The Dawn of a New Era

Categories:  News & Politics    Features
Wednesday, March 21st, 2012 at 9:32 AM
The Dawn of a New Era  by Cory Vaillancourt


The night is, in its monolithic majesty, an overbearing and resolute adversary.

Its silence is deafening. Its darkness is illuminating. It smells like a smoldering oak. It is immutable, that inky black, and it projects a domineering presence of permanence that destroys not only the memory of any alternative ever existing, but also the possibility of any alternative ever existing, like a salmon submerged that not only has no way of imagining what the atmosphere might be like, but also has no way of even recognizing that it might possibly exist.

There is neither memory nor possibility of it ever being different. It has always been this way. There is nothing productive to be accomplished in negotiating its mitigation. There is no way to remember or imagine an opposite.  It has always been this way, like the creek-born salmon that swims asea neither knows of nor cares for air.

But then, illogically, indescribably, the black-topped salmon bares its pink-orange belly against the current as it breaches the barrier, fighting upstream, just as the black-topped night bares its belly once the sun bares her unearthly pink-orange padparadscha bosom to the inky black.

That same sun is straining to rise, just as children across fair Erie attempt to do the same. Each morning, they learn that there is a difference between night and day. Each morning, they learn that there is a difference between memory and possibility. Each morning, they fight their way upstream, against the inky black, and head off to school. This morning, however, is different for some of them. This morning, possibility will shine on some of them. But not all of them.

Possibilities of the Day

A month ago, an article appeared within these pages written by Angela Kelly, who writes our “Tech Watch” column. Titled, “Mercyhurst Prep Gets a Bite of Apple’s iPads in the Classroom,” the article discussed Mercyhurst Preparatory School’s recent acquisition of 700 of them thanks to a generous donation; however, Mercyhurst Prep is not the only Erie-area high school transitioning to Apple iPads.

According to a story on Cathedral Prep’s website, in late February, Father Scott Jabo, President of Cathedral Preparatory School and Villa Maria Academy High School, dressed himself in the mode of the late Steve Jobs – dark charcoal turtleneck, blue jeans, and eyeglasses – to announce that Cathedral Preparatory School and Villa Maria Academy High School had purchased just over a thousand of Apple’s devices for use by all students, faculty, and staff at both campuses.

Fanfare aside, what about the cost? “No additional money needed to be found,” said Chris Hagerty, director of advancement for Cathedral Prep and Villa. “This program has been in place for 9 years and is the result of a capital campaign we conducted with our benefactors years ago. It’s budget neutral.”

The change implemented by Prep and Villa isn’t as drastic as night and day, but more subtle, like dawn to noon.  “We are a college preparatory school; part of our mission is to get our students ready for college, and we want our students to be very proficient in technology. This technology platform has been in place [at Cathedral Prep] since 2003; we just changed devices because that’s the next logical step in evolution of a program that is 9 years old,” Hagerty said.

They switched to Apple based on the strengths of the platform and the extensive customer support. “Apple has done a very good job of making that device education friendly, and made a concerted effort to partner with schools,” he said. “Next year, our kids will literally walk into classrooms with an iPad 3 and every textbook will be on that iPad. They can bring a spiral notebook and a pen if they want,” implying that in the classrooms of tomorrow, such antiquities are obsolete.

If the transition implemented by Prep and Villa is subtler, like daybreak to midday, Mercyhurst’s transition is as drastic as inky black and pink-orange; Cathedral Prep and Villa have simply upgraded their existing technology, while Mercyhurst Prep is implementing a completely new platform. For them, the whole concept of tablet-based learning is new.

“The iPads will be given to each student in grades 9 through 12 for the next school year,” said Marcia Gensheimer, public relations and alumni director for Mercyhurst Preparatory School.  Gensheimer said the school currently has three computer labs and a mobile laptop cart, but memories of the inky black are rapidly giving way to the padparadscha dawn. Just as the memories of the father yield to the experience of the daughter, the mustard-stained, dog-eared, tattered, hand-me-down textbook yielded to the PC; the noisy, hulking, monochrome, yellowed plastic PC yielded to the laptop; the hot, slow, fragile, flimsy laptop now yields to Apple’s tablet.

