School has changed a lot since our grandparents had to walk uphill in a snowstorm both ways to get there. With the rise of e-learning in online classrooms, students don't even have to physically be at school to learn anymore. Detroit Lakes schools haven't gone that far with technology, but many of the tools being used in the classroom now are still transforming how students are learning - and what they are learning. A classroom is just a very different picture now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

"Technology gets a bad rap. People think we're putting their kids' eyes in front of these screens, and instead of reading in a book, they're reading on a Chromebook. That's not what we're doing. We still have books," said Rhonda Fode, an instructional coach at the Detroit Lakes High School.

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Yes, kids are still reading from books and getting out a freshly sharpened number two pencil to take notes. The difference is that now they have this supplemental learning tool. At the high school, it's a personal Chromebook and all the programs and information that the world wide web can provide. Sometimes, having that world at the tip of a student's fingers is distracting and potentially troublesome but, more often than not, at least in a classroom setting, it's really useful.

Giving students a voice

Fode says one of the best things technology has done is give every student a voice.

"I see teachers using some of their software to get every student to give feedback along the whole lesson process," said Fode, adding that this continuous communication between student and teacher allows the teacher to adjust a lesson to better fit learning needs of their students.

"I taught elementary, so I would say, 'Five times five is...?' And I would hear, '25.' Well, it might be three kids in front of me yelling really loudly and 20 kids behind that don't have a clue what five times five is but, in my mind, I felt like they were all getting it," said Fode.

In the past, those quiet kids who sat in the back of the classroom and barely lifted their head off their desk would often fall through the cracks. Now, they are engaged and able to participate in the learning process in a way that's fun for them and on their own terms.

"I have also seen students that were very reluctant at being in front of their peers teach lessons using technology in front of their class," said Fode, adding that the school saw a lot of success using a program called Flip It, where students were asked to make a video introducing themselves to their classmates. Many kids who were normally quiet and shy came out of their shells and actually excelled at the assignment.

"This technology has really allowed everyone to have more of a voice...so they can share themselves with others without that big threat," said Fode.

A lot of these programs that teachers are utilizing now, like Google Classroom and Schoology, also help with the grading process, saving time for instructors, which allows them to focus more on the students who need that extra help.

"At night, if I have all these papers to correct, I might be spending all of my time correcting responses, so that all I can do the next day is hand it back. Well, if it's corrected for me, now I have time to figure out feedback that is constructive, versus a letter grade, which really isn't feedback," said Fode.

The Detroit Lakes High School Principal Darren Wolf says that grading tool also helps teachers more easily recognize what students are missing, so they can alter their lessons or recap the next day. Really, it just makes the whole process or grading and critiquing a lot faster and a lot more efficient.

"It can happen, like, on the spot. At any moment, the teacher can bring up that student's work, highlight, make comments. The student is constantly receiving feedback making their projects better before it's even submitted," added Fode.

More of a back-and-forth between student and teacher allows for a more collaborative learning environment, which has spilled over into most aspects of school.

"It's much more collaborative now than when we first started this venture," said Fode, adding that implementing technology has actually caused teachers to physically change around their classrooms to not only monitor the use of technology but to foster that collaborative atmosphere.

Wolf says with the building project coming up, the technology is a piece that's really dictating how they want to structure their classrooms and school as a whole.

"If I were to guess where we're going, I think a lot of teachers want the ability to work in groups and to have flexibility in the classroom," he said.

Teachers are looking at using larger tables, rather than individual student desks. They are also hoping to incorporate a student union area with comfortable furniture and possibly some study rooms where groups of students can work together on projects.

"We're so thankful we have the opportunity to plan for these spaces for students," Wolf said about the recent building bond that passed, adding that the remodel and additions will allow students to "have a more professional approach to communication" and technology.

Then, there is deciding the platforms that will be used to continue using technology in the classroom. Nearly every classroom currently has and uses projectors, but Wolf says they have a shelf life and maybe aren't as clear and efficient as maybe having a monitor at the front of the room might be.

"We're going to keep investigating. We want to make sure we're also getting at the front end of that technology," he said, adding that they have looked at what other schools in the area have done.

Perham is currently putting up interactive monitors. The advantage there is teachers can move around their classroom that way, instead of being stuck at the front behind a podium. Again, it's all about creating that environment that's flexible and conducive to learning.

When it gets distracting

Of course, as wonderful as technology is, it's also wildly distracting, even potentially harmful. With the internet, students have access to any definition, research, and information they could ever need to learn, but they also have access to harmful content. Wolf says the biggest thing is educating and regulating.

"I think sometimes people think we got Chromebooks for every kid, and it was no big deal. No, it was a big deal because not only did we have to train all of our teachers on that stuff...we knew we had a responsibility to work with our students as well," he said.

They took it as an opportunity to learn and grow because, in a world where technology is encroaching on nearly every aspect of life, kids also need to learn how to use that technology and use it responsibly.

The district has protections in place, like monitoring software. Administrators can - and do - block sites and restrict access to a lot of internet content. Fode says it's to a point where students, for the most part, view their Chromebooks as a learning tool and don't misuse them.

Wolf says a few students have gotten into trouble for looking at porn, but it's caught pretty quickly because when a student accesses a site that is flagged, it sends a notification to administration.

"I can't tell you we can completely insulate kids from the web - we can't. But we do as much as we can without turning their computers off," said Wolf.

And they educate students on internet safety, the fact that what gets put out there is there forever and can be accessed by anyone.

The technology provided by the school isn't the issue or the distraction. Wolf says the bigger problem is the students' own smartphones, which aren't restricted by the school.

"This device," says Fode, picking up her cell phone, "has caused students so much anxiety. People have fights over the fact that they can't find their phone, can't see their phone. If they have to put them in their backpack, that causes anxiety...just not being able to see it is stressful for them."

Wolf says there's a lot of backlash from students who get in trouble and have to turn off their phone and hand it over to administration until the end of the hour or the end of the day. He says it was worse when smartphones were first coming out and teachers didn't have the strategies to keep students off them, but now they have found ways around the distraction.

Some teachers have little pocket pouches hanging in their room and students are required to place their phones in their numbered slot at the beginning of class and retrieve them after class, which Wolf says is one of the best strategies he's seen so far. The technology is always changing, though, so teachers also must constantly be staying up-to-date on the latest tools they can use to benefit their students as well as ways to manage the use of technology and stay on task.