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Kendallville, IN – When Lance Yoder considered becoming the District Technology Peer Coach for Indiana’s East Noble School Corporation, he knew he could make a difference. Yoder’s fourth-grade students already used technology every day. So, he felt he would be able to help other teachers integrate technology in their classrooms as East Noble rolled out its ambitious district-wide 1-to-1 implementation. Fast-forward, now in their second year using three different devices (depending upon grade level), East Noble’s 1-to-1 program is a success. One key to their success is Big Universe. Students and teachers are able to utilize Big Universe’s vast array of digital fiction and non-fiction content on all three devices. The combination of access to technology and content enables students to learn in an interactive and engaging way. Teachers are able to monitor, track and individualize the learning. Put all that together and you start thinking it’s not just a story to remember, it’s one for the books.

From Helping Students to Helping Teachers Help Students

It’s often said that there are two types of people in the world: those that talk the talk and those that walk the walk. Well, Yoder and his district’s leaders have been walking for some time now, and they haven’t looked back.

They’re not alone either. Schools across the nation are moving toward 1-to-1 learning environments for various reasons. Some aim to have project-based learning replace traditional learning, others want to give more power to the student with self-directed learning, many want to foster digital literacy—the number of instructional objectives met or aided by 1-to-1 simply can’t be ignored. As Yoder puts it, “Although change can be difficult, we’re going to have to teach students to use digital tools.” Digital tools are practically everywhere now, and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. Yoder points out, “When you go to college, what do you use? A computer. When you go to work, what do you use? A computer. And it’s getting more and more that way.” Yoder and his peer, Zack Linson, streamline the process of incorporating technology into classrooms by sifting through the many available resources so that East Noble teachers don’t have to. To take it a step further, if a teacher has a problem, they go to Yoder or Linson, explain it and they set out to find a solution for them, essentially acting as a technology “filter.”

They Use Technology to Spread Technology

While this may sound like a simple job, it’s anything but, and that’s because Yoder and Linson don’t service just one building — they service five elementary schools, grades K-6 with pre-K included in a few of those buildings, across the entire district. Given the challenge of two people reaching so many teachers, Yoder and Linson create presentations, tutorials and screencasts that are archived for teachers’ use. Though it’s not easy getting enough face time with every teacher, it’s Yoder’s favorite part of the job. “My favorite thing is that I’ve had the opportunity to meet all of the teachers in this district, while being able to learn from them and see them in action. Though they have different styles and varying technical savvy, I’m amazed at the quality of teaching in this district.”

You can bet this type of collaboration gives him a lot of leads. One key find was Big Universe, an engaging online reading and writing community for grades pre-K through 8 that gives students and teachers the necessary tools to differentiate instruction, teach balanced literacy and track student progress toward standards.

Students and Teachers Agree

It is a widely known truth that students and teachers don’t always see eye-to-eye, but when it comes to Big Universe, there is no quarrel: Both love it. Having Big Universe literally at their fingertips yields a variety of options and pace. Students like being able to use digital texts. “They like the opportunity to kind of break the monotony a little bit every day by switching between print and digital books.” Yoder adds that this is especially so with more “reluctant readers.” Students also like the community features of Big Universe. Students can find new books based on other students’ recommendations. Peer review provides more engaged learners. Sometimes students just don’t want to read a regular book, plain and simple, but as Yoder points out, he’s noticed that if that same book is “on their iPad they feel differently about it.”

As for teachers, one key void filled by Big Universe is the increased availability of non-fiction books, which Yoder said they were previously lacking. On top of that, as the students begin taking more tests on computers (which often incorporate non-fiction texts), they benefit by having already had the experience of reading something in a digital format. “It gives them extra exposure to be accustomed to reading in a digital realm, and to be honest, I think that does put students who aren’t using technology on a daily basis at a disadvantage,” Yoder notes. Added confidence helps students score better. Because of the digital direction things are headed, Yoder sees Big Universe as an important part of East Noble’s curriculum and practice.

The Bottom Line Is Simple

East Noble School Corporation district realized that those who struggle to use technology are the ones who haven’t been adequately exposed to it, and with the future in mind, it made the bottom line very simple: “Students need this exposure, and it’s up to us, as educators, to show them how to use this technology appropriately and use it as a tool instead of a toy.” Yoder brings up a valid point: Most students have used devices like iPads, iPod Touches and laptops, but they’ve only used them in the capacity of something with which to play. Using technology as a tool is very different, especially for a child in school. When it comes down to it, “They don’t realize the power that’s in their hands,” and since students are going to have their hands on these devices anyway, it’s important that they know how to be safe and make good decisions with them as well. We’re not doing the students any favors by hiding them from it.” While Yoder hasn’t ruled out the idea of going back to teaching one of these days, he knows that with a constantly changing digital landscape, he’ll always be learning and, with his eyes opened to what’s out there, he’ll be more prepared than ever to take on that challenge. You can bet no matter what position he’s in that he’ll have his digital tool bag with him, and it will have a special slot for Big Universe inside.

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