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1981: Technology invades our schools

In 1981, Our Valley explored four seemingly ordinary but often heroic aspects of life here — working, coping, learning and playing. Thirty-eight years later, much remains the same, but some things, such as technology in schools, are radically changed and should blow the minds of the people who were teens and teachers interviewed for that story.

We introduced the 1981 issue with a casual mention of “efforts to cope with today’s rather complex world.” Hah! If only they could have been popped ahead to 2019 for an hour and then tossed back into the world where Ronald Reagan had just started his job in the White House. Who would believe their tales?

One headline read, “A Time of Rapid Change: Electronics Find Way into Classroom, Business, Home.”

It bragged (or warned?) that video presentations, handheld calculators, mini-computers and even “large computers” were in classrooms. Those mini-computers looked like a TV with a keyboard attached. You inserted a “floppy disk” and “the student is off and running.” It asked questions and told you if you guessed the right or wrong answers. You could write a program for a particular student, in an area where they needed help, and it could be duplicated and saved.

David Stockman, media coordinator for Medford schools back in the day, was quoted as saying students “are not afraid of it a bit, but some are hesitant” about “converting to the new electronic machines, especially outside the classroom.” Omg, Mr. Stockman, just you wait!

Picture, if you will, every student carrying — in a pocket — a computer 1,000 times more powerful than all the “machines” you just installed, with instant access to millions of people anywhere and all the world’s knowledge. What does that do to your life?

“We’re in a whole new generation of users now and, believe me, there is NO fear of technology,” says Kevin Campbell, present-day director of secondary student achievement for Medford School District. “The children only care about new ways to use it.”

Very young students are already skilled in the digital universe, but Medford School District teaches computer skills classes to make sure they know Word, Excel, PowerPoint and keyboarding (not just texting with thumbs), says Campbell, adding that some third-graders already can do presentations in PowerPoint.

Michelle Cummings, Medford’s chief academic officer, was a high school freshman when the 1981 Our Valley article appeared.

“I had an Apple 3 with floppy storage and was very excited,” she says. “Today, the kids have never even seen a floppy disk we didn’t have the internet (for 15 years), and when that arrived, functionality of computers was very different.”

In her first administration job, in 1995, Cummings remembers that to send a notice to all teachers, you would type and print it, cut dozens on a paper-cutter, put them in faculty (wooden) boxes and expect a reply in two days. Now, it’s all instantaneous, saving many hours of time.

In today’s digital universe, Cummings says, “personalized instruction” reaches new heights every year, teachers grow more sophisticated in their understanding of the learning process and how brains work, and the variety of resources, apps and curricula gain more depth and accessibility.

In a computer lab at Hedrick Middle School, Assistant Principal Chad Johnson shows how the work of every student is displayed on the screen for all to see, and the teacher can comment or edit, allowing his teaching to enlighten the whole class in real time. It’s called Insight Classroom Management software. It allows better team learning and less monitoring in class.

“Among students, there’s a huge range of sophistication, with some entry level and others absolute wizards, people who can suggest new apps for us,” says teacher Ivan Olinghouse. “They’re really good with touchscreen apps, like Snapchat and Instagram.”

The technology now is amazing, but Johnson offers the caveat that “it doesn’t replace the art of teaching. It’s a tool in the tool belt, and some use it well and some still do paper and pencil.”

Teachers can find out where a class is at and where it needs to go by giving “pre-assessment” pop quizzes and getting evaluations instantly. Johnson is athletic director and can collaborate, plan and schedule with all the other ADs in the region instantly. Phones are off and out of sight, but can be used to respond to tests in real time.

We often hear about the dangers of too much screen time — and Johnson says he “definitely can see it,” a decline in students’ skills in face-to-face and in groups.

Phones have brought a new challenge, as teachers try to figure out whether conflict between kids happened “at school,” which would be the school’s business, or if it happened in cyberspace, which might not be, says Johnson.

“A lot more parents want us to deal with online problems, so we coach them how to support their child, but sometimes we have to say, ‘This just isn’t a school issue.’ But we always do what we can. Before phones, conflicts used to go away when kids went home to decompress from school. But on the internet, they can keep going.”

Do students still read books? “Oh, yes,” says Johnson. “They read. We have a great checkout rate at the library.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ivan Olinghowse works with students during a computer skills class at Hedrick Middle School. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune