Medina High School English teacher Jennifer Oehler was 8 months pregnant about three years ago when a mob suddenly appeared while she was on lunchroom duty.
They had all received texts on their cell phones about a fight and had hurried to the cafeteria to check it out.
She rounded up all the cell phones in the name of safety.
''Kids used to call me the 'cell-phone Nazi,'?'' Oehler said. ''I would go to lunch and I would brag about how many cell phones I had confiscated.''
Last week, however, the seniors in her class not only were allowed to have cell phones, they had to use them to complete the first assignment of the day: text their answer to a poll question about the personal stories they were writing. The answers were projected from a computer screen so they could see each other's responses.
''Now that we have technology and I have a way to use it, I want to capitalize on their motivation to use the phone,'' Oehler said.
Medina High is unrolling a significant digital upgrade this school year to begin moving toward a wireless/paperless school district that offers more opportunities for online learning, either entirely over the Internet or blended with traditional classroom teaching.
The technology includes a new software system called Blackboard that enables teachers and students (and next year, parents through an online portal) to handle everything from homework and assigned reading to quizzes and book reports.
The upgrade includes a new wireless system to access Blackboard from anywhere in the building and a new policy allowing students to use their own devices from laptops and tablets to cell phones and hand-held video games to get on the system.
Blackboard will be expanded to the middle schools, which also have wireless systems, next year.
The district needed a computer software system that could enable students, teachers and parents to work together in a virtual online space. Medina was interested in Blackboard, but it was too expensive.
That's when Medina discovered a group of school districts near Cincinnati that have banded together to subscribe to Blackboard. They share the annual fee, the hardware (a server and backup server), training and technical support required to keep Blackboard up and running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The collaborative, called Learn21, started with the Sycamore school district and has expanded to include 10 districts ranging from Deer Park schools, which enrolls about 1,256 students, to Cincinnati Public Schools with nearly 34,000.
Blackboard requires a license subscription that is renewed each year. Districts in the collaborative pay $14 per student this year and share the hardware, software support, installation, staff training and other costs.
The cost per student likely would have been twice that much if Medina had subscribed to Blackboard on its own, said Learn21's executive director, Bill Fritz, who also is technology director for Sycamore schools.
Wooster City Schools is the newest member of Learn21.
''We evaluated several [learning management systems] and ultimately we really, really liked Blackboard,'' Wooster Superintendent Michael Tefs said. ''If we were to go out on our own, we would not have been able to afford it.''
The Wadsworth and Brunswick districts also are talking to Learn21, Fritz said.
Sycamore has had Blackboard about 10 years. During the 2008-09 school year, Fritz conceived the idea of sharing the annual licensing with some of the neighboring districts who had expressed interest in what Sycamore was doing.
Fritz persuaded Blackboard to allow the districts to share the annual licensing costs, essentially pooling their students as if they were one big district.
In another cost-sharing move, he moved Sycamore's server and backup server for Blackboard to one of the 23 state-operated technology centers of the Ohio Education Computer Network, which assist school districts with their Internet needs. That way, no individual district has to worry about maintaining the hardware to run Blackboard.
''We're able to now leverage the ability to buy together and drive down the costs,'' Fritz said. ''We were at 5,000 users before and now we're at 35,000 users together.''
Cincinnati Public Schools has 15,000 users in grades 7 through 12, district spokeswoman Christine Wolff said. When the district joined last year, the cost was $18 per student, $4 more than this year with new members on board.
Gov. John Kasich has appointed a digital learning task force that will be making recommendations in the next several months for what learning online should look like for Ohio schools. Fritz hopes they're paying attention to Learn21's grass-roots effort.
''If you don't have a software infrastructure, like a Blackboard, to deliver content online, you're not going to be able to do it,'' Fritz said.
What began as a cost-sharing plan is evolving into a new way to teach kids and develop online courses that could be shared among Learn21 members.
Medina hopes to offer students three options: traditional classrooms, traditional blended with online learning and straight online learning. By putting the homework, quizzes and other housekeeping items online, it will free teachers to spend their 50 minutes per class actually teaching.
''You're allowing your teachers to do what they're trained to do and what they're passionate about doing, and you're creating an environment for kids that when they're in the classroom, it's truly all about instruction,'' Medina Superintendent Randy Stepp said.
Medina High opened its wireless system to student-owned electronic devices Sept. 19, so they're still getting used to it. The wireless system isn't a free pass to the Internet. It blocks inappropriate surfing, and students cannot use their devices in the cafeteria or hallways.
Students can still get on the system using the school's computers if they don't have their own devices or don't want to use them at school.
Many are using cell phones and smart phones, including senior David Schaefer. He's not a big texter; he still likes to call people in person. And he's more likely to pick up a real dictionary than search for a word online.
But he likes the new Blackboard and he enjoys doing the polls in Oehler's English class.
''That was kind of cool to see how it all worked and it actually did work,'' he said.
The students are allowed to register up to five electronic devices, including Nintendo DS hand-held video-game players.
Although Stacy Hawthorne is Medina's technology integration coordinator, she learned something new from her son, Dalton, a freshman at the high school. He had asked his math teacher if he could use his DS player to take notes.
Dalton's teacher was skeptical at first, she said, but he persuaded him after demonstrating how the dual screen on the player allows users to enter information with a stylus.
''He takes all of his notes on his Nintendo DS,'' Hawthorne said. ''He does all of his homework on his Nintendo DS. He brings it to class every day. He shows his teacher his homework. He flips through the little pages.
''The only class that he has an 'A' in is math right now because he does his math homework every single night because he's on his Nintendo DS.''
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/
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