Jul 23 2009

The Right Tools Simplify the Job

Technology equipment and systems are a necessary partnership for 21st-century classrooms.

Note: This article is one in a series featuring Eagle County Schools in Colorado and their efforts to realize their vision of a 21st-century learning experience.

Critical thinking, collaboration and engagement are important cornerstones for building 21st-century classrooms. Though these concepts are not new, the tools and systems we use to promote critical thinking, encourage collaboration and engage our students as active participants in learning are very different. This makes educational technology a critical component in the success of a 21st-century classroom.

Without the marriage of hardware and software in the classroom, the use of technology usually involves a rare visit to the school computer lab. Software must constantly evolve, and tech tools must be embedded in the daily curriculum so that they are integrated continuously – becoming, in effect, a 21st-century pencil. And through the process of becoming technically proficient, kids can learn to collaborate using a variety of tools to develop the critical-thinking skills that the business sector values so highly.

So, what is the essential combination of hardware and software? First, you need a computer in every classroom, preferably a notebook computer for every teacher, which is what we have in Eagle County. Next, teachers need to be able to connect their computers to display devices to deliver imagery and sound in the classroom every day – not just the few times they're able to reserve the LCD projector.

In Eagle County, this particular piece of hardware sparked quite a debate. What do we install: LCD projectors or flat-panel LCDs? Through an exhaustive process that included focus groups and intensive testing of the equipment in classrooms, we ultimately settled on flat-panel LCDs.

The determining factor was total cost of ownership and sustainability. Projectors in a school district carry enormous maintenance costs. Over the life of a projector, you might spend as much for replacement bulbs and filter cleaning as you would on the projector itself – in our case, $120,000 for replacement bulbs (at $300 apiece for 400 projectors) every two to three years.

For the same purchase price and installation cost, we were able to give every classroom a flat-panel display that required virtually no maintenance and carried a life expectancy of 10 years. As a bonus, the flat-panel LCDs came with high-definition capability, built-in speakers, and a tuner for a live TV feed. 

A 42-inch to 47-inch LCD is more than sufficient for most classroom applications. In classrooms in which size is an issue for instruction (computer labs, for example), we installed interactive whiteboards. This has since become the standard for all Eagle County classrooms.

While the computer and LCDs are indispensable tools, there are a few other useful devices that promote interaction. Document cameras and student response systems, for example, have many instructional uses and can help with formative evaluations. Among our teachers, document cameras are the most popular tech tool.

With the hardware in place and proper training in the use of these tools, we began to explore innovative software and online educational products. We found the types of services listed below to be essential to the actual use and integration of technology in a 21st-century classroom.

Video Distribution

To help teachers enrich their classrooms with multimedia, we added Discovery Education to our district. By choosing Discovery Streaming, and choosing to host the content from Discovery locally, we minimized the impact on our network. Most Discovery content is now streamed across our WAN without the need for external bandwidth to retrieve it. In addition, we use Media Share from Discovery to host and distribute district-developed content, including professional development resources, all delivered to the classroom's HD LCD panels.

Web Presence

We have also promoted the creation of teacher websites as a critically important communication tool for a 21st-century classroom. Critical to the success of this rollout was finding an easy-to-use tool for our teachers. We chose eBoard as the entry-level tool, but also realized that some teachers would want more features and design options for their sites. These teachers qualify for access to a second tier of more expensive web services based on statistics generated by eBoard: If their sites have sufficient traffic, we invest in them and provide a more robust portal. Moving forward, we are considering new services to give even greater functionality to teacher websites while maintaining ease of use.

Web 2.0 Tools

Twenty-first-century learning environments require tools that provide both global communication access and collaboration opportunities. To answer this challenge, Eagle County implemented a private-label wiki space and encouraged the creation of wikis as a collaborative tool for instruction and administration. Meeting agendas, committee work and instructional workspaces are just a few examples of how this tool is being used. Blogs are also in use, and Twitter will make an appearance in the district soon to enhance parent communications with the school. This could eventually be expanded to students once the staff becomes more comfortable with this tool. 
Beyond hardware and software, there must be comprehensive professional development to helps teachers utilize technology in their classrooms. It's not enough to simply bring the tools, there has to be a paradigm shift that incorporates the idea of technology as a tool for engagement – in every aspect of planning for a lesson. Without a robust set of both hardware and software, it would be very difficult to transform any classrooms into the all-important 21st-century learning environments that children need today.