Born-Again Technologies

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Existing devices and learning tools are finding fresh appeal as teachersdiscover their potential classroom uses.

WHAT MAKES A PARTICULAR technology suddenly popular for classroom use? Sometimes, a technology is “hot” for a period, but without a solid academic application, it drops off the map—only to then regain its appeal as educators find new ways to use it. For new products (iPods are a good example) a convergence of various factors pushes them into educational use: a savvy vendor (Apple), a simple distribution system (iTunes), a willing consumer base, and the right technology (pervasive broadband). Today, iPods and podcasting represent a sizzling new use of technology in education.

For some of those same reasons, several other technologies are generating excitement in the classroom—sometimes as emerging learning devices, but more often as existing tools that are attracting a second look.

The Price Is Right

The use of new technologies in learning is often cyclical, says John Fleischman, director of Technology Services for the Sacramento County (CA) Office of Education. A market factor like falling prices can help make an existing technology suddenly reasonable for classroom use.

Hardware & Software

WHITEBOARD REDUX: At Dore Academy,
new uses for whiteboards enthrall
and inspire learningchallenged students.

Fleischman, who works in both K-12 and adult education, cites high-density (HD) cameras as an example. “There’s a whole new generation of cameras being released for those who are dabbling in video technology,” he says. He mentions new, affordable HD cameras from Sony, Sanyo, and Panasonic as examples. These products—lightweight, more full-featured, less expensive, or a combination of the three—are encouraging schools to do more with video, from traditional productions to digital storytelling. “Video technology seems to be moving to that next level [in education],” Fleischman says.

An annual digital storytelling contest for California high school students, sponsored by KQED radio in San Francisco, offers a good example of how digital cameras can be used in education. Students must use the technology to document how and why their families migrated to California. The contest is part of the radio’s Digital Storytelling Initiative, which also offers curriculum development help and workshops for educators interested in digital storytelling.

A Fresh Look at Whiteboards

Limited applications can hinder the use of a promising new device. That may be the case, Fleischman says, with handheld computers like PDAs, which he doesn’t think translate too well to the classroom. Conversely, a technology that has been around for a while can become fresh again when a new function for it is found. The original technology need not change—instead, parallel technologies develop elsewhere that make the original item better adapted to the classroom.

For example, electronic whiteboards—which connect to a computer to allow interactive, large-screen information displays— aren’t a new concept in the classroom. However, a number of free applications are now available online that have broadened the interactive board’s usefulness, often at little or no cost beyond the original investment.

At Dore Academy, a school for students with learning and attention disorders in Charlotte, NC, science teacher Michael Commendatore, who is also head of Middle School, engages his sixth- and seventh-graders with Smart Boards from Smart Technologies, along with a wide rangeof free applications he finds on the Internet.

With about 100 K-12 students, Dore has seven boards, some fixed in classrooms and some on carts for sharing. Commendatore says he finds a wide variety of applications for the boards throughout the day, using them along with a laptop computer and a projector on a cart. One enormously popular application is the virtual dissection sessions from the Web site Froguts. Using Froguts’ sample dissection programs, students come to the front of the class and use their fingers on the whiteboard to help “dissect” a fetal pig, frog, or squid. Froguts charges a licensing fee beyond the free demos, but many other such programs are available at no charge (see “Online Programs for Whiteboards,” below).

Since Dore caters to students with above-average IQs who also have learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or dyslexia, the participatory aspect of the whiteboards is important. “We need to present every lesson in every way,” Commendatore says. With the boards, “the whole class is watching and participating at one time….The students see you there; their attention is on you. They can do things themselves with their hands.”

ONLINE PROGRAMS FOR WHITEBOARDS

MICHAEL COMMENDATORE, a science teacher and head of Middle School at Dore Academy in North Carolina, says plenty of free or low-cost programs that work with electronic whiteboards can be found online.

Some examples:

WWW.EDUSCAPES.COM/SESSIONS/SMARTBOARD: Resources from Smart Technologies focus on what to do in the classroom with an interactive whiteboard.

JC-SCHOOLS.NET/TUTORIALS/PPT-GAMES: Commendatore’s favorite site for review games. He raves, “There are downloadable PowerPoint templates for Jeopardy!, Hollywood Squares, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and more.” Teachers create their own questions; the game adds sound effects and theme songs. “The kids love playing these,” he says, “and some of my students make their own for the class to play, just for the fun of it.”

WWW.ARTSCONNECTED.ORG/TOOLKIT: Interactive art site where animations emphasize art elements based on an actual work of art. Students can create works of art through a simplified Photoshop-like feature.

NLVM.USU.EDU/EN/NAV/VLIBRARY.HTML: Offers a wealth of math content. Other math sites include www.aplusmath.com and www.shodor.org; for social studies, try www.nationalgeographic.com.

Although Commendatore didn’t touch on them, for science lessons a number of anti-dissection organizations will loan schools virtual dissection programs at no charge. The Ethical Science Education Coalition is one example.

Making a Game of It

Games have long promised to deliver value as learning aids, but often fall short. “Everyone is enamored with the potential,” says Fleischman, but the issue is finding educational games that come anywhere near the graphical quality and complexity of commercial games.

According to Richard Van Eck, who has been researching and advocating digital game-based learning since 1999, there’s a growing interest in classroom game use. Van Eck, an associate professor at the University of North Dakota, has written countless articles on why games can be effective in the classroom, and the educational theory underlying their use. Rather than hope that game manufacturers will eventually create titles that cater to the educational market, Van Eck advocates using what’s already available and integrating commercial games into the classroom.

As an example, he cites Microsoft’s Age of Empires as a history game that can be matched up with a curriculum. In particular, Van Eck says, games such as this can be effective when students critique what’s correct and incorrect about the information the games provide. Age of Empires has a Western perspective, but students can learn by comparing the game’s vantage to other views of history. Van Eck recommends The Education Arcade for more information on educational games.

Van Eck also advises teachers to avoid using an electronic game as a fun reward. “Use games because they can be effective as learning tools,” he says. “There’s no difference between using [a game], a film, a DVD, or a textbook. Teachers have the skills to use this tool; they just need to realize it.”

That comment could well prove true for many technologies as they evolve into useful classroom devices. The hardware, software, and delivery system may already exist—all that’s needed is a push from innovative teachers with the vision, time, and knowledge to turn technologies into learning tools.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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