow Internet connections, and software bugs have all made the transition to a completely digital classroom a bit more bumpy that Ballinger would have liked. In spite of these hiccups, he stated that the program has been a success so far, citing that the school has already seen an increase of 30 students for the year. 

Karen Naldi, a 7th grade math teacher, said she has also seen a noticeable difference in the students.

“I’ve seen improved motivation and improved understanding,” said Naldi. “Having the ability to search for information expands their horizon definitely and levels the playing field.”

As for the students, they too seem to share the same excitement about their new computer based learning experience.

Steven Stone, a third grader at Ballico Elementary School said he prefers the computer learning.

“It’s a lot more fun,” he said.