- Associated Press - Sunday, October 15, 2017

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - At a cost of at least $14 million over the course of six years, the Charleston County School District will replace all classroom interactive whiteboards with next-generation panel devices.

The old devices are SMART Boards, manufactured by a company whose name became synonymous with the product thanks to early dominance in the industry. They feature a projector and an interactive whiteboard, enabling teachers to draw, write and manipulate images on the screen.

The new devices are Promethean ActivPanels, 70-inch LCD monitors that use an Android-based onboard computer and can connect to handheld devices wirelessly. In addition to some new cutting-edge features and a sharper display, the Promethean panels will not require information technology workers to replace expensive projector bulbs, which have a tendency to burn out every few years.

At one of the first schools to receive the new ActivPanels, Whitesides Elementary in Mount Pleasant, teachers are just beginning to figure out what they can do. The panels were installed shortly before the start of the school year, and teachers received training in small groups. The school district and Promethean will host a professional development summit at 9 a.m. Saturday in Moultrie Middle to help train teachers in using the devices.

“It’s like having a giant tablet on the wall,” said fifth-grade teacher Beth McCall.

In McCall’s class, students use the panel to play a math game called Place Value Pirates, tapping the screen to answer questions about decimal values. In another web-based application called A+ Click, McCall pulls up a series of word problems for students to take turns answering during group work time.

Elsewhere at Whitesides, teachers used their new Promethean devices for relatively low-tech applications. A second-grade class watched a cartoon explaining addition tables and answered questions posed by the teacher, and a third-grade teacher scrolled through a slideshow presentation on coastal Native American tribes.

Perhaps the most noticeable improvement for teachers is the move away from projector-based technology. Even with ceiling-mounted projectors, SMART Boards required frequent re-calibration to ensure that pointing and drawing devices worked accurately - a common complaint among frequent users.

Charleston County schools originally installed SMART Boards in all of its schools as part of a $30 million modernization project between 2008 and 2010. The SMART Boards had an expected lifespan of five to seven years when the district purchased them, according to Director of Innovation and Digital Learning Lainie Berry. The Promethean panels promise a lifespan of about 10 years, Berry says.

The district now estimates it installed SMART Boards in 3,500 to 3,800 classrooms; a spokesman could not give an exact figure. The plan is to replace every SMART Board with a Promethean ActivPanel at an estimated cost of about $4,000 per classroom, including installation. The Charleston County School Board approved the expense at an April 24 meeting. The money will come from the Capital Programs budget, which is funded by a voter-approved penny sales tax.

The first set of Promethean panels went to schools with the oldest SMART Boards: Haut Gap Middle, Whitesides Elementary, Zucker Middle and Moultrie Middle. Carolina Park Elementary, which opened this fall, came equipped with Promethean panels paid for by new construction funds.

Charleston County, the state’s second-largest school district, is making the change from SMART to Promethean as the market for education tech evolves worldwide. Google has made inroads into the lucrative education technology industry with its Google for Education suite, which boasts 70 million users. Promethean, which uses Google’s Android operating system, has taken a bite out of the $1 billion-plus market for interactive whiteboards.

Amy Winstead, an innovation and digital learning specialist for the district, was an early SMART Board adopter when she worked as a teacher at Drayton Hall Elementary in 2007. She received one of the original boards thanks to a special grant at her school, and she saw the potential for differentiated learning and interactive activities.

Her colleagues weren’t always so gung-ho. But she said the boards are tools, and they won’t be useful until teachers receive the training on how to use them.

“Sometimes the change makes them hesitant. Once they realize it’s not going to bite them, it’s fine,” Winstead said.

The new technology has its skeptics, including school board member Michael Miller, who joined the unanimous vote for the upgrade in April. He said he has yet to see data that show previous technology upgrades, like the one that brought Chromebooks and iPads to every school in 2014, have improved student learning.

“We’re cutting-edge technology-wise, but it hasn’t made the transition to where it’s improving student achievement,” Miller said.

Moultrie Middle English teacher and Charleston Teacher Alliance Director Jody Stallings remains skeptical, as well. He said most teachers use their SMART Boards as basic whiteboards or to show videos and Powerpoints - feats that could be accomplished much more cheaply. He doubts an expensive upgrade will change teachers’ plans.

“I’m sure there are a number of teachers who use them in more complex ways,” Stallings said in an email, “but the reality is many (if not most) teachers either don’t find the high-tech aspects useful for their curriculum and/or they do not have adequate time to prepare the complex, interactive lessons that the boards are capable of providing.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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