This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2013-07-19 at 11:15 a.m.
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The Evolution of Technology in the Classroom

by David Rabinowitz

My parents’ classrooms were similar to those that their parents sat in every day. Both were filled with books, pencils, notebooks, and chalkboards, and what technology existed — overhead projectors starting in the 1960s, TVs and VCRs in the 1980s — was the exclusive province of the AV Club. Thankfully, those items are slowly being pushed out of classrooms in favor of newer and more interactive technology. But if you haven’t set foot in a classroom for years, you might think that educational technology still means desktop computers. They’re still commonplace, but newer and more sophisticated devices are also gaining ground.

A Personal Tour of Educational Technology -- Graduating from the University of Virginia this spring caused me to think back on both my time in school and the technology that accompanied me. It all started with desktop computers in the late 1990s — Macs running Netscape Navigator in my elementary school’s computer lab. Those now-quaint machines have since been replaced with much more modern PCs, and my old elementary school now even boasts an assortment of iPads and laptops [1].

What we did with those computers was, frankly, a little lame. In third grade, along with learning cursive, we learned typing, although I never had to type any further assignments in elementary school. Now, many schools are opting to teach only typing [2] and forgo cursive altogether. Given how little I find myself needing to write by hand now — much less in cursive — I don’t find this emphasis on typing troubling.

Technology became a more significant aspect of education in high school. Toward the end of my time at South Lakes High School [3] (Fairfax County, Virginia) from 2005 to 2009, a $50 million renovation [4] resulted in a school that was outfitted with the latest and greatest technology. Every classroom gained a digital LCD projector that could be hooked to the teacher’s laptop and used in conjunction with a document camera [5] to display whatever was on the teacher’s desk on a screen at the front of the classroom. Many rooms also got SMART Boards, which are interactive, touch-sensitive replacements for chalkboards, making it possible for teachers and students to drag and manipulate the images projected on the board. Since then, SMART Boards have become popular, and every school in Fairfax County [6] is installing them.

My fondest memory of SMART Boards came during high school geometry. The teacher was explaining some of the rules and formulas that apply to triangles and circles. He taught us how we could figure out the size of a triangle that would fit perfectly inside a circle of a particular diameter. To demonstrate his point, he drew a triangle on the SMART Board and then dragged it inside the circle. To everyone’s amazement, it fit perfectly! Before SMART Boards, the teacher would have just told us that the triangle would fit or would have had to redraw it inside the circle.

Although many teachers used their SMART Boards, not all were enthused about them. One of my math teachers just used it as a surface to shine the projector on. Once, she even used a marker on it, instead of the digital writing pen, leaving a permanent stain.

South Lakes High School now has a ratio of 1 computer for every 1.6 students. Students can even bring in their own laptops or tablets [7] if they get parental consent. Laptops are starting to replace desktops, and now there are even laptop trolleys students can borrow from. Currently, “a fair number” of students bring their own laptops, according to McNeill Bauer, a South Lakes High School senior. He said that it depends on the class and teacher how much the laptops are used, and said that “at least 50 percent of people in my history class use laptops, but nobody does in math.” Just as I discovered in college, having a laptop available in class is better suited to some subjects — and some teachers — than others.

As I mentioned in a previous article (see “Living through the Evolution of Etextbooks [8],” 5 April 2013), technology has become ubiquitous in college. Almost every student has a laptop and some are starting to bring tablets to class, as you might expect.

But one commonplace gadget that few outside of academia have seen is the iClicker [9], which resembles a TV remote and lets instructors poll the class directly. The iClicker has five buttons, each corresponding to an answer, and when the professor asks a question, iClicker-wielding students respond by pushing a button. Responses are received by an iClicker Base [10] at the front of the room — it uses the 900 MHz spectrum to avoid interfering with Wi-Fi. Along with providing professors an easy way to quiz students on the topic at hand, iClickers are the bane of any student who blows off class, since they serve as an instantaneous way to take attendance and determine who’s paying attention.

[image link] [11]

The most compelling technology I used in college was the experiment [12] feature in a course management system called Aplia [13]. In addition to managing homework through Aplia, the professor could launch an experiment during class. Since this was a microeconomics course with over 600 students, it was the perfect environment.

One day, the professor asked us to bring our laptops in order to participate in a demonstration of the effects of price ceilings [14] and price floors [15]. Through the Aplia Web site, everyone was assigned to be either a buyer or seller in a simulated market for used textbooks. Each student was also assigned a different dollar amount at which they valued the textbook. When the virtual market was opened, people were free to make bids and offers. It was fascinating to see, in real time, the supply and demand curves slope toward each other and eventually meet at an equilibrium. The demonstration showed that in a controlled environment, when people are self-interested and rational, the market usually behaves in predictable ways. Aplia offers other economics experiments, like one illustrating the tragedy of the commons, and all experiments can be demoed on the company’s Web site [16] (click Go To Demo).