Perusing the “Apple in Education” website, one can easily see how the sun rises for some, while simultaneously setting for others. “The technology a school chooses is only as good as the instruction that surrounds it,” said Deborah Laughlin, principal of Mercyhurst Prep. “Apple has been so grounded in education for so long, they certainly are the leader in developing educational apps.”

The sun set on the slide rule and abacus many moons ago, and it may be dusk for laptops in some high schools, but Laughlin stressed that Mercyhurst Prep was not interested in pursuing technology simply for technology’s sake. Right now, education is all about “apps” and “interactivity” and “video” and “capturing imaginations,” whereas before, most of us were running off to a musty late ‘80s edition of Encyclopedia Britannica – if the library was even open, and we had a ride – to look up an entry on some obscure subject matter, like Ceylon, that was outdated before it hit the shelves.

According to Apple, iBooks textbooks are “dynamic, current, engrossing, and truly interactive,” implying that the library is lethargic, dated, boring, and solitary; they might be right. To paraphrase yet another advertising slogan that has entered common usage, like “Where’s the beef?” or “Just Do It,” Apple does indeed have an entire category of apps for that: English Language Arts; Mathematics; Science; History and Geography; Language Development; Art, Music, and Creativity; Reference, Productivity and Collaboration. Thousands of apps in these categories claim to teach students the latest developments on their subject matter, even if that subject matter is named Sri Lanka nowadays.

Imagine this: one bright morning, a student reads a story on an iPad that contains a word with which she is not familiar. A word like padparadscha (“pad-par-OSH-ka”), for example. What is padparadscha? Can you eat it? Are they hiring?

Using the appropriate iPad app or textbook, the student finds an article and begins reading it instantly, right then and there, no dashing off to Britannica. When the student comes across an important thought, say, something like “Padparadscha is composed mostly of aluminum oxide,” the student highlights that text by simply swiping her finger over those words, which will in turn end up on a study card. Those study cards will come in handy later, as the student comes across dozens and dozens of factoids that she’ll want to remember: its name comes from Sanskrit (“padma raga”) and means lotus colored; it is mostly found in Sri Lanka; it also has been found in Vietnam and Africa; it is beautiful, remarkable, and rare.

But this particular student is a visual learner. Reading that padparadscha is a type of corundum isn’t particularly helpful; pulling up a 3D image of its molecular structure on the iPad, the student can scale and rotate its trigonal crystalline lattice on the iPad, observing all three planes of symmetry. This information may be a bit complex, maybe even useless to someone who is not a stonecutter or industrial chemist, and it still does not answer the question: What is padparadscha? Is it contagious? Is it illegal?

Luckily, that student can flip through an interactive gallery of pictures on the iPad, which finally drives home the point: a padparadscha is a gem. It’s a pink-orange sapphire. Some are more orange than pink. Some are more pink than orange. The best split the difference.

Armed with this knowledge, the student can go back to the original story she was reading, an article about technology in the classroom, in which the word “padparadscha” plays a major role as a metaphor. The student has taken an important step in comprehending an obscure reference within an otherwise mundane story.

Mercyhurst Prep’s Principal Laughlin believes giving her students the technology to make this step will better prepare them for both college and the as-yet uncreated, unimagined technological jobs of the future. But would this tablet-based learning platform give her students an advantage in competing for those jobs? “Absolutely. The world has changed dramatically in recent decades, and schools have not. The needs [of employers] are different now than they were ten years ago. We’re hoping to address those skills and qualities the new job market will require.”

Once, that job market merely required laborers who knew their way around the business end of a hammer or shovel; today, that job market – the one demanding students who are prepared for jobs dealing with technologies not yet invented – has a ravenous appetite for skilled labor. An educated workforce is a precious resource to the region’s – and the world’s – major employers, no different than a vein of coal or a forest full of board-wood once was.

“It’s good to see that schools apply the latest technology and tools in the classroom to advance learning,” said Stephan Koller, director of communications and public affairs at General Electric’s Transportation Division. “This is an integral part of developing the next generation of leaders in engineering, manufacturing, and technology.”

Koller’s words are not just lip service. GE is one of the region’s largest employers, and when they say they want to develop leaders in engineering, manufacturing, and technology, they mean it. That’s what made GE what it is today: a healthy, thriving, growing corporation with a global footprint, arms everywhere, and a firm backbone that runs right through the middle of Erie County’s economy.

