Tech + Imagination = Results

Inspired technology initiatives driven by one university project are changing the way teachers instruct and assess, but most importantly, the way today’s students learn.


Just when we think we’ve reached the bounds of creativity in developing technology applications for teaching, the advent of new software and hardware extends the horizon for new and innovative strategies to improve teaching and student learning. Sure enough, those innovations are driven by the educators themselves.

At the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), a project funded by a Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) grant has been expanding the focus for technology application in education, and has resulted in effective and efficient ways to use technology for formative and summative assessments in P-16 classrooms. Importantly, many of the project’s initiatives have used PDAs, newly developed Web-based assessment systems, and commercial technologies. But this latest approach hasn’t come about overnight: Faculty from UNCW’s Watson School of Education and its College of Arts and Sciences, as well as K-12 classroom teachers/administrators and teacher-education candidates from across a three-county school district region (Brunswick,Duplin,and New Hanover counties) have worked together over the three years of this grant to integrate technologies for assessment in university and public school classrooms. Partnering with professional organizations, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and corporate businessentities have further enabled creative ideas to be translated into reality.

Utilizing Handhelds for Real-Time Assessment

One portion of the PT3 grant was specifically written to use handheld computers to assist in the performance assessments required by North Carolina. The two counties, Brunswick and Duplin, that worked in the Professional Development System in the Watson School of Education were selected to partner in this part of the endeavor, enabled by the grant. A student teacher, university supervisor, and cooperating teacher were trained in manipulating the hard copy assessment instrument from the state, the template developed for handheld computers, and using the handheld itself.The teachers were then able to conduct and record real-time assessment of student performance on math standards, both storing and merging information from the PDA to the desktop.

The good news: This new method of assessment was successful at the K-2 sites identified in both counties, and the technologies and their use in the assessment process a) resulted in significant reduction of time in recording and transferring data,b) allowed the recording and acquisition of student performance data to occur in the context of instruction, and c) informed teachers’ instructional decisions, ultimately improving teaching and learning in the classroom. Not surprisingly, the assessment application is now being considered as a model to replicate across the state. iPAQs and eBooks Make the Difference for AG and Special-Needs Students Another interesting and exciting research effort sprang from an additional component of the initiative. A second-yearteacher, who was a recent graduate from the Watson School of Education, teamed with a full-time UNCW faculty member to use iPAQs from Hewlett-Packard ( and eBooks from Powell’s Books ( in the classroom to study the effects of their use on students’ motivation and reading performance. For the study, the second-year teacher selected two of her classes: a special-needs class,and a class for academically gifted (AG) students. The instructor who had previously taught these students had used the iPAQs with the AG students the year before, but had not given the special needs students access to the technology. For a new teacher who was also new to AG and special-needs classes, the decision to use the iPAQs in both classes was a bold one, and as it turned out, one that caused concern, especially as the school year began. As the teacher-intern described itlater, the special-needs students were a handful,with misbehavior apparently the norm. Though she wondered if she were making a terrible mistake, she decided to involve special-education studentsanyway, and forged ahead with her plan.

As it turned out, the results were more than encouraging. Using the Accelerated Reading assessment programs from Renaissance Learning (, with pre- and post-testing for comprehension and motivation, the results were extremely positive: Both the special-needs and the AG students demonstrated increases in reading motivation, higher opinions of themselves as readers, and an increase in reading ability on all of Renaissance Learning’s STAR Reading tests.

Equally as exciting—and in a marked departure from previous years—all of the students (with the exception of one special-needs student) passed the end-of grade test. While the teacher was hoping for results like these, what she didn’t anticipate were the other changes that occurred in the special-needs class: Specifically, the behavior problems in the class practically disappeared. The special-needs students proved to be very responsible, became quite skilled in their use of the iPAQ and eBooks, and showed a dramatic growth inself-esteem. Their teacher now testifies that the use of the iPAQ and eBook technologies allowed her to individualize her instruction by accessing current event stories aligned with student interests, and turn those stories into eBooks in order to teach North Carolina’s required StandardCourse of Study curriculum.

