THE Journal's 2008 Innovators :: 3

Melissa Walker
Alamance-Burlington School System (NC)

Melissa WalkerWhen Melissa Walker was finishing up her coursework at the School of Education at North Carolina's Elon University, her professors would tell her to make the most of her student teaching. "Try to check out the technology cart," they would advise, "or integrate computers into lessons." So she was shocked when her "cooperating," or host, teacher couldn't tell her how to check out the technology cart. "She was a phenomenal teacher, but she was missing something," says Walker. "That was the integration of technology."

Months later, in fall 2005, she joined the Alamance-Burlington School System in Burlington, NC, as a fifth-grader teacher, intent on using technology to benefit her students. By the time she was promoted to lead teacher of K-8 technology integration for the district last January, Walker was determined to break down whatever barriers were hindering the use of classroom technology, whether a lack of support for new teachers or a lack of understanding among veteran ones. She identified a huge chasm between the availability of technology and teachers' willingness to use it. For example, Walker found that even though many classrooms had Smart Boards, they were being used, she says, like "very expensive regular whiteboards."

The district leadership recognized the need to foster classroom technology use with professional development, but didn't have the resources to make it happen. "Being in charge of 20 elementary schools, I couldn't be in every classroom every day and give support to those teachers," Walker says. So she reached out to two of her former Elon professors-- Judith Howard and Barbara Taylor-- with an idea for a partnership with the district, where Elon places most of its student teachers.

The three women formed a plan whereby the university's education students would get classroom experience teaching with new technologies while their cooperating teachers observed how those devices could be integrated into lessons. Walker would teach a one-time, 90- minute session on technology integration to a class of Elon junior education majors who were getting their introduction to classroom teaching, instructing them on how to teach with tools such as interactive whiteboards and iPods. She also offered to consult with the students regularly on the development of tech-infused lessons that they could then teach in their Almance-Burlington classrooms as their cooperating teachers looked on.

The program has been very well received. Veteran teachers have told Walker that by observing the Elon students working with their kids, they have seen technology's power to spark learning. At the end of one lesson, a host teacher approached the student teacher in tears because of the transformation she saw in one child. "The Elon student had reached him like no one had ever done before," says Walker. "That was the first time he had ever actively participated in class. At that moment, I knew what we were doing was so important."

Randy Orwin
Bainbridge Island School District (WA)

Randy OrwinWhen Bainbridge Island, WA, passed a levy in 2006 that covered the purchase of new laptops for its school district, it didn't provide for software or training. That end of it would have to come out of the Bainbridge Island School District IT budget, which runs about $108,000 a year, not including salaries. Yet when Randy Orwin, director of technology, looked into upgrading the new machines with Microsoft Office 2003, the bill would have run between $40,000 and $60,000 a year for a subscription plan, or $140,000 to buy the software outright-- an investment that would have meant cutting other services such as the district's content filter or its firewall. "We had to find an alternative," says Orwin. Orwin looked into using open source OpenOffice software and was confident it would be a worthwhile-- and free-- alternative to Microsoft Office. He made a presentation to the district's technical advisory and leadership groups, proposing that Bainbridge migrate to open source software and use the resulting savings for training staff and teachers on the new technologies it was about to introduce.

Orwin's proposal was approved, and in the summer of 2007, under his direction, the IT team distributed the new laptops to the 300 teachers in the district. First, the teachers had to attend a six-hour "boot camp" that trained them on how to use their machines. By the end of the day, they were educated in the basics of OpenOffice and other open source applications included on the computers, such as GIMP, an image-editing program; Stellarium, planetarium software; and Audacity, software for recording and editing audio. Also, during the past two summers, Orwin has run two-week-long institutes during which district teachers and staff were trained on core functions such as mail merge, spreadsheets, presentations, and even opening documents.

Bainbridge has also been able to expand its Moodle implementation, which it originally rolled out in 2005. "We started with eight or 10 teachers using it with a few courses," says Orwin. "Right now, we have 3,800 people on our Moodle server and just slightly more than 300 Moodle sites." The open source course management system is used by teachers to create websites for their classes; students to do class blogging; committees to maintain work, share documents, and communicate; and administrators to register people for training.

Orwin estimates that the money saved by using open source applications has totaled $50,000 to $60,000 a year, "every penny of which has gone into training," he says. Although the cost savings have been a major gain for the district, according to Orwin, the benefits of migrating to open source software reach beyond the budget. "The power of open source is that you become part of a community where everybody is in it to help each other," he explains. "It's great software. It runs like it's supposed to and it's every bit as good as commercial software."

John Barnes
Jessamine Career and Technology Center (KY)

John Barnes

Barnes hopes computer
visualization will improve
his students' math skills.

After 32 years of teaching students in Jessamine County Schools, John Barnes is still fascinated by how kids learn, particularly in the area of math. "You always have students who are good in algebra or good in geometry-- and sometimes in both, but rarely," he says. "Why is that?"

A move to the newly created Jessamine Career and Technology Center gave Barnes, who teaches advanced calculus as well as IT, a chance to test his theory that success in math boils down to the ability to visualize things in three dimensions. In spring 2007, during the first year the school was in operation, Barnes worked with Joan Mazur, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Kentuckyin nearby Lexington, on the development of a nineweek experimental course in computer visualization.

The university's Center for Visualization and Visual Environments, where Mazur works, bought the school a year's worth of licenses to the pricey Autodesk 3ds Max, which does modeling, animation, and rendering. The application was chosen specifically, says Barnes, because it's used by researchers at the center and has become an industry standard. Grant money continued the licensing and covered the purchase of high-end Apple iMacs and additional RAM for the computers to support the hefty hardware requirements of the program.

Student enthusiasm for the course-- held early in the morning, before the regular classes-- led the school, which draws students from both East and West Jessamine high schools, to add computer visualization to its permanent curriculum.

Each of the mostly juniors and seniors in the class-- "Every once in a while we get a ninth-grader," Barnes says-- works at a computer that's loaded with 3ds Max as well as Adobe Photoshop. One modeling project Barnes assigns requires the creation of a World War II plane from the views provided on plane spotter cards-- cards showing front, bottom, and side views used by US military personnel during the war to identify what was flying overhead. "We take those three views and put them into Photoshop, then copy and paste and use those 3ds Max to begin modeling that type of airplane," Barnes explains. "Then I pair students to model their airplanes flying together."

But the biggest project yet is ongoing: the creation of a model of the school itself. "We can move the ‘camera' through the building, up the steps, down the hall, go into a room, and render that as a movie," says Barnes. Each semester the class will add more rooms, "until we have the entire building included in our virtual tour."

Barnes doesn't know what impact learning computer visualization will have, but he does have a hope: that students who have had trouble in math will do better after taking his classes. "As a teacher, you never really know what's going to happen," he says. "Sometimes you see the fruits of your work 10 or 12 years later."

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.