Q&A: Smartening up the Classroom
School technology specialist gives the lowdown on his district's investment in Smart Boards
The Clarke County School District's mission to install whiteboards in its classrooms dates back about seven years, but it wasn't until 2006 that more than 1,000 Smart Boards were installed in its 13 elementary, four middle and three high schools. "We had vendors come in, and we experimented with a few different options by installing four or five boards in one school to see how they worked," said Steve Piazza, technology integration support specialist for the Athens, GA-based school district, "but it was nothing like this."
The move away from chalkboards and overhead projectors as presentation tools of choice kicked into gear when a group of tech-savvy teachers put their heads together at a summit and came up with a way to prioritize a district budget that was earmarked for technology. With two new schools under construction, and a third being renovated, the timing was perfect. "We went ahead and equipped every one of those classrooms with the Smart boards, mounted projectors and the necessary wiring," said Piazza.
The district has since installed the Smart Technologies' boards in more than 500 classrooms. THE Journal spoke with Piazza about the implementation process, the challenges of training teachers on how to use the new technology, and the value that it delivers in the classroom.
THE Journal: What type of equipment is being used in the classroom?
Steve Piazza: The system is made up of state of the art multimedia projectors (known as Smart Boards); and interactive, digital touch screens that display video, digital slide shows, audio, and/or Web sites; and the software that runs the system (the latter of which is optional, and used at the teacher's discretion). Through the system, anything teachers are doing on their laptops can be displayed on those screens, and then "touched" to create and manipulate lessons, objects, and other elements. If, for example, a teacher wants an elementary student to learn how to add three-plus-three, he or she can display three apples on the screen and then with a simple touch pull those apples down on the screen as the students count them.
THEJ: How much did the system cost, and how was it funded?
Piazza: It costs about $3,500 to completely outfit a single classroom, and the total cost was in the millions of dollars. We operate with a special local option sales tax, with a certain amount earmarked for school construction costs, which includes this type of technology investment.
THEJ: How did the district handle teacher training on the new technology?
Piazza: When we first acquired the Smart Boards we did some initial training at the start of the school year, and then we conducted ongoing training once a week, or as needed. In my department, for example, there are seven people who are in charge of specific schools. We also formalized a class on the topic and devised a 15-hour "smart camp" that was held over the summer and designed to educate teachers on how to use the setup as an interactive learning tool, rather than just a presentation system. We trained 300 teachers (20 at a time at various locations district-wide) over the summer in a very "hands-on" fashion. Right now and through December we're holding several courses for anyone who may have missed that summer training.
THEJ: What challenges came up during implementation or training?
Piazza: Scheduling is an ongoing issue. Teachers are in class all day, and you can't pull them out. Instead, we had to find ways to squeeze the training in during planning or after school. We spend a lot of time moving things around and being creative and working with the administration to make that happen. The need and the desire are there, so we just have to get creative.
THEJ: What impact have the Smart Boards had in the classroom?
Piazza: It has sharpened our teachers' focus on using technology in the classroom. All of them have had laptops for five or six years now, and have been using them for basic functions, such as keeping attendance. Now they're using them as instructional tools, in conjunction with their projectors, the Internet and other tools. We're still looking at how the technology investment is affecting test scores, but we don't have any solid information on that right now.
THEJ: What's next on Clarke County School District's technology agenda?
Piazza: Right now we're training teachers on the use of handheld systems that operate like remote controls and that allow students to punch their test or quiz answers right into a system that allows for exportation to an Excel spreadsheet. This will permit teachers to keep track of how students are doing in a seamless fashion and without having to deal with a stack of papers. Past that, we are always looking for ways to improve our infrastructure, including an upcoming purchase of new laptops, which, in turn, will have implications in the use of our Smart Board technology.
THEJ: What would you say to a school district that's currently considering an investment in high-tech whiteboards?
Piazza: Just do it. Anything that increases student accessibility to technology is a must, and this is certainly one way to make that happen. It's a step in the right direction.
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About the author: Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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