The Technology Makeover

The classroom environment a few years ago consisted of the bare-bones basics: desks, chairs, large chalkboards, pencils and notebooks — that is, the metal spiral-bounded books with lined notepaper inside. Compare those classrooms to the ones of 50 years ago and there wasn’t much difference. How times have indeed changed!

Step inside a K-12 classroom in many school districts in the U.S. today and the differences are truly jaw dropping. Some might even feel as if, like Alice, they have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole into another world. Instead of writing spelling words on the chalkboard, today’s teachers are now utilizing interactive “smart” whiteboard technology to make their classroom experiences intuitive and engaging, and to provide a better overall learning environment for their students. Other new offerings making their daily appearance in the classroom include Apple’s iPads, computer workstations, instructional software and web-based apps.

Technology for Teachers and Students

For students these additions to their classrooms are just part of their natural realm. Many children already use technology at home. Why shouldn’t they have the same offerings in their schools? Many experts agree that traditional methods of teaching, which have been used for decades, don’t cater to today’s students and their needs nor do they engage young minds. Students aren’t responsive to the traditional approach of sitting behind desks, listening to teachers lecture to them for hours on end and studying from old-fashioned textbooks.

The teaching staff has to have the support it needs to ensure that students can reach their potential. The Boston Public School District in Boston, Mass., consists of 125 schools serving 56,000 students. Melissa Dodd, CIO for the district, says, “A teacher today needs a strong toolkit at his or her disposal to engage students. A one size fits all model isn’t working. We needed to change the way we think and teach our children. The district has a very robust network in place, and we have the system to support that.”

In 2008, Boston’s public schools launched a “Laptops for Learning” program. Every classroom teacher has been provided with a laptop for instructional use. However, that isn’t where the program ends. Dodd adds, “For teaching to truly evolve, the teachers need the proper tools to prepare students for college careers and life in general. So, we’ve provided our teachers with that technology proficiency. The laptop program gives the teaching staff the training and support necessary to utilize technology to the maximum.”

Intuitive and Interactive
Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Ala., educates approximately 600 students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades and has instituted various technologies into each classroom. Jason Burd, an advanced math teacher at the school, has found that the eBeam Engage, a portable, interactive whiteboard from Luidia, makes classroom learning easy and convenient.

“Whatever I write on the Engage is available to the students at any time via the web,” Burd says. “If a student misses details from the lesson, he or she can go back to it at another time to review the material, even if it’s a month later when an exam is coming up.” The ability for students to review material after hours and at their own convenience — for example, when a student has been out sick for a week and has to catch up with the lesson — enables teachers to spend more time teaching and less time reviewing material. In this way, kids who might have a hard time grasping a lesson the first time around have the ability to review it repeatedly at their own pace, making it more likely that that they will understand the concept.

Celebrating Technology
The Fort Leavenworth School District in Kansas is attended by students in grades K-9 who are dependents of soldiers assigned to the military post at Fort Leavenworth. The district has used various technologies to foster the learning environment. Mindy Tilley, a learning technology integration specialist for the district, involved the students in Digital Learning Day, a national event that let teachers revolve their lessons on the technologies that they had within the classroom. “Some lessons focused on allowing students to build avatars. Other classes spent the school day creating movies. The curriculum was still the focus here, as our students utilized creative writing and metric conversion, but the kids spent the day implementing technology into it,” Tilley explains.

Smartboards have been used in every classroom in Fort Leavenworth’s schools for years, and are now being replaced with Epson BrightLink interactive projectors to encourage a more cohesive learning environment. New sound systems have also proved a valuable addition to the classroom. Teachers wear pendant microphones and their voices are carried throughout the classrooms, ensuring that all the students are able to hear the lessons clearly. “I think the audio system is one of the most critical components in the classroom because it really does make a difference in student learning,” adds Alan Landever, Fort Leavenworth’s director of technology services.

Parents Pull Together to Bring Technology to Fruition
Some school administrators might be hesitant to add or update technology in the classroom because such an undertaking requires a support staff to manage it and handle troubleshooting. The parents at one Pennsylvania school took that job under their own belts. Sacred Heart School in Royersford, Penn., is a Catholic K-8 community of approximately 190 students. While the school administrators realized that they needed to update the infrastructure for the classrooms, they didn’t have to look beyond their own backyard for the technical support that they needed.