Technology Changes the Face of Middle Grades Methods Courses

In another instance, methods instructors, methods students, and a UNCW graduate who was working as a first-year teacher at a local alternative secondary school joined together to develop an online, interactive, cross-disciplinary unit on CD-ROM.As a way to support the struggling first-year teacher—and understanding that students tend to gravitate toward real-life applications of both study and technology—the collaborative team designed the unit about careers and getting a job. The unit began by having students take an inventory that identified their likes and skills, then sent students to a career menu where they could choose an occupation. Students were taken through scenarios where they rented an apartment,bought a car, and went clothes shopping for professionalwardrobes. To address the Standard Course of Study for social studies and science, each student now had money from his “job” to take a “vacation” to countries taught in the seventh-grade social studies curriculum in order tostudy science-related content. Each segment contained an assessment component tied to the Standard Course of Study. This project has since been adopted as an ongoing expectation for all students in this Watson School of Education middlegrades methods course.

Using and Creating Online Assessment Tools The following is another example of how technology teaming with assessment has radically changed the teaching in middle grades methods courses everywhere. Professors in southeastern North Carolina are using online assessment tools to evaluate their students’ performances and to teach prospective teachers how to use the assessment tools with their own middle grades students. These tools include a student response system, a Web-basedassessment program developed by the university’s Computer Science Department; Examview, a commercial product from FSCreations Inc. (, for construction of tests; and TaskStream (, a partner in the grant, for creating young adult novel units and generating electronic portfolios aligned with Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) standards. They also include online teaching resources such as those from The New York Times;, so teacher candidates can generate tests in their own classes; and, which allows them to develop online surveys for assessment. One online assessment resource that’s been particularly effective has allowed teachers and teacher-education students to move with the times and accommodate the new learning styles of the current generation. A technology instructor from UNCW’s Specialty Studies Department is using a game Web site ( where the university students create assessments in a game format (such as Space Invaders, Tic-Tac-T'e, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Battleship, etc. ). For instance, pre-service teachers taking an online educational foundation class created assessment games for the Jeffersonian chapters in their text, and then sent these to each other to play and assess their knowledge. The professors reported that their students constructed questions thatcould be used in the games, posted these for others to tackle, and have testified that using this assessment strategy is not onlyfun,but has resulted in improved learning.

Web-Based Tool Sets, ePortfolios, and Wireless Response Systems
Developing an evidence-based approach for teacher education has been a major element in ensuring that standards-based formative and summative assessments are informing decisions made by individual faculty and students, by program areas, and by the school of education as a whole. Faculty members were introduced to the Web-based tool set TaskStream as a mechanism for posting and providing feedback on lesson plans; assessment tools; student work samples; and ultimately, portfolio evidences that correspond with expectations for student performance. Across all of the programs—including elementary, middle, secondary, and special education—pilots for ePortfolios have been initiated, and a full implementation is in process. Other technologies are coming into play, as well. In exploring real-time data collection, the use of wireless response systems for immediate data to make informed decisions has resulted in the identificationof two systems that are currently being utilized at the Watson School of Education: the Classroom Performance System from eInstruction ( and OptionPower from Option Technologies Interactive ( These handheld response systems have allowed the workshop leader, the administrator, or the professor to gain immediate feedback from participants. They also have enabled the participants to almost instantly ascertain the responses of their peers.At the fall 2003 faculty meeting of the Watson School of Education, for instance,over a hundred participants were asked and responded to questions; those responses were tallied in real time, and displayed for all to see and share.

Motivated by Possibilities

UNCW’s teaching, learning, and assessment technology initiative has further modified a culture where people are now using, requesting, and partnering to incorporate technologies to problem-solve and influence decision-making. During the project’s third year, for example, the goal was to have 60 interns placed in implementation sites; 104 were actually placed. Elementary education methods students were to be trained on assessment practices and the use of handhelds: Instead of 165 students as intended, 224 were trained. In the middle school program, the target was set at 20 students who would be trained and would then apply the strategies in their clinical sites; as it turned out, that number was actually 50 students. At the secondary level, 35 students were slated to be trained, but the actual number doubled to 70. In the end, 56 interns were placed in classrooms for the application of technologies for assessment of 10th- and 12th-grade student performance—much above the originally anticipated number of 20 students. Clearly, the teacher-education faculty and students at UNCW have become so motivated by the possibilities of advancing teaching, learning, and assessment through technology that the impact of the project enabled by the PT3 grant has been exponential. It has changed the way we do business, ensured systemic change, and created dynamic solutions for problem-solving. We see now that we are limited only by technological impossibilities and the boundaries of our own creativity.

Cathy L.Barlowis dean of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Watson School of Education. She has written state, federal, and private grants totaling over $6 million. Karen S.Wetherill is associate dean of the Watson School of Education. She has been actively involved in writing and directing state, federal, and private grantstotaling over $3.5 million.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.