- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

Glance quickly into many of the just-opened classrooms across the country, and they may look like those in operation from a decade or so ago. Children sit patiently at their desks waiting for the next lesson, all lined up in neat, tidy rows.

Look closer. The students might be seated alongside wireless computers. Or they could be preparing to give PowerPoint presentations as part of an afternoon book report.

Technology is changing the face of the modern classroom, aiding students and teachers as they work to abide by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which established educational standards all students are expected to meet.

John Q. Porter, chief information officer and assistant superintendent of the Montgomery County Public Schools, says technology is helping teachers identify which students need help in which areas.

“Once we see the data, we look at each individual kid and look at individual programs for the kids,” Mr. Porter says.

The Montgomery County School District recently plugged into Microsoft’s Class Server 3.0 software, which helps teachers create and grade standards-aligned assessments and lessons over the Web. The software lets teachers track how students are performing over a period of time. And a Web-based curriculum allows children to catch up on lessons missed or reinforce information that didn’t stick the first time.

“Kids can work independently … and they can assess themselves,” Mr. Porter says. “That didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

Students complete assignments using a standard Web browser, and their lessons and test results become a digital portfolio that can be accessed from school or home.

John Fowler, global manager of K-12 Infrastructure with San Francisco-based Sun Microsystems, says while some students work well independently, others need remedial effort. Computer programs allow students to repeat crucial lessons.

“They run the same programs to learn the math and language skills independently of the teacher,” Mr. Fowler says. “The teachers are still actively involved, but they can learn the skills necessary to move ahead without the constant supervision.”

Technology also is making school more accessible to the handicapped.

According to “The Digital Classroom,” edited by David T. Gordon, voice-recognition software helps students who cannot manipulate a pen or keyboard complete their lessons. Synthesized speech software allows others to communicate via their keyboard.

Children, particularly the youngest students, are well-suited to learn through technology, says Karen Marshall, president and founder of ECW Corp. of Great Falls.

Ms. Marshall’s company produces ComputerTots and ComputerExplorers, programs that provide computer enrichment classes for preschoolers and young students.

Ms. Marshall says young children approach computers without the inhibitions and judgmental nature that adults typically display.

“They do not have fear; they learn by doing,” Ms. Marshall says. “To use technology, you need to have a discovery exploration attitude, the willingness to touch and try rather than be told how to do it.

“They keep experimenting until it works,” she says.

They need that attitude when faced with the amount of information computers offer.

“Now, there’s no limit to the access to the information a child can come to,” she says. “Classrooms are becoming more investigative. The teacher acts more as a facilitator.”

For example, she cites interactive DVDs, online chats with experts across the country and distance learning via the Internet.

“It’s happening in schools all over the country,” she says of the latter.

That technology puts a strain on a school district’s infrastructure.

Jim Carroll, director of the Office of Instructional Media and Technology for the Arlington School District, says Arlington’s school payroll has 28 full-time personnel on hand to troubleshoot equipment, assign software to the schools and train teachers how to use the new technology.

School districts nationwide also have access to video streaming information on virtually any topic on education, Mr. Carroll says.

“It’s a wonderful resource for teachers, offering training … over the Internet 24/7,” he says.

Other advances are slowly starting around the country. Students at Ocoee Middle School in Florida this fall will have nonstop access to their lessons via their wireless Tablet PCs and Web-based curriculum in a project created in part by Microsoft.

Using Microsoft Class Server 3.0, the students will tap online books, plus video and audio clips, to supplement their lessons. Teachers, in turn, will be able to check up on their students’ work every step of the way.

Mr. Fowler, himself a parent, says computer games can play a part in a child’s education. In years past, a student could learn to type using programs that turned the lessons into a game. Modern games such as the Sims, in which players create fictional characters set loose in the make-believe city of Alphaville, can offer role-playing lessons while teaching social skills, he says.

Not every school, however, will be able to stockpile state-of-the-art computers in every classroom. Districts without healthy funding typically receive donated computers to help give students access. That can leave schools with computers that don’t have operating system software, which complicates matters. Some software manufacturers, such as Microsoft, offer programs that replace the operating system for free.

Students fortunate enough to have computers of their own can continue some of their lessons from home. Those who don’t have computers aren’t left adrift, Mr. Porter says.

He says local libraries often provide computers to be used for class lessons, and some schools offer night and weekend hours in which students can use school computers to catch up on homework or assignments. Such is the case with some schools in Mr. Porter’s district.

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