The school board at Sacred Heart worked to procure the necessary grants and fundraisers were held to offset other costs. A volunteer technical committee comprised of parents who were knowledgeable in the IT field worked to obtain the classroom technologies and then implement them. Derek Loranca, a parent of a Sacred Heart student and a lead business intelligence specialist for a Fortune 1000 company, served on the committee. “The parents knew that it was critical for our kids’ school to have new technologies, so we came together to do it ourselves. We were fortunate to have one person on the committee who was well versed in hardware, while another parent had a background in software. One parent offered assistance in phone systems. We utilized all of these resources to work together,” Loranca says. “Sacred Heart never had to pay for an IT staff because the parents on the technical committee handled all of the main IT tasks like integration, implementation and troubleshooting.”

The technical committee implemented a wireless network so that every Sacred Heart classroom had Internet access. In addition, a web file server was added so that students could log into the system and work on school projects from home. The committee also used a kiosk-like model for the classroom setting. This system consisted of a desktop virtualization offering that allowed for the use of multiple monitors, mice and keyboards without the purchase of additional desktop computers. One computer could support multiple virtual desktops, which boosted cost savings. In addition, every classroom has a smartboard for learning.

As an off-shoot to the technical committee, it was determined that another group of volunteers would be necessary to assist with typical problems that came up from time to time. This group became known as the classroom ambassadors, a team of parents who took on the role of a traditional helpdesk. “Students and teachers both had access to these ambassadors to answer basic questions about the technology. If the classroom ambassador couldn’t answer the question or find a resolution, he or she simply brought the issue to the technical committee for the needed help,” Loranca says. The ambassadors could solve basic problems like figuring out why a particular program wouldn’t load or determine the reason a projector wasn’t working properly without the need to escalate the issue to the technical committee.

Excitement to Learn
Perhaps the most important aspect to updating technological infrastructures is the one thing that teachers and parents have sought since the beginning of time: getting kids interested in learning. Students take to technology in the classroom much as they would to the latest Angry Birds game on an iPod — they simply love it. Who would imagine that kids would not only like to learn their multiplication tables, but would beg for more? “We use various web apps on iPads to teach our students,” Alan Landever says. “Just one example of this is the Princess Math App for second grade girls that offers drills in addition and subtraction. It gets the girls excited to do math problems.”

“A key focus to the curriculum-driven lessons we provide is getting the students excited about learning,” adds Keith Mispagel, Superintendent of Schools, USD 207, Fort Leavenworth. “With a national focus on science, technology, engineering and math, we are harnessing the creativity and energy the students exhibit in the classroom when activities become hands-on through technology advancements and resources.”

Melissa Dodd agrees with that because the Boston Public School District has noticed benefits, too. “We’ve seen increased student engagement, a decrease in disciplinary issues and improved class attendance when the teachers utilize technology within the curriculum.”

Today’s kids might also be more apt to pick up a Kindle Fire and read a book instead of opening up a hardback. Both Fort Leavenworth School District and Rock Quarry Middle School are considering moving to e-textbooks within the next few years since the costs are cheaper than regular textbooks and kids are more enthusiastic about reading when an e-reader is involved.

The 21st-Century Classroom
The classroom environment won’t ever be the same. The chalkboards will be torn down to make way for advancing technologies that don’t keep a classroom static, but instead ensure that it is constantly evolving. It seemed unlikely that a few years ago Shakespeare might meet the iPad, but in the not too distant future, that might just be the way to get students interested in Macbeth and Othello. And these new methods show students that there’s no lesson that they cannot tackle.

Karen Spring has been a technical writer for more than 10 years. She began her career working as a marketing specialist for two computer distributors, handling projects for clients including Acer, IBM, Okidata. She also worked as a senior editor for an IT publishing and consulting firm. Ms. Spring has written technical reports on Microsoft products and contributes to a weekly newsletter that highlights network and Internet security topics.