Feb 10 2009

The New Classroom

Getting technology into classrooms is key, but helping teachers work it into the curricula is the real focus.

What makes a K–12 classroom progressive or futuristic? Is it the teaching style, the amount of technology tools students use or something else altogether?

Some technology directors at K–12 school districts say 21st-century classrooms share one common trait: They foster a collaborative environment that fully integrates technology into the curricula.

Although classrooms are now being equipped with everything from interactive whiteboards to digital video cameras, CTOs say the emphasis must be on teacher training — how teachers can best use technology to promote learning.

“Twenty-first century classrooms are not about technology,” says Larry DiPiano, director of technology at Littlestown Area (Pa.) School District. “They’re about how to use interactive tools; how to integrate technology into your curriculum.”

Changing Instruction

Littlestown recently received a $138,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Classrooms for the Future program. DiPiano hopes to equip eight classrooms in Littlestown High School with a ceiling-mounted Epson or Mitsubishi projector, an interactive PolyVision or Promethean whiteboard, 30 Lenovo notebooks, a digital video camera, speakers and a network printer.

The grant also includes funds for a full-time coach who helps teachers incorporate technology into their lessons, he says. The coach facilitates a mandatory, 30-hour, asynchronous online course (designed by the state DOE) to help teachers explore creative ways technology can be used to strengthen curricula and student performance.

“The main focus of the grant is to change the way instruction is delivered, making it more collaborative or project-based,” DiPiano says. “Without teacher training, putting technology in classrooms would be a waste of time.”

Technology is simply a tool that serves the educational delivery system, not the other way around, adds Rita Lyon, executive director of technology at Olathe (Kan.) Unified School District 233.

In 2006, her district formed a technology task force. Its conclusion was that classrooms must be digital, have wireless access for anywhere, anytime learning, have a stronger infrastructure and expose students to a variety of technologies, she says.

In October 2007, the city of Olathe approved a $138 million bond, which included $11 million for classroom technology. The same technology setup, which costs about $3,500, now appears in every classroom throughout its four high schools, eight middle schools and (by June) 32 elementary schools, Lyon adds.

Classrooms are equipped with a ceiling-mounted projector, an interactive writing tablet and other technology, including: a sound system, DVD/VCR, wireless keyboard and mouse, Internet- and network-connected computers, personal response devices and a white-surface viewing screen.

The high schools and middle schools received 120 notebooks on mobile carts. Each school building is now wireless (supporting a Trapeze network) and features at least one hard-wired computer lab with desktop computers.

Teachers have embraced the technology, says Lyon, creating more collaborative lessons or small-group projects. No more handing out textbooks and boring lectures.

“It’s not a matter of whether students can learn with technology,” says Lyon, adding that her department is exploring ways to overcome bandwidth issues so videoconferencing with students from other schools and countries can become part of the learning experience. “This generation is wireless. We have to adapt to their learning style.”

Changing Focus

Surprisingly, financing technology doesn’t seem to be a major roadblock. With help from federal or state grants and other resources, districts are finding money for needed equipment.

The universal challenge is convincing teachers that there is a benefit in transitioning from 19th-century teaching to student-centered learning, says Ron Reyer Jr., director of technology services at Bethel Park (Pa.) School District. The K–12 district also received a Classrooms for the Future grant from the Pennsylvania DOE.

Ten high school classrooms will be equipped with notebook computers, an LCD projector and interactive whiteboards, he says. Using other district funds, Reyer hopes to add personal response devices to the standard setup.

Last year, the district also introduced a web-based tool that let teachers post student grades and assignments online, and a real-time assessment tool for teachers.

“As technology changes, we’re really moving away from educational processes that are centered around a five-by-eight school week,” he says, adding that his technology department is involved in all curricula changes.

“A lot of things we’re doing [are] pushing that learning process into the homes and community at times other than during the day. Ultimately, schools will be equipped and prepared to embrace student-centered learning opportunities whenever or wherever they happen.”

Meanwhile, 16,000 students in five states are piloting Project CHILD (Changing How Instruction for Learning is Delivered), a K–5 interactive learning system developed by the Institute for School Innovation (www.ifsi.org) in Tallahassee, Fla., which engages in research and development to enhance teacher performance through technology and active learning.

Teachers form teams of three, in which one specializes in reading, another in writing and a third in mathematics, explains Sarah Butzin, the institute’s president and executive director.

Each classroom focuses on a core subject and features six learning stations: a computer station for technology-based work; a textbook station for paper/pencil work; three activity stations for hands-on work, including video games; and a teacher station for small-group tutorials and individual assistance.

After each lesson, students move from station to station at their own pace. Teachers end up working with the same students for three years in a highly collaborative environment.

“How teachers use technology is what turns their classroom into a 21st-century classroom,” says Butzin. “We want to see kids using technology, not just watching teachers use it. If integrated into a rigorous, highly engaging environment, technology can create very powerful learning opportunities.”