Monday, Dec. 15, 2008 | Sixth-grader Serena Lease used to get bored in math classes waiting for other kids to catch up at Dana, a middle school for 5th and 6th graders in Point Loma.

“If you’re learning in a group and one person doesn’t get it, you have to wait, like, 15 minutes,” said Lease. “It’s like, ‘What do we do now?’”

Now Lease has plenty to do. Instead of sitting in a class with one teacher lecturing to everyone from the same page in the same textbook, she learns online at her own pace in a computer lab alongside classmates. She breezes through easier lessons and lingers on tougher ones, studying animations that explain ratios and fractions with cartoons of cats and forks. The computer serves up study sheets and quizzes and tracks her progress through the curriculum. A green light means she is on track, yellow means she is at risk, and red means she is slipping behind.

There is no homework, no mass lecture, and chatting with classmates is common. If Lease is stumped by an online quiz, she gets up to ask her teacher Susan Naujokaitis for help, or writes her own name and the unit that baffles her on the board. When the same unit shows up over and over on the board, Naujokaitis teaches a lesson for kids who want it in the corner, allowing their classmates to keep working at their computers.

“They get tired of listening to teachers talk,” Naujokaitis said. “I don’t blame them!”

Her middle school class is one of four in Point Loma where students now take math classes online, and it is dramatically different than a traditional class with lectures and textbooks. Similar technology is now being used in many San Diego Unified high schools to help struggling students make up classes, a reform touted by Superintendent Terry Grier. But such methods are rarer for middle and elementary schools, and they are especially rare in California, which lags behind other states in classroom technology.

“Saying we have been slower than others is too kind,” said Thomas Greaves, who runs a technology consulting firm, noting that Maine middle schoolers have gotten laptops. “It is pitiful. We are the laughingstock of the country.”

The big question for the Point Loma schools is whether digitizing math will boost student achievement. Vice Principal Scott Irwin knows of no research on computerized, self-guided learning as young as sixth grade, and believes Dana is one of the first schools in San Diego County and possibly in California to try it.

“Is 6th grade old enough?” Irwin asked rhetorically. “That is one of our questions.”

Proponents are eager to shatter the concern and the convention, hoping that the pilot program at Dana and Correia middle schools will keep kids engaged in school and yield higher results on standardized tests this spring, nudging other schools to do the same.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as too young,” said Matt Spathas, chief executive officer of Bandwidth Now, which remakes commercial buildings with wireless internet. “How young was too young to give a student a book after the slate and tablet?”

The ultimate plan is to make sure every student can go home and continue working on math on his or her own laptop. San Diego Unified is paying to equip the classes with lightweight “netbooks,” and Dana is mulling how to provide their homes with internet if they lack it, as Lemon Grove schools are already doing. Moving math from textbooks to computers has thrown the digital divide into high relief. Irwin said the laptops are one route to equity, giving all kids the chance to catch up or spring ahead after school.

Going digital has been a dream for whiz kids such as Lease, and it has changed teaching for Naujokaitis and Cathy Garcia, the two Dana teachers who volunteered to pilot a computerized math class. Lectures and a lockstep syllabus are gone, replaced by coaching kids one on one. To prevent kids from gaming the system by changing their answers over and over, kids have a limited number of chances to take a quiz before it freezes, forcing them to seek help from a teacher. Advocates say it empowers kids to guide their own learning.

“The teachers won’t yell at you. You can go at your own pace,” said student Lawrence Perez.

When students get into a tricky unit, however, that can mean clusters of students tugging at Naujokaitis’ sleeve. She thought that letting advanced students push past the rest of the class would give her more time with weaker students, but top students are now barreling into subjects that challenge them more and need more help. Such problems are not unique to computerized classes: San Diego Unified teachers routinely juggle large classes and classroom assistants are rare. But online classes rely more heavily on students to seek help, which can disadvantage students who are shy or struggling with English.

“You can have a student that is sitting at their station, rather isolated and not engaged, and they can get stuck there,” said Carole Kuck, a mathematics resource teacher who helps middle schools. “You have a greater risk of that in an online classroom if you don’t have a teacher who is circulating and interacting with students while they work.”

The Dana program also uses a fixed curriculum that can be restrictive and imposes a specific sequence. Kids who don’t understand decimals well may understand ratios, Naujokaitis explained, but the program requires them to master decimals before moving ahead, instead of introducing the new concept of ratios while they keep learning about decimals.

“Do you understand the concept of similar and congruent?” Naujokaitis asked one student struggling to scale up a shape. He did. The problem was that it used decimals. As soon as Naujokaitis posed the problem with whole numbers, the boy knew what to do.

It is one example of why teaching, while changed, is still critical in the digital classroom. Kuck said good teaching is a must to prod students to understand mathematical concepts, not just feed the right answers to a computer. Quizzes detect what a student got wrong, but Naujokaitis insists on seeing their work — often handwritten — to understand why they erred.

With a steep discount on software, the Dana project will cost about $37,500 for 70 students. Chief Information and Technology Officer Darryl LaGace said online classes could save money if textbooks were eliminated, but that is difficult to do in California, where legal rules about textbooks sometimes dissuade schools from going digital. The legal ambiguity and a looming budget crisis could throw cold water on schools considering taking the computerized plunge.

“They’ll do what they are comfortable with and wait for better years to innovate,” said Bruce Wilcox, who runs an online tutoring organization.

But in that respect San Diego Unified may be lucky: Voters just approved a $2.1 billion facilities bond that includes technology dollars.

“We are doing this at the right time,” LaGace said. “Now.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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