When Matthew Leamy was hired by the Sonora Union High School District as a computer lab technician in 2004, the push was just beginning to get teachers desktop computers in their classrooms.
Otherwise, most students didn’t see a computer in school unless they were in the shared computer lab. Even then, the cumbersome and boxy desktop monitors were used as “typewriter replacements,” said Leamy, 39.
“Education is always just a little bit behind in technology because of our funding models. As new advances in technology came forward, we focused on finding ways which engaged students in the classrooms or reduced workload for teachers,” Leamy said.
Leamy was promoted to technology manager last week, a new position in which he will report directly to the superintendent and oversee all the district’s digital resources, software and tools. The job description for a tech employee has grown exponentially, Leamy said, since the era when they installed cables into walls and facilitated usernames and passwords on newfangled devices.
“This is a far cry from the era where students only interacted with computers in the lab. We now have chromebooks available to every class in the district,” Leamy said.
That means, approximately 1,500 Google Chromebook laptops available for student use, he said. There is also a laser cutter and 3-D printer in the technology laboratory, tablets connected to digital whiteboards and document cameras that can display writing or physical objects on the wall.
“In my entire career, putting technology into a classroom has always been about facilitating better learning. What that tech needs to be varies with teaching styles and student learning styles. I’ve always told teachers, I’m not going to tell them they have to use tech if it affects their ability to teach,” Leamy said.
Leamy, of Twain Harte, attended Central Catholic High School in Modesto and transferred after his sophomore year to Summerville High School. He earned a GED in 1998 after the end of his junior year and worked with set construction and set design at Sierra Repertory Theater before landing his first information technology job as an instructional aide at Cassina High School.
When Leamy wasn’t with students, he tinkered with machines in the nascent computer lab.
“They were in somewhat poor shape at that point. There wasn’t a lot of investment in technology back then,” Leamy said.
In 2007, he started to split time between Cassina High School and Sonora High School as a computer lab and computer network technician. The next year, he became a technology user support specialist to facilitate the upgrade to a digital grading and attendance system.
After that, the tech boom really kicked into gear.
LCD projectors pushed teachers into more PowerPoint presentations. Teachers streamed videos directly from their computers onto a screen visible to the entire classroom. About five or six years ago, the first 30 Chromebooks were introduced into Sonora High School classrooms.
Some teachers who have been in area schools for decades recalled the technological transformation of the classroom as drastic.
“We’ve gone from pencil and paper everything to doing most things online,” said Kellene Ditler, Summerville High School principal. “I can remember when whiteboards were pretty exciting.”
Ditler is in her fourth year at Summerville High School and second as principal. She spent 20 years before this, teaching mostly junior high english at Curtis Creek Elementary School in Sonora, she said.
“Getting the kids’ hands on the computers was pretty exciting,” she said.
For many humanities classes, instruction was often tethered to textbooks, pencil-and-paper worksheets and videos broadcasted from a VHS player on a TV. When school computers were furnished with internet access, teachers saw their resources and information access explode.
It took a few years, but the textbooks eventually went online. Facts could be checked instantaneously and sources were a few clicks away.
Leamy said the tech revolution even extended to unexpected curriculums like mathematics — teachers could write on a digital projector and save the notes, allowing students to reference them later.
“They can learn at their own pace. I can give the students tools through websites so they can interact with the curriculum in more powerful ways. They are not tied to the classroom. They're becoming independent learners which is a skill you want them to have,” said Pete Smith, a history and social studies teacher at Sonora High School.
Smith recalled doing his first computer training on an Apple 2e computer in the 1980 and said the technology offered in classrooms still offered “true learners” a chance to use resources with more independence than was ever offered in years before.
“They still need me in the classroom to filter knowledge,” he said. “And they still need to know how to apply that knowledge they have and apply the knowledge their learning.”
Tuolumne County school officials have seen the advance of classroom technologies — or the slow creep of technology-assisted educating — reflecting an integration of technology in the daily lives of students. But there are still concerns that an overreliance on those tools could inhibit the value of interpersonal (and deliberately analog) communication.
“If we don't use tech to teach them we are doing them a disservice,” Smith said. “But we need to guide them on how to use it. Technology is not as trustworthy as it used to be.”
Ditler said educators act as the gatekeepers to just how much technology influences specific educational experience. For most, it was about striking a balance between what work is done online or via a digital device and what isn’t in order to create a diverse classroom experience.
“I think that happens at every school and every classroom. That's what makes educators good professionals, the degree to know when to use technology and when not to,” she said.
The development of drafting skills and language were still often best suited to a non-digital approach, she added.
“The more technology you incorporate, there’s less pencil and paper. That pencil to paper piece that lends itself to student creativity and writing skills and we want to make sure that's not completely taken out of the equation,” she said. “Sometimes, they’re glued to technology and it concerns me.”
Leamy said the rapid advance of technology will only prompt more classroom adaptation by students and teachers to match technologies to classroom needs.
“It doesn't mean that every bit of tech is the right application for the right classroom, he said. “We need to help teachers and staff to use technology to further the educational process. We’ll continue to connect with content in multiple ways at multiple times.”