[image link] [17]

Less successful was another in-class technology called Class Spot [18], which is essentially a way to let students share their screens with the entire class, and to collaborate by controlling a shared screen, called the “teaching wall.” The professor controls who can be on the screen at the same time, and can even lock the teaching wall to regain control over the class. The idea is great in theory, but the system was buggy and suffered from significant lag — a particular irony in a senior-level computer science class. Plus, the Class Spot client software was difficult to install, and, at the time, wasn’t even compatible with OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion, which I was running on my MacBook Air. After a few minutes of use from those who could get it to work at all, the professor shut down Class Spot and continued the lecture. We never used it again, but I hope future classes give it a try and have a better experience.

The iPad in Education -- One piece of technology that never came up during my years in school was the iPad, which has made significant inroads in primary schools over the last few years. Fraser Speirs [19], an education consultant and head of IT at the Cedars School of Excellence in Scotland [20], is a pioneer in the field. He is also an Apple Distinguished Educator [21] who gives presentations about implementing technology in education.

Under his direction, the Cedars School of Excellence bought and distributed iPads for all 120 students and teachers [22] in the school. Although the school is small, the experiment has had such promising results that the school later adopted iTunes U [23] as the digital learning platform for both creating their own courses and using other private iTunes U courses in class. Although iTunes U was initially embedded within iTunes, there’s now an iTunes U app [24] for iOS. Through the iTunes U app, teachers can distribute their own text, audio, video, and presentations, or material from educators around the world. iTunes U also integrates with iBooks for textual material, enabling students to highlight important passages and take notes with course materials.

According to Speirs, iTunes U “helped a segment of the student population get better organised with their homework, and submission rates have gone up...[and] students vastly prefer courses that embed the content right in it.” He said that overall, the iTunes U initiative has gone well and that the school will most likely continue it in the future, with a few modifications, like making content, “more ‘native’ to iTunes U, rather than taking what we have in PDF files and Keynotes and dumping it into iTunes U.”

The launch of the iPad came just at the right time for Speirs and the Cedars School of Excellence. Months before its announcement, they were toying with the idea of buying every student an iPod touch. They needed more computers to satisfy the demand for increased classroom technology use and wanted each student to have a computer. The iPad satisfied the need for a student-focused computer and fit perfectly between an iPod touch and a MacBook.

And, yes, Speirs is adamant that the iPad is a computer, and disagrees with the notion that it is merely a content-consumption device. He points to a number of uses in his school, from taking notes to drawing, that prove the iPad can be used to create.

When asked about the overall success of the iPad deployment, he said, “The initiative has been very successful. We are now three years into it and it is progressing well. We have seen a real cultural change around computing in schools, where once the use of a computer or the Internet was something special, it’s now commonplace for us.”

Bradley Chambers [25], Fraser Speirs’s co-host of the Out of School podcast [26] about the intersection of technology in education and Director of IT at the Brainerd Baptist School [27] in Tennessee, is also a proponent of iPads in education. “From a hardware perspective, the iPad (and iOS) have removed the barriers of computing for the average person,” said Chambers. He prefers the iPad over laptops, saying that PCs and Macs are complicated devices that are easy to break. Although the Brainerd Baptist School doesn’t have the 1-to-1 iPad to student ratio enjoyed by the Cedars School for Excellence, with 81 iPads for 305 students, the school still uses them in interesting and non-obvious ways. For example first-grade students used them last year to scan QR codes around the school that triggered animal noises.

What about the fragility of the iPad? Considering that they cost about five times what a regular textbook costs, the iPads need to be able to stand up to years of use, and, given that we’re talking about K-12 schools here, abuse. The iPads at Speirs’s school are indeed holding up well. In fact, they are still using original iPads that are almost 3 years old! Despite the iPads being handed even to kindergarteners, the school’s breakage rate is only about 3 percent per year [28], and the only protection the iPads get is the original Apple iPad case.

Even apart from iTunes U, Apple is pushing hard on moving the iPad into education [29], emphasizing software such as iBooks Author [30] for creating course content and technologies like AirPlay [31] for putting class materials on the big screen. And, of course, there are innumerable apps designed for education — the hardest part for teachers is probably figuring out which are worthwhile and can be integrated into a curriculum. On the management side, Apple also makes Apple Configurator [32], a Mac app that makes it easy to configure and deploy iOS devices in institutions like schools, simplifying the process of changing settings, updating the OS, and installing apps on multiple connected devices at once.

But not all that’s necessary can come from the private sector — increasingly, these devices are nearly useless without a fast and reliable Internet connection, something that’s far from ubiquitous in K-12 schools, and particularly those in lower-income areas. The United States famously trails behind [33] a number of other countries in terms of high-speed Internet access, and to remedy this, President Obama recently unveiled the ConnectedEd [34] initiative, which has the ambitious goal of bringing high-speed Internet access to 99 percent of students within five years. The initiative will also support training teachers to use new technology and will encourage private-sector investment, although specific details remain fuzzy. Nonetheless, the fact that the White House is devoting attention to the topic of educational technology bodes well for improvements in schools whose budgets have not provided the kind of support I saw throughout my K-12 schooling, or that exists in private schools like those that employ Fraser Speirs and Bradley Chambers.