Barbara Chaffee, president and CEO of the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership, assigns similar importance to technology in the classroom. “Strong skills in reading, writing, science, and math are key to preparing for the workforce,” she said.  “We believe that any technology that addresses how students access information today is beneficial to the learning experience.” As president of the chamber, Chaffee has her finger on the pulse of the business climate in Erie County; she is tasked with attracting, retaining, and expanding business in the greater Erie area.

David Hunter, managing partner at Epic Web Studios, has his feet in two worlds.

As a tech-based business owner, he knows that the product he produces is dependent upon the technological awareness of the available workforce. “The modern day web has leveled the playing field for regions like ours. We can compete anywhere on the globe,” said Hunter. “If our future graduates are not prepared to integrate technology into their daily routines, the quality and quantity of the workforce will decline rapidly, eventually leading to obsolescence. Thankfully, Mercyhurst, Cathedral Prep, and Villa are staying on the cutting edge and adequately preparing students. It’s a step towards integrating technology in the classroom, and any step in that direction is a good step.”

As a business owner, Hunter also knows what it means to sift through piles of resumes from unqualified applicants. “I encounter applicants every day that don’t have the background I need, and they get rejected. You have to understand the modern language of the web or you’ll be left behind.”

Thanks to generous donations and concerted fundraising, students at Mercyhurst, Prep, and Villa aren’t being left behind. They’ve been given candles, which will become lanterns. Those lanterns, flashlights. Those flashlights, spotlights—until one day they will shine their light on the darkness with the strength of the mid-day summer sun. This is their day. But for some, it is still night; holding their candles aloft, they really can’t tell if that pink-orange padparadscha glow hanging low in the inky black is waxing or waning, rising or setting. Is the salmon swimming out to sea, or up the creek?

Memories of the Night

As three of Erie’s private high schools are fighting against the current and breaching the barrier, embracing the pink-orange padparadscha glow and imagining the possibilities of the new day, do our public high schools remain stranded in a different time zone, a different inkier, blacker era?  Are Erie’s public high schools integrating tablet-based learning programs?

“We’re not,” said Matthew Cummings, director of communications for the School District of the City of Erie. “I think that’s a convenient delivery model for content [but] our funding situation is a little different,” said Cummings. “We’re continuing to explore mobile technology but still using desktops. Our system is not unlike other public systems; we are funded by local tax revenue and grants, so we’re not really unique in that aspect.”

Cummings is good at finding pleasant ways to say unpleasant things. Although the district is actively looking at ways to fund such an endeavor, including grants, the Erie School District has no generous benefactors like Mercyhurst, Prep, and Villa. “We continue to look at the cost benefit of that type of technology,” he said, optimistically. “It’s a little different when you have 12,300 students and not just a couple hundred.”

Startling implications arise herein.

Namely, children whose parents can’t afford to send them to a private school might be “left behind,” mired in “obsolescence,” unable to “compete anywhere on the globe,” as David Hunter noted, or left behind without the ability to access or afford technology that can be “beneficial to the learning experience,” as Barbara Chaffee pointed out. Those left behind may not be among that “next generation of leaders in engineering, manufacturing, and technology” that Stephan Koller said GE wants to develop.

And what of the technology gap – the so-called “digital divide?” Does tablet-based learning create that gap, or simply widen it? While Encyclopedia Britannica was ostensibly available to every student, tablets are not. Conversely, Encyclopedia Britannica was only available to all who lived near a library and had a way to get there, just as tablets are available to all who can afford them. Will this difference affect the quality of students Erie, and Pennsylvania, and America churns out? Right now, it’s unclear, but it’s certainly a question no school wants to discover the answer to 15 years after going all-in – or folding – on tablet technology.  

As all of our children awaken, eyes fat with sleep, they can see the pink-orange padparadscha glow. They can also see the inky black. As some of our children wake up to the possibilities of the day, others remain consumed by the memories of night, enveloped by the inky black, with only a candle. The sun is rising for some; others wait in the inky black, painfully aware that there is a dawn, anticipating its luminescence and wondering if it will ever come, like a salmon that knows about the air above.

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