Six years ago, with calls to put new technology into the hands of students growing louder every year, Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., invested in tablet computers with swivel touch screens and began training teachers to use them in the classroom. Participants attended two-day professional development sessions, learning how to use the devices in conjunction with classroom AV equipment and the schoolwide wireless network. They also met monthly during the year to discuss their experiences.
That program has since evolved into the Hunterdon County Educational Technology Training Center (ETTC), which offers training opportunities to area teachers who want to learn everything from how to use specific 21st century devices to which Web 2.0 tools they should be integrating into their lesson plans. (Hunterdon County's ETTC is an outgrowth of the statewide program, which makes a technology resource center available to educators in all New Jersey counties.) Teachers are paid or receive continuing education credits to participate in the program, which runs all summer and in the evenings during the school year.
Interest in ETTC is high, says Donald Ginty, director of information systems for Hunterdon Central, which operates as both a high school serving students in Hunterdon County and as a district that provides technology training to other county schools. "The teachers started asking for more training," he explains. "So we created these mini-courses, each covering one topic, and we had teachers teaching teachers, and that developed into ETTC."
The program is about far more than learning the technology and how to incorporate it into instruction, Ginty continues. "We're shifting from traditional lecture-based models to student-centered, project-based learning," he says. That progression could take three to five years to achieve, he estimates.
"We're in the second year of this," adds Carol Kelley, the school's director of curriculum and instruction. "We organized the staff members into small learning groups, and they are attempting to reshape the way they approach their content by weaving in the technology."
The revised approach has forced some tweaking to the school's overall schedule, however. "We decided that department time would concentrate on redesigning our units and lessons, not just repackaging them," Ginty says.
New and Improved
Educators around the country are revamping the way students learn through their innovative integration of technology into the classroom. The Pennsylvania Department of Education, for example, oversees the Classrooms for the Future initiative, which aims to transform teaching and learning in high schools across the state by funding technology purchases for use in core-curriculum classes and professional development.
The Valley View School District in Archbald, Pa., has won many awards for its Classrooms for the Future program, which brings computers, MP3 players and other technologies to its 2,662 students every day. The district even was featured in a state DOE-produced video highlighting best practices employed by school officials throughout Pennsylvania.
"Education is moving in a different direction," says Joseph Daley, the former superintendent for the four-school district in Lackawanna County, who retired in June. "It's no longer teacher-centered, it's learning-centered." As a result, Valley View's teachers are collaborating across disciplines to present information in a more comprehensive way. District officials also have partnered with a local college to offer Japanese classes via distance learning.
The district's technology infrastructure includes a range of devices that were purchased with a $1.5 million grant from the state's Classrooms for the Future initiative. K-2 students use netbooks, which have smaller keys that are better suited to smaller fingers, while older students use notebooks and MP3 players. District classrooms also have interactive whiteboards and Wi-Fi connections that allow everyone's devices to talk to each other.
More than 2,000 miles away, the 282-school Clark County School District in Las Vegas is using touch-screen tablets and MP3 players to give students studying English as a second language (ESL) the best possible learning experience. "We issue these devices to students so they have them 24x7," explains Chief Technology Officer Jhone Ebert.
The students use the devices' microphones to record themselves speaking English and then play the recordings to enhance their speaking, listening and comprehension skills.
"It's like the language labs that used tape recorders, only a tape recorder wouldn't resonate with students today," Ebert says. Because the devices are small, ESL students can take them home to practice. And because students "see the devices being used on the street," they're more likely to actually use them.
Ebert agrees that professional development is critical when introducing these tools into the curriculum. "You're going to have people who won't buy into this until they can see it, and you have to show them how it works," she says. "Teachers are thinking, 'I don't want to travel down that road unless I see data that it's going to help my students.'"
According to Ebert, Clark County teachers became convinced of these tools' efficacy when her office showed them data revealing student performance improvements in other districts' tech-heavy classrooms. Now, they have their own data proving that technology-rich lessons can enhance students' overall learning experience.
"In A-TECH, our Advanced Technologies Academy, we're using MP3 players in place of books in some cases," Ebert explains. Parents like that the application that enables this activity is free and that they don't have to pay for books, she says, and the students enjoy that they can read on their screens whenever and wherever they want.
Valley View School District's hardware has been especially effective among students with Individualized Education Programs, as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Now, "you see students working independently," Daley says. "They didn't have a lot of independent work before because it was so much more difficult for them to facilitate."
Kelley says Hunterdon Central students are more excited about learning than they were before. The technology also gives them a leg up on their careers. "It's important that we use classroom content as the context for teaching the technology and also 21st century skills, which students will really need after they leave us."
Photo: Blue Jean Images/Getty Images
Using notebook computers, netbooks and tablets in the classroom is a growing trend that more districts are embracing. Industry observers welcome the innovation but say it has to come with a shift in thinking as well.
"The cost of computing has come down a lot, and it's affordable now to give devices to kids," says Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a research and educational institute based in Washington, D.C. "You also have devices that are easier to use than they were five or 10 years ago." But effectively implementing such devices has its challenges.
"I find it ironic in some ways that teachers are being encouraged to use these technologies that, frankly, their students know how to use much more than they do," Atkinson says. Simply inserting a computer into the classroom and continuing to teach the same way they always have – with lectures – isn't going to cut it.
"This is about empowering students," Atkinson says. "What I worry about is that rather than using the technology to reengineer the education process, we're using it as a supplement to the current educational process."