The changing classroom in Utah: Why digital teaching matters to students

David Long, Superintendent of Beaver County School District, remembers clearly the moment he realized just how powerful a tool technology could be for student learning. 

“I was working at Logan County School District as the Director of Education and Technical Service, and it was the first day we gave out laptops to students,” he said. “I was heading home late and stopped at McDonald’s to grab something to eat.

“There sat a Logan High student on break with his dinner and his laptop out – and he was doing homework. He looked completely enthralled and engaged in learning. I knew then that if I did nothing else with my career, at least I helped this kid get the access he needed, and I call that a success.”

He hasn’t stopped there. Over his more than 20-year career, Superintendent Long has worked to bring technology to thousands of students. Beaver County School District recently went one-to-one with Chromebooks—meaning there is one device for every student. 

“The access students now have to information is incredible. There are massive databases and information systems that are global in scale,” he said. “Teachers are still the key to each student’s success, but these devices empower instruction at an incredibly personal and individualized level.”

Long has only been with Beaver County School District for about six months, but he’s got big plans for expanding access. 

From Traditional to Technological:

Beaver County sits in the southwest corner of Utah. It’s mostly rural and offers a combination of small-town life and industries that are agriculture- and alternative energy-centric. Smithfield Farms and Union Pacific Railroad are two of the area’s largest employers. There are also some newly-developed wind and solar farms and a geothermal plant. 

Reagan Williams grew up in Beaver County and now calls some of his one-time teachers colleagues. He teaches third-grade math at Belknap Elementary School and says the schools are at the center of everything.

“Everybody goes to the football games, attends plays at the high school, and takes part in the dances. It’s very much a small-town feel. It’s a traditional feeling,” Williams said. “I remember when I was in school, my teachers would stand at a chalkboard and all of us would have to copy everything down.

“Now, tech has changed things so much in the classroom, making it possible for students to be self-motivated and self-paced.

“I can also move among the students constantly rather than stand with my back to them.”

Every year, he teaches around 75 to 80 students. Virtually all third graders finish math lessons before the school year ends, but 30 to 40 percent move on to also finish the fourth-grade math program—that’s where Chromebooks can help. 

“With these devices, I can move them onto fourth-grade studies; others go even further,” Williams said. “At the same time, it allows me to immediately see who is struggling and give them the extra support they need—so every student is truly learning at his or her own level.”

The technology is being applied to every subject taught within Beaver County Schools right now – even those that may not be in the typical classroom setting.

Milford High School teacher Ryan Fisher teaches Career and Technical Education (CTE) Classes such as welding and woodshop.

His students use the Chromebooks to learn new techniques and watch tutorials they can then mimic. 

Fisher also teaches social studies and says the technology makes it possible for students to easily annotate documents, do research, create digital timelines, and go on virtual fieldtrips around the world.  

“One of the biggest challenges for every teacher is how to help advanced learners because there are not enough resources available for them,” Fisher said. “Technology has made it possible to go deeper with their education and access programs and resources to allow them to continue learning.

“On the other end of the spectrum, you can intervene with a student struggling faster than ever before.

“We use Canvas, and I can look at the grades as they pop up and help a student immediately understand what went wrong and adjust my instruction.” 

Without the technology, Williams says, students in Beaver County would simply be left behind.

“If we didn’t have the access, we wouldn’t meet our goals,” he said. “But because we do have access, our school is outperforming the state average for students.” 

Both Williams and Fisher attribute the success the district is seeing to the training offered to each teacher.

Every instructor takes lessons and can take ongoing education on how to more effectively use the technology in the classroom.

Part of that includes striking the right balance between hands-on instruction and computer-based learning. 

“We’re constantly looking ahead and asking ‘how can we make better use of the technology,” said Williams. “But little kids aren’t robots. The teacher will always need to take part in facilitating and instructing and guiding his or her students.”

The Utah Education and Telehealth Network (UETN), in partnership with the nonprofit Connected Nation, is in the midst of doing an inventory of technology within Utah’s public and charter schools. 

“UETN has really been the backbone for helping expand technology in the schools, including the actual infrastructure in a lot of our districts,” Fisher said. “It’s a big deal to have their support and really track how each school and district is doing. 

“That way they can help schools or areas that might be behind and help them catch up.”

In 2015, UETN began tracking how technology is used in the classroom and the access teachers and students have to digital materials, devices, and platforms. Data from another inventory was released in 2018. 

“Last year, following our second statewide inventory, we learned the number of classrooms connected through digital teaching and learning had risen thanks to increased distribution of computer devices and newer wireless gear,” said Ray Timothy, CEO of UETN.

“However, we also found that more work was needed to connect every student to key technologies that will prepare them for an increasingly digital world.”

This inventory can help districts identify gaps and point to areas that are seeing improvement. It’s providing opportunities to follow successful models and to explore new ideas – and understand how the world of education may be changing.   

“I think learning is not just on the campus anymore, but it’s everywhere the student goes. So, I’ve been very interested in projects that will allow support for off-campus use of these devices,” said Superintendent Long. “That includes working with the Federal Communications Commission to change some rules. 

“The number one thing myself and other administrators can do right now is petition for Erate funds to be used for more than getting bandwidth to the classroom. We need to have funding that supports mobile learning.”

He points to current trends of students opting out of traditional K-12 education, choosing instead to home school or use other avenues. 

“We haven’t seen the Amazon or Uber model of education yet, but if we don’t change and adjust so people can access education in new ways – such as mobile or self-paced learning – we’re going to slowly go out of business or maybe not slowly at some point,” said Long.

He adds that school districts must look beyond local resources and start trying to connect education globally – because that’s how the students of today are and will continue to be connected when it comes to everything from jobs to friends. 

“We need to meet students where they are and not try to force them into a box,” he said. 

It’s something the district’s teachers also understand.

“If we didn’t have the ability to offer them tech, their opportunities would be much more limited, especially in rural areas,” said Williams. “You know, we don’t have AP classes, but we can offer them through colleges using the technology.” 

“We live in the 21st Century. We live in a digital environment,” Fisher added. “We’re trying to give the students real-world skills, and if we couldn’t give them the skill of technology, it would hamper their progress.”

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