Technology becoming everyday occurrence in today's classrooms

April 07, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Jonathan Higgins catches a car triggered by Shawn Smith Tuesday at Western Heights Middle School. The pair was measuring and graphing speed and distance covered via computer.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

At Western Heights Middle School, a student took her turn at the front of the class figuring out a math problem on the board. She used an electronic pen, but could just as easily have used her finger to write her math solution on the electronic board.

In another classroom, teams of students were calculating average speed using data gathered with carts on tracks, motion sensors and computer graphics.

Later, seventh-grade students sat on desks or stood up, their arms stretched toward the front of the classroom. Using what looked like a TV or Wii remote, students submitted answers to questions on a screen.

“If you move your seats, you can click in better,” teacher Amy Hilliard said.

The classrooms at Western Heights Middle and Fountaindale Elementary schools in Hagerstown in late February still had wooden desks and plastic chairs, and the sounds of energetic students chatting could be heard.

But in some respects, those classrooms have changed a lot, just since the days when the students’ parents were in school. Computerized technology has in some classrooms become a regular part of the school experience.

Hilliard said that when she first started teaching 15 years ago, there were desktop computers with no Internet access.

At Western Heights and Fountaindale, students in some of the classes visited were using desktop computers or small laptops that enabled students to move around the room as they sought a quiet corner or collaborated with other students.

There were no blackboards, erasers or chalk. Instead, these classrooms have electronic white boards, some of which could be operated with a handheld pad that has a touch screen.

Breaking down walls

Technology in a sense breaks down the traditional walls of the classroom and provides context for learning because it can allow students to see and interact in real time with a subject they are studying, Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

Using technology in elementary through high schools also prepares students for college and careers in which the need to use technology has escalated, Wilcox said.

Wilcox likes to tell the story of the time a repairman came to his New Jersey home and, unable to explain a furnace outage, he reached not for his toolbox, but for his iPhone. He took a picture of the wire diagram, and superimposed it with another image to discover the problem.

“We have an obligation to teach our kids how to use very sophisticated technologies. We also have an obligation to make sure that all our kids have access to technologies so that no one is left behind in kind of the digital millennium, if you will,” Wilcox said during a March 6 school board discussion about social media.

Local educators have noticed that using technology engages students and holds their attention longer than traditional teaching methods such as lecturing, said Arnold Hammann, school system director of information management and instructional technology.

“The successful approach is a blend of traditional and using the technology appropriately,” Hammann said.

Keandre Johnson, a seventh-grader in Hilliard’s science class, said technology is revolutionizing what is being learned in the classroom.

“I’m pretty glad we have this technology because without that, we’d have to do it all on paper and pencil like most kids ’cause not everyone in the world has technology like we do,” Keandre said.

Hilliard said students use clickers to submit answers to questions that appear on a large screen, letting her know immediately which students understand the subject and which need more help.

Similarly, computerized assessment tests will result in local educators getting results quicker so they can be used to help students, Wilcox said.

As it is now, assessment test results arrive after the school year ends, Deputy Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael said.

Studies about whether technology helps children learn have had varying results, but there’s increasing evidence that it does, Wilcox said.

Hammann said the school system hasn’t conducted studies to determine if or how technology helps students learn.

However, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Technology and Education is evaluating a laptop initiative at Hancock Middle-Senior High School in which the high school students and teachers each have laptops they can use in the classroom and at home, Principal Rodney Gayman said.

The initiative began in spring 2011, starting with the training of teachers in how to use the laptops for lessons and progressing to use of the laptops as part of the curriculum, Gayman said.

The Hopkins team observes classes using the laptops, charts the initiative’s progress and provides teachers with feedback, Gayman said. Teachers also consult with teachers in a similar program in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he said.

Although Hopkins officials are evaluating how the laptops are helping students, Gayman said he’s not sure whether they will be able to tie any assessment test improvements specifically to the laptop initiative.

Technology alone is not the answer, Gayman said, but Hancock educators and students are using the laptops to help with critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

Those are skills employers are looking for in the 21st century, Gayman said.

Different way to teach

School system officials and teachers emphasized that technology is not being used for technology’s sake.

Wilcox, who has worked with several school systems and visited more through his previous job with Scholastic Inc., said technology is not always used to the best educational advantage.

It’s important for teachers to learn to teach with technology, Wilcox said.

“I think the struggle really is, it’s a fundamentally different way to teach than teachers have been taught to teach,” Wilcox said.

Some teachers are great with technology, some are OK and some just don’t get it, he said.

“Some people are more driven to learn the new technology than others,” Hammann said.

How well teachers work with technology has nothing to do with a teacher’s age, Hammann said. Some of the school system’s oldest teachers are experts with technology, he said.

Teachers get technology training during the summer and during the school year as specialists work with teachers in their classrooms, Hammann said.

Virtual assignments

There are an array of websites that teachers and students use, including Weebly and Edmodo. Such websites are instructionally based and the companies that provide them have prescreened the material, Hammann said.

On a recent day, several students at Fountaindale Elementary School for the Arts and Academic Excellence were researching topics online or working on websites such as Glogster to show what they had learned.

