'Must-Have' Technologies

Communication between human beings often grows at an inverse rate to the growth of the communications industry. One has only to pick up a telephone to have an operator direct your call to the appropriate person, but all too often you're faced with an interminable menu, apparently designed by the KGB, that won't let you reach the person you're looking for. It used to be you could punch zero to cut through to a live person, but now you're apt to get a disembodied voice saying, "Sorry, that's not on our menu. Goodbye." Click.

Classroom technologies have often also been a double edged sword. They've enhanced learning in some ways, but by connecting teacher and students to a machine instead of directly to each other, they run the risk of diminishing the direct personal interaction — the most important dynamic in learning. However, the new wave of classroom technologies is really not technology for technology's sake. The tools actually serve to vitally connect teachers and students, and have the potential to change for the better the way teachers teach and students learn.

One of the leaders in the manufacturing of this new wave of devices is Smart Technologies. The company was founded in 1987 by Nancy Knowlton and her husband David Martin.

Knowlton mentions that the emergence of the new wave of learning technologies has been made possible by the increasing acceptance and usability of computers in classrooms. Computers were first introduced into schools in the late 1970s. For some time, they were regarded as a somewhat exotic adjunct to the basic learning process and were usually relegated to the library or computer lab. But their use has grown into the classroom, first with personal computers, and now even more frequently with laptops. "Now, in most states, the penetration in very many schools is one to every five or less students in the classroom," says Knowleton. "This use of computers in the classroom has escalated dramatically over the past few years."

Along with this growth has been the incorporation of other computer basics. These include podcasts, which allow for the recording of lectures; portable data files (pdfs); and learning management systems, which allow for real time assignments and grading, as well as other features such as the automatic recording of grades.

Moving closer to the new wave of learning technologies, Knowlton relates that the very first panels from overhead projectors appeared in the late 1980s, and these evolved into the interactive mode in the early 1990s. But it was slow going at first. David Martin invented the interactive whiteboard to be used with projectors for multi media presentations. This was in 1991. "It's only in the past five years that there's been a significant adaptation of this technology," says Knowlton.
The interactive whiteboard, which is currently used in 16 to 18 percent of U.S. classrooms, can be used in virtually every subject area and every grade level, Knowlton maintains. "What this device does is allow the teacher to show his class anything he wants, in a large format, and to manipulate by touching the board," she continues. "I remember that when I took physics in high school, I had questions about waves. The only tools the teacher had had available were to hold up the textbook with the pictures and show the equations on the blackboard. But now, with the whiteboard, you can have animation — a visual reinforcement — to help children grasp the concept that much more quickly.”

Second in terms of importance, says Knowlton, is the interactive response system — currently in about six percent of the classrooms. These devices, which look like TV remotes, are given to each student. The students can choose to respond either with their name or anonymously. Based on the responses, a teacher can gauge, whether moment by moment or at the end of the day, what the individual students or class as a whole has grasped. The teacher can then provide more instruction at the moment and/or that evening pull additional resources to bring to class the next day.

Third, and also related, is the wireless slate — now in about five percent of classrooms. This is a device that gives the teacher mobility to move around the classroom and work with individuals, to write or draw additions or corrections that can be then projected onto the main screen.

Next, comes voice enhancement. A teacher can wear a wireless microphone that allows her to walk around the classroom and have her voice amplified through a number of speakers, so she can easily be heard. There are also wireless hand held microphones that can be passed around so that the students can be easily heard. The devices, in addition to enhancing the learning experience, also help those with hearing impairments. "These devices make for a classroom environment conducive to good hearing for all," Knowlton says.

Finally, Knowlton says, there are document cameras, which allow the teacher to take a quick image, such as in the dissection of a frog, to show to the class. Other uses include showing a video feed, which can be used to show a series of dissections, or, again, made into a series of individual slides.

There are also broad-based new technologies specifically designed for subjects like math and science studies with math components. One company in this arena is Texas Instruments. It was in 1967 that TI invented the first handheld electronic calculator and changed the way math was taught to generations of students. The first prototype performed the four functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, had 12 bytes of memory, ran on batteries, and weighed nearly three lbs. It was a significant advance over previous electronic calculators that were about the size of a typewriter, weighed nearly 55 lbs, and needed to be plugged into a power source.

Today there are calculators that create a powerful connection between teacher and students, wirelessly networking each student's graphing calculator to the classroom computer.

One teacher sold on these products is Beth Smith, who teaches math and is the coordinator of instructional technologies at a private college-prep school, Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, FL. "I started teaching with a book and a piece of chalk," recalls Smith. "The use of a pocket calculator, about 15 years ago, added a new dimension for the kids, who could more visually comprehend the numerical changes. I thought I was a pretty good teacher before I started using these. Now I'm not so sure.” Smith, who teaches 7th grade through senior students, lists the main features she likes about these devices.

A key feature, Smith explains, is the screen shot, which allows a graph to be displayed before the class, and then can be maneuvered at will. The students' graphs can also be projected onto the screen. The mechanisms allow you to zoom in on any particular aspect to find mistakes or troubleshoot. "What's nice about this is that the students can put their graphs up there anonymously, so there is no humiliation," Smith says. "They soon learn it's okay to make mistakes, for everybody does. A family atmosphere is created because everyone is working together to solve problems. Students learn how the graphs are made correctly, but also why mistakes were made, and how to correct them. After two or three days, a student's shyness or fear of making a mistake is no longer an issue."

Another feature Smith likes is the quick poll. “If I want a quick response, I can shoot out a question, or ask true/false or multiple questions. I can get the pulse of a class, see what they're struggling with, and then make up new questions for the following day."

Related to the above is a component called the learning check. Smith can send out a test or quiz or a review to do either in class or at home. Once the students send the results back, they can be put into a PowerPoint slide presentation to give them feedback.

The activity center, Smith explains allows the teacher to aggregate data and have it sent back and forth with different variations. "I can send them a line and ask for an equation or have them show how a graph goes up or down. It's awesome. They're not just watching you do it. They are doing it.
They are actively engaged. It helps them learn, understand, and remember."

Overall, Smith concludes, "These devices help them with their reasoning skills.”

Although Smith says that the actual statistics showing improvement will be coming out within a few months, she has a strong impressions the results will be favorable.

A few numbers are available. TI worked with the Richardson Independent School District, a 24,000 student district in North Texas, on a new mathematics intervention program. It was designed to address the performance gap between the various ethnic groups represented in the student body and showed improvement in 7th and 8th graders' math scores.

As measured by the Texas statewide, standardized math test, the 2006 pass rate for these at risk students jumped 33 percent.

That makes these types of teaching tool “must-have.”