Area schools stoke tech talents - Catholic Courier
Eighth-graders in a computer-technology class at Siena Catholic Academy play games after completing their class work June 8. Eighth-graders in a computer-technology class at Siena Catholic Academy play games after completing their class work June 8.

Area schools stoke tech talents

Fred Tillinghast remembers his fascination with a college keyboarding course in the mid-1990s, when his instructor walked the class through the process of creating the latest marvel — an e-mail account.

"We were all excited," he recalled.

Tillinghast had just graduated from Bishop Kearney High School, which then housed only a handful of computers that had Internet capability. How quickly times have changed: Just 15 years later, all students at Kearney — where Tilliinghast has become director of admissions — receive their own laptop computers that are connected to a schoolwide wireless network. In addition, every classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard that connects a computer to something akin to an old-fashioned projector.

Today’s Catholic-school students quickly adapt to such technology thanks to diocesan, state and national educational standards that call for ever-increasing computer aptitude. In fact, at All Saints Academy in Corning, even the youngest pupils are learning to navigate keyboards and create documents.

"As early as kindergarten they have to learn that skill. We find that it’s such a life skill," said Kathy Broderick, All Saints’ education-technology coordinator, adding that All Saints students are expected to type 52 words per minute by eighth grade.

Joe McFarlane, 14, said his exposure to computers began in kindergarten at St. Joseph School in Penfield and he now can’t imagine getting through his studies without them.

"You would need a computer to do a project, and we do a lot of projects," Joe remarked while doing research for a Holocaust assignment June 7 at Brighton’s Siena Catholic Academy, a diocesan junior high school. Whereas in yesteryear, a student with a similar project might have accessed the school library for information, Joe — a recent Siena graduate — and his cohorts were instead scouring the Internet on some of the computer lab’s 30 desktop machines.

Todays students live in an age when computer technology is advancing faster than at any other time in human history, with whiteboards and laptops taking their places alongside — and, at times, instead of — pens, paper, textbooks, encyclopedias and chalkboards. In just the past couple of decades, computer know-how has gone from an area of special interest to as essential a skill as addition, subtraction and penmanship, observed Thomas Veeder, director of the diocesan Office of Information Technology.

"(Computing) has changed a ton and become almost a necessity, if not a necessity," said Veeder, whose office provides equipment and support for all diocesan (pre-kindergarten through grade 8) schools.

Taking advantage of technology

Computer proficiency begins quickly in diocesan schools, as exemplified by the curriculum at St. Rita School in Webster. There, second-graders learn to design maps on computers; fourth-graders learn to do spreadsheets — grids that store and perform calculations on data in columns and rows — and sixth-graders create newspapers on Microsoft Publisher.

Skills learned in technology classes are integrated into other subjects. Broderick — who also teaches music at All Saints Academy — said students in 2010-11 did a music project in which they listened to samples of classical music and researched composers on the Internet, then rolled their data into a presentation using Microsoft PowerPoint — a program that enables users to create slideshows with graphics and sound.

Now "every subject has software associated with it to work with the kids," Veeder said. In addition, classroom links on the diocesan website suggest a wide array of Internet resources for homework help in specific subjects as well as links to encyclopedias and games.

David Moore, technology coordinator at Siena Catholic Academy, noted that seventh-graders there prepare for high school and beyond by refining such skills as word processing, creating presentations and spreadsheets, desktop publishing, concept mapping and Internet research. By eighth grade they progress to computer-aided design (CAD), creation of multimedia presentations and websites, and other advanced applications.

Veeder said it hasn’t been terribly costly thus far for diocesan schools to keep pace with evolving technology because schools have used the same desktop computers for several years while needing only to update software. On the other hand, should significant modifications be required, he said community donors consistently see computer technology as a worthy cause.

"What we find is, schools don’t have trouble raising money for computer labs," Veeder said.

That’s certainly true at Bishop Kearney, where students are able to continue their technological progression thanks to numerous upgrades beginning in 2007 funded by billionaire philanthropist B. Thomas Golisano. Among the new capabilities are frequent online updating of the school newspaper, the Coronet, and a network that allows teachers and parents to share student information in such areas as grades and attendance.

