Thinking Small


Applications can be 'smart' and cost-effective. Two schools enjoy bigpayoffs from modest investments.

EVEN IF YOU’RE a high school educator on a tight budget, the Next Big Thing in K-12 technology may well be within your reach: low-cost applications that deliver hefty results. While fully networked, “smart” classrooms may still be their goal, schools can accomplish a great deal by investing in affordable yet sophisticated applications that are flexible, interactive, and easy for both teachers and students to use.


FACE TIME: Some teachers prefer "clickers"
over laptops because laptop screens put up a
wall between them and their students.

“In the next five years, every classroom at the junior high to high school level will use some form of digital media,” says Tim Philpot, sales engineer for LMG, a Floridabased national provider of advanced show technology. “This technology is now filtering down to K-12. You’ll see it more and more in schools.” Recently, LMG installed such devices as LCD touchscreens, overhead projectors, document cameras, and videoconferencing systems in two Florida schools, Daytona Beach’s Mainland High School and New Smyrna Beach High School. But even this advanced technology is modular, Philpot says, and scalable to smaller budgets. Depending on the components installed, the cost per classroom ranges from $3,000 to $16,000.

Click This

For educator Rebecca Keane, a simple application produced nothing less than what she calls a “paradigm shift.” Four years ago, Keane, now an instructional facilitator at Wichita High School East in Wichita, KS, and formerly a math teacher at the school for 16 years, was looking for an advanced program that would help in teaching math. After experimenting with an application that she didn’t find flexible enough, she picked the TurningPoint student response system from Turning Technologies. “It really did impact me as a person,” she says. “The technology was a bridge for me as a teacher to interact with the students. It changed the way we interacted and the way we viewed learning. My class became more about, ‘How do we take a different avenue to learn the same concept?’”

TurningPoint turns a standard Microsoft PowerPoint presentation into an interactive experience. Teachers can display questions, surveys, graphics, and other materials that allow every student in the class to select a response by using individual wireless keypads known as clickers. The responses are transmitted instantly to the presentation, and instructors can see who responded and gauge which students actually understood the information. This integration with PowerPoint is one of the reasons TurningPoint has worked so well at Wichita, Keane says.

“We needed a tool that was flexible for both teacher and student use,” she says. “It was easy to go from a lecture with PowerPoint to TurningPoint. We became aware instantly if students understood the material or not.” In addition, she says, “TurningPoint has a wonderful reporting program. We can get real-time, standards-based information about every student in the classroom.” Although it is difficult to quantify how the technology has improved student learning, Keane says, students who use it perform better than those who do not. “Statistically, there are a lot of variables intruding,” she says. “Is it that the kids are interacting better, or is it just the technology?”

Keane points to the response system’s low cost as another bonus. To derive most of the results from the program, classrooms need to invest in little more than a projector, the software, and the clickers. “When you look at the cost of a mobile laptop lab, a small amount of money is more supportive than a mobile lab,” she says. “In interacting with the teacher, clickers are more powerful. With a laptop, you don’t know whether students are participating.”

In interacting with the teacher, clickers are more powerful.With a laptop, you don’t know whether students are participating.
— Rebecca Keane, Wichita High School East

Thanks to its flexibility, the software has posted record sales growth in the K-12 market in the past year, says Tony DeAscentis, vice president of marketing at Turning Technologies.“Some teachers will use TurningPoint to conductassessment, whereas others will use it just to ask a question,to keep the class on their toes and involved, or to lookat student reporting and performance,” he says. It also suitseven the most restricted budgets, he adds: For example, apackage that includes a software license, training, and 32seats (keypads) costs $895; instructors can buy more seatsas needed. Up to five teachers can share the software,which is available for download at no charge.

Whiteboard Movies

Small but smart applications can help ease the growing concern among educators that conventional media no longer have the power to capture students’ attention. “Part of it is that students learn in different ways,” says Patty O’Flynn, who teaches algebra and calculus at Woodland High School in Woodland, WA. An advocate of interactive technology, O’Flynn believes that many students are visual learners and that “being able to picture something is a lot different from [dealing with] an abstract idea.” During the 2005-2006 school year, her classroom participated in an interactive research project, the Sustainable Classroom Grant, sponsored by Educational Service District 112, a regional school district service agency in Vancouver, WA. The project aims to develop a learning environment that uses technology for research-based instruction.

Through the grant, O’Flynn’s class received, among other devices, a StarBoard electronic whiteboard, a StarBoard Bluetooth Freedom Tablet—a portable presentation device— and a projector, all from Hitachi. The Star- Board system combines handwriting recognition and multimedia technologies. It allows mouse operation and on-screen pen writing, and projects computer data onto the digital whiteboard.

The technology has opened up a universe of dynamic learning experiences for both students and teachers at Woodland, O’Flynn says. “One way that we’ve used StarBoard in my classroom is to create ‘mathcasts,’ also known as whiteboard movies,” O’Flynn says. For example, in a movie created in 2006, “The Tumor Problem,” some of O’Flynn’s students explain how to use trigonometry to solve righttriangle problems.

The mathcasts were hosted by Google Video, but future videos will be uploaded to Other student whiteboard movies can be found at the bottom of O’Flynn’s Algebra 2, Precalculus, and AP Calculus pages on her teacher page on the school website. O’Flynn has also used StarBoard to create tutorials for students.

Although O’Flynn uses the Hitachi software to teach math, she says its applications are virtually unlimited. “Another teacher uses it for both math and science, and the teachers last year used it for a variety of subjects, including history and languages. The technology makes everything more interactive. For example, in math, when sorting and classifying items, it shows how one person organizes the material differently from another.”

O’Flynn points out that StarBoard was just one of the systems that Woodland received through the grant; other technologies, from different vendors, included a document camera, a wireless response system, and a sound system.“They’re all best used in combination,” she says. But theStarBoard application enables highly creative teaching—andeffective learning—even when used alone. O’Flynn explainsthat the creation of the mathcasts allows her students toexplain a problem as they are solving it.

“Before the grant,” O’Flynn says, “I had never used any of this technology. It’s really amazing what it can do. I use it every day, during every class period.”

Rama Ramaswami is senior editor at the Economist Group,publisher of The Economist and other international publications.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.