Technology in the Classroom

There’s no doubt about it: Autumn is in the air. The leaves have changed, the air has cooled and before long would-be trick-or-treaters will be debating Halloween costumes.

That also means school is in full swing. As kids settled back into the daily grind, I began to think about the ways in which technology has had an impact on the classroom experience in recent years. After all, when I was in school — which, I might add, wasn’t all that long ago — a research paper meant multiple trips to the library, rifling through the stacks without the luxury of Google or Wikipedia. The idea of multimedia in the classroom entailed oral presentations and maybe a language video. Backpacks were heavy with textbooks, notebooks and pencils.

Today, it seems teaching and learning have changed. With the widespread popularity of the Internet, more and more schools are increasing their online presence while incorporating a digital component into their classes.

According to a Web article by public television station Thirteen/WNET New York, the Net can “greatly increase the communication and collaboration among students and teacher,” as well as provide additional resources and different media through which students can present their ideas.

The article also points out that the Internet has the potential to eradicate any geographical issues, as students can access crucial — and free — information from the comfort of their homes, schools or local libraries, while spending less time in transit and doing research. They also can ask questions outside of school, thanks to e-mail.

However, the Internet isn’t the only new technology that has the potential to enhance education. Innovative hardware such as Smart Boards is revolutionizing the classroom experience. The mobile, interactive, multimedia plasma screen has a touch-sensitive display that connects to a computer, allowing teachers to “control computer applications directly from the display, write notes in digital ink and save [their] work to share later,” according to the maker’s Web site. In August, Smart Technologies produced its 1 millionth Smart Board.

The Web site goes on to state that students and teachers at Glen Crest Middle School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., have gone wild for the devices. The boards inspired pupils “to become active participants in the learning process,” while teachers “now feel they are able to reach all types of learning styles.”

To further explain the benefits, a recent press release for the Smart Board 690 quoted Glen Crest seventh-grade math teacher Brian Stiles as saying: “I can have one equation on the interactive whiteboard showing how to solve a problem with whole numbers, and right next to it, I can have the exact same equation showing the solution with fractions. The students can see that you solve the problem in the exact same way, and they understand much more quickly.”

Yet, with any potential benefit comes a potential hazard. Sure, the Internet is great, but what about the issue of online security? How can teachers know students are doing their own work? How can they make sure students are using reliable sources?

Then there’s the cost factor. Many of the innovative technologies are new and therefore expensive. Does that mean only wealthy districts will be able to afford them? Does technology have the potential to further divide our nation when it comes to quality of education?

To educate teachers on the pluses and minuses of technology in the classroom, organizations such as Internet4Classrooms and 4Teachers.org have sprouted up. Internet4Classrooms — created in late 2000 by two education professionals — provides links, assistance and resources for teachers in the K‑12 arena, while 4Teachers.org offers links to proper-use policies and procedures, as well as Web-based tools for teachers and students.

Also, as technology in the classroom becomes more prevalent, many hardware and software companies are banding together to try to make computers and other equipment more affordable for the average school.

For example, HP worked with educators to design a mini-laptop PC that costs less than $500 and weighs just over 2.5 pounds. It is “smaller and lighter than any math or science books,” according to a press release.

HP also developed a quad-core processor-based workstation that starts at about $600 and enables many high-performance applications required by advanced subjects, “such as digital forensics, mechanical computer-aided design and video production,” the press release stated.

Meanwhile, Smart Technologies published a white paper in 2006 that was intended to help school officials carefully evaluate the total cost of ownership of a Smart Board, including anticipated future costs.

Ultimately, though, despite these new advancements, I think it’s safe to assume the fundamental principles of education won’t change all that much. After all, convening in a classroom is a critical part of learning and socialization, and as a result, backpacks will remain heavy for years to come — they just might be filled with laptops and mouse pads instead of textbooks and pencils.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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