Oct 11 2006

Pioneers Develop Programs to Integrate Technology in Wired Classrooms

Increasingly, schools are looking for a centralized approach to give students, teachers and administrators access to the software tools that they need.

Wired classrooms are popping up nationwide, but the collective battle cry is “Now what?” While educational technologies expand access to new information and enhance learning, integrating these technologies effectively is a challenge. A few pioneers exist who are leading the charge to develop programs that use technology in innovative ways and are increasing student engagement as well.

Osceola County School District in Kissimmee, Fla. is a prime example. Using video conferencing software and a T1 line, the school district is developing a distance learning reading program that pairs ninth-graders with low reading levels at Osceola High School with students at Kissimmee Elementary School for motivational reading sessions. The students read the same book together and hook up once a week to discuss the plot and what they’ve learned. At the end, students are tested on reading comprehension. Although the program is just starting, there are high hopes for expansion once the test sites are up and running.

But that’s not the only program under Rosalind Riser’s direction. The Media and Instructional Technology Department at the school district received a five-year federal grant, which funds an online access program. The program, called EasyTech, helps kids learn all the computer skills—from how to use a mouse and keyboard to creating databases and spreadsheets. And while students learn computer skills, the program assists teachers in integrating those same skills into their curricula.

“It helps the students learn what they need to know to pass the FCAT [Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test],” Riser says. Easy Tech is helping parents as well. The large Hispanic population in Osceola County means many parents are learning English alongside their children. Easy Tech also offers Hispanic parents a chance to connect to the school district in ways they wouldn’t have before. “They used to be reluctant to come to meetings before, but now they are more interested and involved,” Riser says. “It helps these parents feel more connected to the school and understand what’s going on with their kids’ education.”

In addition, the Compass program at Denn John Middle School, also in Kissimmee, provides kids the chance to learn at their own pace and work on areas where they might need more help, such as math and reading comprehension. The computer lab is set up with software from Compass learning and is used daily by students with their own login accounts. The students are motivated by the immediate feedback they get from the program, which offers hints and information to solve a problem and positive feedback when a correct answer is provided. “It allows for ongoing learning and assessment,” says Julie Bischoff, the computer technician who monitors the program. “One of the best things about technology,” Riser says, “is that it offers students tools to help them think better.”

In Beaufort, S.C., students in Catherine Beckham’s fifth-grade class at Shell Point Elementary School are thinking all the time now that they’re running animations on their handheld computers in science class. Teachers in Beaufort County received handhelds to use in seven fourth- through ninth-grade science classes in the 2001-2002 school year. The program, Project WHIRL (Wireless Handhelds Improving Reflection on Learning), was developed as the result of a $1.75 million National Science Foundation grant to SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based research group.

Beckham’s students received various tasks, such as creating animations of scientific processes, like life cycles or a geologic process. Using Sketchy, an animation and drawing tool developed by the Center for Highly Interactive Computing in Education at the University of Michigan, students were asked to demonstrate their understanding of food webs versus food chains. Drawing directly onto the handheld screen and creating animations frame by frame, students created an animated food web, labeling producers and consumers and indicating relationships between particular plants and animals. They then presented the animations on a large screen to the rest of the class. Beckham could then tell from the students’ work whether they understood the lesson. “The students were much more focused and interested in the activity. Mistakes were easily corrected, and additional pages were easily inserted,” Beckham says.

The only school district nationwide to participate in the three-year study, Beaufort County is expanding the project from seven to 20 classrooms by the 2003-2004 school year. Teachers have reported a greater attention to detail in collecting and recording data and an improvement in the quality of questions asked. Bill Penuel, project director for WHIRL and senior researcher at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI, helped co-design the project along with the teachers. “Teachers need to be able to see what technology can do for them, and find ways to integrate it that are meaningful and useful to the learning experience,” Penuel says.

The co-design process gave teachers the opportunity to have input on how the handhelds would be used. This was key to successfully introducing the technology. “The co-design process, where teachers and software designers work together to develop applications pertinent to the curricula, is very useful; the participation of the teachers is invaluable,” Penuel says. “It’s important for districts to invest in teachers and teacher learning; professional development has to be ongoing.”

Since the cost is less per unit for a handheld than a computer for each student, more educators are turning to this technology source for classroom use. “Their portability offers kids the ability to use technology exactly when and where it makes the most sense. It allows for more individualized work and immediate sharing,” says Phil Vahey, a research director at SRI. When each student has a handheld to work with and a keyboard at their desks, the work is immediate.