Terry Hadgis, a Kearney math instructor, added that the school’s vast supply of laptops and whiteboards — along with increased student aptitude with computers — have fueled an evolution in teacher-student relationships and a much more collaborative style of learning.

"Now we’re more like a coach, than as the person who knows everything about everything," she said.

Rapid expansion

Moore observed that much has changed since the first personal computers hit the market in the late 1970s, typically costing thousands of dollars each. At the time such sums "might still buy you a car," he remarked.

Technology prices have dropped even while computer capabilities and user-friendliness have expanded, to the point that new laptops can be purchased for just a few hundred dollars. When he began his position at Siena in 2001, Moore noted, there were still five to eight students per class who didn’t have a home computer but now virtually everyone has a computer at home. The Internet is another area that’s as comfortable as breathing for young people: Andrew Smagin, Bishop Kearney’s vice principal for instruction and curriculum, said most adults can recall life without the World Wide Web, but today’s high-school students are "the first generation that’s going to know nothing else."

They’re learning more every day, too, growing up during the explosion of smartphones (high-end mobile phones with computing capacity), tablet computers (larger-screen versions of smartphones but without phone capability) and whatever tomorrow’s newest advancement may yield. Moore predicted that many current technological requirements at Siena won’t even exist for future students because they’ll come in already possessing the necessary knowledge. Yet he emphasized that computers won’t ever replace teachers.

"At their level, young people still need a whole lot of guidance. If you weren’t there to tell them (otherwise), all they’d do is play games — the same as if you gave them a piece of paper, they’d doodle," he remarked.

Beyond the classrooms, Moore estimated that more than half of Siena’s students have cell phones, many of which are smartphones that allow students to send and access information in real time: "The idea is, instant is better." This results in a dependence on technological devices that is quickly enveloping adults as well.

"All of a sudden, everyone is in touch with everyone. The first thing is to check text messages and (the social-networking websites) Facebook and Twitter," Hadgis added. "They have to see what everybody else is doing and where everybody is. They have to let people know where they are all the time."

Noting that personal phone usage is not allowed during the school day at Kearney, Smagin quipped that "it’s a real penance" for students to wait until dismissal to use their gadgets.

‘God made good people’

Even though children are at times actually ahead of adults on the computer learning curve, grown-up guidance also remains vital when it comes to ethics, morals and safety. Thus, school personnel preach the need to access legitimate information sources; exercise care in transmitting personal information via blogs, chat rooms, photographs, texts, instant messages and e-mails; and practice vigilance regarding cyberbullying and "stranger danger."

Smagin said Bishop Kearney gives ethics seminars and employs a lengthy code of conduct for computer usage; Moore said Siena holds an annual presentation on Internet safety from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, and Veeder noted that his office "spends a lot of time" keeping filters up to date for computers at diocesan schools. Moore said parents seem comfortable with all these precautions, noting that all parents this past year agreed in writing for their children to use the Internet at school.

Meanwhile, Broderick said she strives to safely introduce social networking by accessing kid-friendly sites and maintaining an in-house blog that students can use to gain experience exchanging commentary in an adult-supervised setting.

On the other hand, Smagin acknowledged that there’s only so much control schools can exert over students’ computer usage, especially as they become old enough to frequent the world of Facebook, which permits users as young as 13.

Despite the value of installing firewalls and filters on school and home computers, Veeder said parents, teachers and administrators must face the reality that, if they wish, young people can access R- and X-rated material with just the touch of a smartphone button — or they may be with friends who do so.

"A better approach is to teach them how to use the Internet and respect it when it doesn’t have limits," he said.

"Probably the most important thing we can do is form their consciences, teach right from wrong," Moore agreed. "That’s why we’re here as a Catholic school."

Broderick agreed that young people must sort out right from wrong in regard to computer use as they would with any other moral decision — and she said she’s confident that, by and large, her students will make good choices.

"I believe that God made good people," she stated.

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