High-tech tools for schools

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Technology in the classroom — from handheld computers to interactive tutoring software to podcasts and blogs — continues to present great opportunities for students, as well as challenges for teachers, who must learn to use it and, some say, alter the way they teach.

In classrooms across the country, technology is enabling teachers to better communicate with parents, students to see data in new ways and classes to chat from opposite ends of the globe. But educators agree there is still a long way to go, in both access and training.

In 2005, there were 3.8 students for every one computer with Internet access in public elementary and high schools, according to a study released in November by the National Center for Educational Statistics, an arm of the Department of Education. That’s a steady improvement from past years, but numbers are far worse when it comes to student access to laptops or handheld devices. Groups like the National Education Association (NEA) say more funding is clearly needed.

Still, ultimate success depends on how technology is actually used to teach, the NEA and other educators agree.

“You can take a laptop and make a kid type a paper … or use it to contact someone in Iraq,” explains Ralph Maltese, an English teacher at Abington High School in Pennsylvania who is in charge of training the teachers there to better use technology.

It’s being used in more creative ways, said Brenda Dyck, who instructs future teachers at the University of Alberta and has written frequently about classroom technology.

“I think we’re finally starting to take technology past word processing and surfing the Net … to using it as a mind tool,” said Mrs. Dyck, who in the past has connected her seventh-graders with seventh-graders in Tel Aviv to do a joint Internet research project.

In a recent blog for teachers posted on Education World, Mrs. Dyck praised a seventh-grade teacher in North Carolina who had her students interview family members with heart problems and then create podcasts, which are like radio programs made by ordinary people and shared on the Internet.

Paul Passman, an eighth-grade science teacher at Tequesta Trace Middle School in Weston, Fla., often uses computer simulation software to drive home lessons on subjects like gravity. He also posts homework and class assignments on a free Web site — schoolnotes.com — for students and parents to access.

Google for Educators (www.google.com/educators), and a sister site called Google Apps, are also free Web sites that provide lesson ideas and online resources for everything from blogging to 3D modeling software.

Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said his group worked with science-textbook providers to provide codes throughout the text that students and teachers can plug into a Web site to access a list of NSTA-vetted Web sites on particular topics. The links are now in about 85 percent of science textbooks, he said.

There are also tools that hook into most computers now and allow students to witness their own sound waves in real time, graph motion as they run or watch the chemistry of an object change on the computer screen as other chemicals are added, Mr. Wheeler said.

“It’s highly motivational … but it also shows kids new ways of looking at data,” he said.

Using technology to maximize student interaction and problem-solving skills is key, Mr. Maltese argues. “We want to get rid of the ‘corn’ mentality of students sitting in rows and getting sprayed with fertilizer,” he said.

His school was fortunate enough to win a $250,000 grant awarded by Dell, Microsoft and Intel, enabling it to equip all 700 incoming 10th-graders this year with handheld computers for multimedia projects, podcasts and presentations.

At Park View High School in Sterling, Va., ninth-grade students will soon have a multimedia “highway” room as a result of a grant the school won from America Online for a little more than $16,000. The room — aimed at inspiring students’ ultimate careers — will include a stage, sound board and mixer, video wall and new computers. Teachers will receive training for room use, which could include speeches or debates, after-school tutoring, multimedia presentations or adding to a schoolwide CD of music and poetry.

Andrea Smith, the ninth-grade team leader who wrote the grant proposal, said teaching with technology shouldn’t be seen as a “trend,” but rather as “a logical step for the times in which we live.”

Many interactive computer programs offer one-one-one tutoring in reading, science and other subjects. About 5,000 schools across the country use Soliloquy Learning’s Reading Assistant, a software program that listens to the child read aloud, corrects when a word is bungled, reads back to the child if needed and collects real-time information for the teacher.

Still, many tech hurdles exist. Mr. Wheeler said access to it clearly varies with the wealth of the school district, and many school systems who have it still haven’t set up adequate career development for teachers to harness it.

And Jon Bower, CEO of Soliloquy Learning, said schools typically don’t invest enough in technical support, which causes problems. In the business world, about one-third of technology money is spent on tech support and training, he said, but schools usually only spend about 5 percent of their tech budget on that.

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