In teacher Matt Tack’s fifth-grade magnet class, Crystal Martinez was looking over the criteria she and Tack developed for her assignment — to create a game to help students learn about angles and lines — and posting her self-evaluation on her My Big Campus page.

In addition to creating the board game, Crystal had a writing assignment to explain what she did and why.

If they want to do so, students can turn in a written paper about their projects, but most prefer to turn in their assignments virtually, often using Glogster to create interactive posters that feature videos, documents and podcasts about the subject they are studying, said Tack, who is the school system’s nominee for an Outstanding Educators Using Technology award.

Tack is piloting My Big Campus, a social networking site for schools that enables him as well as students to comment online on students’ projects. It holds their research, blogs, email and more, he said.

His students also build websites through Weebly. In some cases, a student will have five Weebly websites, one that is an overall portfolio of his or her work and others for specific projects, he said.

Finding the funds

The school system supplies desktop and laptop computers to every school for teachers to use in their classrooms, although not at the same time, Hammann said.

Beyond the traditional computer lab, there are carts of mini-laptops that teachers can, on request, use for class, Hammann said.

“Our goal is to get every teacher with the same level of technology,” Hammann said.

But the school system’s technology budget, like that of other departments, was cut in the last three years due to the lagging economy. As a result, some of the recently acquired hardware, such as iPads or electronic classroom boards, has been purchased through grants or donations from groups such as PTAs, Hammann said. He said he expects the technology budget to stay level for the upcoming fiscal year.

The declining technology budget has motivated several teachers to look for technology funding elsewhere, Hammann said.

“Every little bit makes a difference,” said Hammann, who said $500 can go a long way if a teacher needs a set of iPod touches. iPod touches are the size of a cellphone and can make video calls; shoot video; have Internet access; and can store music, apps and more.

One source of money for technology has been Washington County Public Schools Education Foundation’s minigrants. The spring grants included $814 for fitness technology at Eastern Elementary School and $1,000 for an electric strings program at Springfield Middle and Williamsport High schools.

At Eastern Elementary, physical education teacher Rich Secrest is using the $814 grant to buy two Xbox 360s with Xbox Kinects. These devices can read up to six players at a time and, since the players’ bodies serve as game controllers, the students have to move, he said.

Secrest said he was looking for a form of technology that students could be active while using.

In addition to helping battle childhood obesity, much of what physical education teachers do centers around lifelong fitness, Secrest said.

Secrest said he hopes to have the Xboxes set up for students to use before the school year ends. Special education children also will use the Xboxes.

Tools for teachers

Some of the tools teachers use in the classroom each day are high-tech.

The school system supplies interactive white boards and projectors far more advanced than the bulky ones that teachers used to have to sit atop a cart in front of the classroom, Hammann said.

Most of the school system’s old-fashioned chalkboards have been covered with white vinyl coating, creating white boards written on with erasable markers, Hammann said.

Few classrooms have just a traditional white board, Hammann said.

About seven years ago, some teachers started using projectors with document cameras that not only display what a teacher or student is writing on a larger board or screen, but can record what the teacher is doing, Hammann said. Teachers can then post those videos on their websites so students can check them from home, he said.

If a document camera is just being used like an overhead projector, then the whole point has been missed, Hammann said.

Other classes might have a Promethean board, a large electronic board that uses electronic pens. A student could go up to the board with the electronic pen and show the class how to solve a math problem.

A Promethean board can cost around $1,400 to $2,900, depending on the add-ons, Hammann said. The hand-held tablet that teachers or students can write on with an electronic pen, with the tablet operating the larger board, costs $299, he said.

A few classes have Smart Boards, in which people can use their fingers or electronic pens to write on the board, Hammann said. Those boards are typically used for students with disabilities who might have difficulty holding a pen or for younger students with dexterity issues, he said. At least one teacher was using a Smart Board for a math intervention class.


Wilcox said he doesn’t want a child’s first experience with cutting-edge technology to be in college and he has said repeatedly that he would like to see more done with wireless technology.

“Few kids want to be tethered to a wall,” Wilcox said.

What the school system needs to do is create a larger wireless infrastructure, he said.

That is something Wilcox also talked about at a March 6 meeting about how to use social media in and out of the classroom.

Wilcox said he doesn’t want the school system to compete with wireless companies, but said it has a lot of unused Internet access every day after classes are dismissed.

“Maybe I can make that available through a super Wi-Fi or super max Wi-Fi to kids, say, in the Winter Street area. Again, I don’t want to get in competition with our local businesses. But at some point, there’s a moral imperative here that we have to provide access to these young people,” Wilcox said at the meeting.

While many children don’t have access to a computer at home, Hammann said the public school system provides students access to computers by kindergarten, or even prekindergarten.

Students need to be comfortable enough with a computer for the day when they have to take assessment tests online, Wilcox said.

The school system will begin easing into a new Common Core curriculum next school year and there will be a point when the new assessment tests that go with that curriculum will be taken online, except for special-needs students, school system officials said.

Some students already take assessment tests online, but the school system still is preparing for all but special-needs students to take the new assessment tests online in 2014-15, Michael said.

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