Tech giants battle for classrooms in Amish country

Tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are competing to get their products into classrooms around the U.S. Even in Amish country, where families live simply without technology like television or phones, some Amish children are learning to use these high-tech devices as part of the curriculum. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports from Ohio.

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    Visit most any school these days, and you'll likely find teachers using laptops, tablets and other high-tech tools. The competition for the educational technology market is fierce, and yet teachers and administrators often find it difficult to buy the right tools to fit their needs.

    The NewsHour's April Brown has a report from our American Graduate unit on that battle and an unlikely place where it's playing out.


    In Ohio's Amish country, traditions are taken very seriously. Many families travel by horse and buggy, dress in the fashions of their forefathers, and believe in a simple home life, one without electricity, televisions or phones.

    But even in a community that is slow to embrace change, there's a battle being waged over educational technology. The hardware market alone is worth an estimated $13 billion worldwide.

  • JACOB:

    We use computers, iPads, laptops, and Chromebooks.


    This Amish fifth grader we will call Jacob agreed to speak with us, but his parents asked that we not identify him.

    Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are fighting to get their products into classrooms like his and teacher Shawn Snyder's. Snyder uses smartboards, laptops and tablets for many of her lessons.

  • SHAWN SNYDER, Teacher, Fredericksburg Elementary:

    I would never want a piece of chalk in the classroom again. I can't imagine teaching without technology. Just having technology enables me or my students to look up something online, and we can instantly access video of places they have never been before, pictures of things they have never seen.


    The companies behind educational technology products spend a lot of money to get schools to buy the hardware, deploying sales staff to trade shows and districts around the country and creating marketing tools, including ads.


    There's never been a better time to learn.


    And, recently, the race for supremacy in schools has tightened between Apple's iPad and Google's Chromebook.

    The iPad had been the top seller in the education market, but, in the third quarter of 2014, Google shipped more Chromebooks, the first time that's happened since its debut two years earlier.




    Ohio's Southeast Local School District uses both, but the iPads came first after a group of parents raised money to buy them.

    Math and science teacher Sarah Meenan has been using them in her classroom.

  • SARAH MEENAN, Teacher, Fredericksburg Elementary:

    So, it's been fun to have the iPads first and get the kids interested in those and love doing the hands-on.


    And fifth grader Dawson Troyer has found iPads helpful.


    Well, I like how it's an easy learning tool. You can just pick an app, and you can close out of it easy with the home button.


    But when the district received a state grant of more than $400,000 to buy more hardware, teachers and administrators chose Chromebooks. Students here start using Google Docs and Google Drive in second grade, and they're tools that have been useful for group projects, according to fifth grader Blaise Morrison.


    Last week, we did an Indian project. There was a little thing where you can go and text your group mates, and they — like, you are not talking and it's kind of fun.


    Curriculum director Holly Mastrine says the district considered other factors too before buying the Chromebooks, including cost and having to administer both state and the new Common Core assessment tests online.

  • HOLLY MASTRINE, Curriculum Director, Southeast Local Schools:

    The keyboard is already there. And with all of the testing as well, we were already going to purchase mice and then headphones as well, because you have to have some headphones for some of the different testing. So, on a financial end, it was less expensive to go with the Chromebook.


    In Ohio's East Holmes Local Schools, they have gone with a third option. This is called the LearnPad, and teachers control everything that's put on here. That was done to address concerns of Amish parents, who didn't want their kids to have access to the Internet or objectionable games or content.

    Developed in 2011, the LearnPad is much like the iPad and Chromebook. It offers educational apps, games and curriculum, but it doesn't have the market share of the Apple and Google products.

  • KAREN CATOR, CEO, Digital Promise:

    We know that devices come and go, so focusing on the devices is the wrong question.


    Karen Cator is the CEO of Digital Promise, a nonprofit that recently studied how schools can improve the way they find, buy and evaluate technology for the classroom.


    What you actually purchase should be driven by what you want to actually do with that technology. You want them researching, you want them producing, you want them seeking, asking questions. What are all of the kinds of things that you want students to be able to do?


    And if one of the main goals of school is that students will take what they're learning into the job market, fifth grader Kylee Gray sees how getting comfortable with technology now will likely pay off later.


    Probably every job you are going to go to is probably going to have something with technology.


    And that's happened here in Amish country. German teacher and librarian Jerry Schlabach is Amish and follows many of its traditions, which is why we aren't showing his face. He believes teaching Amish children to use technology is a good idea, even though many will leave school after the eighth grade.

    When you are Amish and you are growing up these days, why is technology an important skill for these kids to learn?


    Because of the changing technology in the job market, lots of people want new employees to have some computer training when they get into the job market.


    Teacher Sarah Meenan says, despite the fact Amish kids don't have technology at home, they have picked it up relatively easily.


    The Amish kids really want to learn, so they catch on quick because they want to be up to speed with everybody else.


    But some Amish children still cling to the old-fashioned ways.

  • JACOB:

    Mostly, I just like the easier way of the learning, like on a piece of paper when it's right in front of you.


    It's a sentiment that goes beyond school, in a community slowly embracing the future, while making sure not to forget the past.

    I'm April Brown for the PBS NewsHour in Berlin, Ohio.

    PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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