Learning in the Real World

Support is key to a successful integration campaign. In Eeva Reeder’s case, it was essential.

When Reeder wanted new ways to jazz up her geometry class and bring real-world relevance to her students at Mountlake Terrace High School in Mountlake Terrace, Wash., she thought of architecture, which is rife with geometrical problems. Even without a working knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) and just a general knowledge of architecture, Reeder decided to integrate an architectural project into her ninth- and 10th-grade classes. Reeder knew the kids would have learned the basics of computer use and CAD, since all students at her school are required to take technology exploration courses during their freshman year.

The six-week project Reeder developed involved designing a 2,000-student high school for the year 2050, fitting it on a predetermined fictional site. The virtual site, which included rivers, wetlands to preserve, and several hills, was developed and supported by the technical department and posted on a network accessible to students at all times. The architects Reeder originally consulted evaluated and graded the students’ work. According to Reeder, the students paid closer attention to the quality of their work and valued the feedback the architects provided. “Without a meaningful context, however, technology just becomes a replacement for pencils and books,” Reeder says. “There’s been a big push to get teachers to learn office applications and the Internet without helping them understand how that’s going to make them more effective as teachers,” Reeder says. “Teachers need more help understanding or imagining how to use technology to enhance learning, so they can help students learn what they can’t learn without technology.”

Developing Authentic Learning

At the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pa., students come equipped with computer knowledge. With 550 computers in labs and classrooms throughout the K-12 school, integrating technology into the regular curricula has transformed not only the science department, but the music and art departments as well. The upper- and middle-school science classes have laptops and a wireless network for easy access to networked data.

Technology has evened the playing field somewhat in the science department, according to Bill Daniels, director of technology at Episcopal Academy. Where students once had to meticulously gather data to analyze, the wireless laptops allow them to gather more accurate data, thereby improving subsequent data analysis. Students may also examine science data at home since they can e-mail information to themselves from school.

“There’s no question that it’s enhanced learning,” Daniels says. “The best uses of technology have been to enhance rather than transform what teachers are doing.” In English classes, something as simple as word processing has made a huge difference. “Kids are thinking more about content, because they have tools that help them spell and edit,” Daniels says.

The art and music departments at the Episcopal Academy offer students the chance to create art in Adobe PhotoShop and develop Web sites. The school newspaper also appears online. “Technology opens up a new world for students who may have not had the natural dexterity to draw or create music,” Daniels says.

Joe Buches, chair of the music department, runs the music technology lab, where all students (starting in the seventh grade) must take an Introduction to Music Technology class. “What I love most about this is that students who don’t consider themselves to be musicians, because they don’t play an instrument or sing, can make music through arranging and composing,” Buches says. The Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) lab also allows the gifted musicians to better enhance their musical talents. “Students’ musical abilities have tremendously grown with the addition of the MIDI lab,” he adds.

Knowing when to use technology to enhance what students are doing rather than just using technology for its own sake is key. “Kids still need to learn how to think, to break problems down into doable parts, to organize their thoughts and to creatively go from what they know to something new that they didn’t know before,” Daniels says. “Technology can help, but isn’t always appropriate.”

So what’s the best way to design educational programs that use technology to enhance learning? “Teachers need to have an example to follow, such as mentors for projects, so they can learn how to engage kids in rigorous thinking, not just activity-based thinking,” Reeder says. That calls for teacher training at the college level so they learn how to use technology in the classroom before they get there.

For Kids With Learning Disabilities, Technology Can Make All the Difference

Technology offers special-needs kids a chance to succeed and participate in regular classwork. Lisa Murphy teaches students with every type of disability. Technology helps to even the playing field for them, Murphy says. Although her classroom at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington, Va. only has a few computers, Murphy provides a technology-based learning environment for the students.

“For kids with learning disabilities, written language is a problem,” Murphy says. “They usually have thoughts and ideas, but can’t express them in written language. With computers, the kids can express themselves.” Using a computer helps kids organize their thoughts; they can use various editing features.

It sounds simple, but these tools can help kids enter the mainstream faster, according to Murphy. Officials now allow students with disabilities to use a computer for the writing segment of Virginia’s statewide standardized test. This gives them a better chance to succeed.

But there remains the stigma of being isolated to special-education courses: “Technology can help them catch up,” Murphy says. On her wish list: “A PDA for each kid to use—many organizational problems would be helped.’