Improving Instruction with Interactive Whiteboards (on the Cheap)

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The Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District in South Yarmouth, MA faces obstacles not uncommon to many school districts: poor state testing scores, declining enrollment, and a diminishing budget for classroom resources. But that hasn't stopped Lory Stewart, director of instructional technology, from doing everything she can to squeeze out the money necessary for bringing interactive whiteboards into as many classrooms as possible.

Although it's too early to tell yet, she said she believes the district will see a marked improvement in its middle school math scores as a result.

Stewart describes the Cape Cod district's student population as diverse and highly transient. About a fourth of the population changes every quarter. "We have very opposite ends of the spectrum financially.... Real estate values are very high, but we have students who are very poor--who live in campgrounds in the summer and hotels in the winter."

Much of the challenge in meeting its annual AYP--adequate yearly progress--is owing to poor test scores among the district's special education population. "We're not bringing them along as far as we should," said Stewart.

A Math Epiphany
The district's adoption of a new approach to teaching math started when Stewart attended the annual Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference three years ago. She sat through a session about interactive whiteboards, which showed the use of RM Math Framework, math software from RM Education, a U.K. company.

"I was wowed," she recalled. "I asked a few questions. I got up. I walked out of the room. I stood outside the door for 10 seconds. And I turned on my heel and went back in and sat down for another session. It completely captivated me."

An understanding of its power occurred for her, Stewart said, when a 45-degree acute angle was shown up on the screen as part of the demo. "It's flashing to me in red. Then all of a sudden, up comes the rest of the circle in blue, flashing the arc around the balance of the circle. The light went on for this 57-year-old woman. An angle is only that portion of a circle. It's all working on the circle being 360 degrees."

She returned to work and told the director of instruction, "This [is] the best thing I've ever seen in my life." They requested a Web demo by the company, which happens to have a United States office 20 minutes from Stewart's district offices.

Then a group from the district visited middle school math classes in another district that had adopted the software that same year. "We came home that day," said Stewart, "and said, 'OK, that's the route we're going too.'"

The Magic of Software and Whiteboards
Stewart outfitted half of the district's sixth, seventh and eighth grade math classes with Smart Board 680 77-inch whiteboards, LCD projectors, and computers. Teachers received four days of training, two days of intensive instruction in September, then two follow-up days during the year. This September, those same teachers received another day of training as a refresher.

The math software doesn't require a whiteboard to operate, just a computer. But once the interactive whiteboard is added to the equation, that's when the magic happens, said Stewart. "A week after we did the first training for the group last year, I had a seventh grade math teacher come up and say to me, 'I have 100% engagement in my math lessons right now.' And he still does. It is huge."

The software includes modules based on testing standards for specific states. "If you want math standard 7.1.2, you put that in, and up come the activities," said Stewart. "Then you can do a drop-down menu, and there are all kinds of selections that go with it. You can modify lessons, create lessons, take students into the computer lab and assign individual lessons." A lot of the lessons are interactive, and the whiteboards allow students to get up in front of the class to perform exercises.

At the beginning of the day, the math teachers with home rooms put up games. "The kids have no idea they're doing math," said Stewart. "They just think they're playing games."

Paired with the intelligent whiteboards--which Stewart calls the "best teaching tool I have ever seen in my career"--they bring classrooms "alive."

"It's phenomenal," she said. "You can hyperlink to the Internet, open up files on your computer, bring them up, close them down, save lessons, put math problems up, and with a window shade show the problem as it's getting solved. You can project document cameras onto them. When you watch a DVD on them, you think you're watching it in high definition."

The software is so rich, said Stewart, teachers are just beginning to scratch the surface. But adoption of new technologies has its hiccups. She recalls one teacher who came crying to her during the initial training because her chalkboard was covered up by the whiteboard. Stewart had the whiteboard moved. Six weeks later, the same teacher came back for follow-up training. "She puts her hand on my arm and says, 'I am so sorry. I haven't used my chalkboard in weeks. I just didn't understand the power or ease of use, and I don't care if I never see another piece of chalk.'"

Now, said Stewart, "I walk into schools and they're biting at my ankles wanting to know, 'When can I have a board too?'"

Finding the Money
Since that initial deployment, the district has put intelligent whiteboards into all math and science classrooms in the high schools as well as two art rooms and all foreign language rooms. At the middle school, all math classes, two social studies classes, and two English classrooms, as well as a music room, now have them.

"It's the person who bugs me the most who is going to get the board," Stewart admitted. At the time of this interview, Stewart said she had a stack of nine additional boards waiting to be hung.

Stewart has kept deployment costs down to $3,200 per classroom by making some tactical decisions. She buys a tower computer with no monitor, an LCD projector, a whiteboard, and a mounting bracket. She uses wire covers that run across the floor to prevent having to rewire the classrooms. Nor does she spend money on installing projectors or speaker systems in the ceiling--"even though I'd like to." That saves $1,800 by her estimate.

To fund the purchase and installment of equipment, Stewart has sought access to outdated budgetary line items. "You've got to rethink the way you're spending your money," she said. That includes tapping funds put aside for maintenance and repair on equipment that's no longer in use. For example, she recently outfitted the library in her building with a whiteboard by using money allocated for television supplies and overhead projector repair. "You tell me what a TV supply is. I have no idea."

She's advised principals to really examine their priorities. "We shouldn't be investing enormous amounts of money in history textbooks anymore, when we can get all the history we want online."

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser covers high tech, business and higher education for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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