Overwhelmed by High Tech?

Computers are supposed to be a tool for education. But, sometimes, it can seem to be just the other way around. Administrators, teachers, and students can spend an inordinate amount of time and frustration on getting updates for programs which were cutting edge yesterday and obsolete today; dealing with a bunch of different passwords and log-ins; trying to coordinate software with other software that is not compatible; and so on. But, some leading vendors have recognized this problem and have been working on solutions to make educational computing less programmer- and more user-friendly.

One company has introduced a solution that has been implemented in middle schools. David Roh, director of product development for Follett Digital Classroom, describes it, "as an organizing, a facilitating tool. There is a lot of technology out there, and much that can be helpful. Teachers are already very busy, so the idea is to corral it all together. A lot of publishers have different interfaces requiring multiple Web addresses, passwords, and different log-ins for students, teachers, and administrators. It seems logical to have them integrated into one log-in."

Students, teachers, administrators, and parents access the same site, which is built around teacher content. All parties can see through the same portal containing homework, announcements from guidance counselors or principals, etc. "Everybody goes to the same destination to find out what they need to know," Roh says. But each can have links to other sites, such as interactive videos on different educational topics. These programs also easily link to other software the school may already have, or may get in the future.

Roh says some solutions have secondary software systems of their own, such as for assignments or digital storage, and plans to provide a test builder, content creation, and other tools, or, again, link to other vendors that the school has chosen for these or other services. But the main purpose is to organize and facilitate access to all these technologies.

Roh says that one such system has been installed recently at the Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School, Melrose, OR, and more than 80 percent of the teachers are working with it on a regular (if not daily) basis; daily log-ins by students and teachers average over 50 percent of the population, and 23 percent of the parents have so far voluntarily registered in the system. Principal Tommy Brow vouches for it, and points out that Roh created the product because he was frustrated with the system in the school his daughter was attending. "He wanted to create a system that could been seen through a children's eyes as well as an adult's," Brow says. Roh believes responding to today's students’ proclivity towards the Internet, iPods, and Game Boys is a natural direction to take. He adds that now that he has gotten the system working for grades 6-8, it won't be long before he'll have a version ready for the other grades in K-12.

Talking about a specific tool product that can greatly facilitate classroom learning, Brow is very enthusiastic about the interactive whiteboards they are using in their schools. "When we built the school, we had the choice of putting six to eight computers in every classroom or one large interactive whiteboard. We chose the latter."

Using the whiteboard, along with the affiliated notebook software, the teacher, Brow explains, has access to virtually every available Website. "The notebook software brings it all together," he says. " The teacher can touch a picture, and it opens up to files of some 8,000 educational videos or clips. You have the visual world at your fingertips." Brow says that since it's so easy to become dependent upon the technology, it's important to have good relationships with your vendor. They have had good experiences with Smart Technologies.

Also, Brow cautions, the technology needs to be maintained. "It costs $250 to replace each bulb. So every two weeks, we have students who volunteer to clean the filters. You have to include in your budget a supply of bulbs, and train your students to do the maintenance. Other than that, it's a phenomenal technology.”

Laura C. Ball is marketing communications manager for another interactive whiteboard vendor that began providing the traditional chalk-and-erase board over 50 years ago. She explains that interactive whiteboards have been in vogue for some time in the U.K., with that market pretty much saturated. The U.S. has lagged behind in this respect, with their being introduced in this country just three or four years ago. Acceptance was modest at first, but now, she says, "There's definitely a much more rapid incline. In view of President Obama's putting more funding into school districts, I believe this trend will continue."

Ball says there are a number of good interactive whiteboard vendors out there, but cautions that to really make the whiteboard viable, you need software. Some whiteboards are sold without the software, or with varying levels. Ball says PolyVision's product provides a broad access to Websites. Many are available free to the school. Some require a subscriber service. So it's important to check out just how far reaching your whiteboard will be at the time of purchase. In addition to providing Website access, Ball says some whiteboards also come with their own software on different academic topics, such as language and science. But they can also integrate with whatever software the school now has, may acquire in the future from other vendors, as well as with any new software that may come on the market.

Ball also points out that "students are very wired today, and are growing up much more interactive with technology than earlier generations. The whiteboard makes for a much more collaborative classroom. The shy kid who sits in the back of the room, who didn't want to participate, now finds it easy to get involved and become excited about learning.”

There's so much that can be easily accessed, Ball continues. For instance, if the topic is Martin Luther King, Jr., a touch of the photo can bring up a wealth of possibilities, a series of slides or videos of the key events in his life, a biography, history of the civil rights movement, and so on, all at the appropriate grade level. There are other offering to choose from as well. For instance, some teachers have contributed effective lesson plans. There are state education standards that have to be adhered to. Plus a wide variety of curriculum, both standard, with some offbeat tangents, that can be pursued. "From the reports we get back, both teachers and students love using them," Ball says.

Ball offers one caution — because the technology is fairly new, teacher training is very important. "Teachers can easily become overwhelmed by technology," Ball says. "And sometimes a teacher may be comfortable just writing on the board or projecting the surface, as with a PowerPoint presentation. But, we offer free training, to make the technology not seem intimidating, so they can move up to the higher levels of usage."

One educator who very much appreciates the training is Fred Zamora, executive director of instructional services and technology, Mexia ISO School District, Mexia, TX. "When we are paying top dollar for a technology, we believe the vendor should provide teacher training for free or at a nominal cost," Zamora says. "Our teachers who learn then teach other teachers. So we build our roots. If we get teacher turnover and teachers move on, then we'll need more training."

Zamora says that you need excellent teachers to start with, and no technology can provide that. But, given a capable staff, a good technology like an interactive whiteboard will help make them better. "When I looked at the situation of education in our school system, I wanted to make sure that whatever technology we brought in enhanced education. I didn't want our teachers to have to cope with a bunch of laptops, having to compete with students wandering off to listen to music or play games. Teachers have students for only about 35 minutes. Take away the clerical duties, and it drops the actual teaching time down to 20 to 25 minutes. We chose the interactive whiteboard because that was the best way to maximize that time."

"Education is not our primary business — it's our only business," Zamora says. "Educators should not be burdened with trying to track and test the latest computer releases. Technology should enhance education, not force it."

Zamora reports that, as the result of his new interactive whiteboard, "Test scores have shot up 30 percent."