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The Evolution of Technology in the Classroom

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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.

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 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 (Fairfax County, Virginia) from 2005 to 2009, a $50 million renovation 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 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 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 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,” 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, 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 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.

The most compelling technology I used in college was the experiment feature in a course management system called Aplia. 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 and price floors. 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 (click Go To Demo).

Less successful was another in-class technology called Class Spot, 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, an education consultant and head of IT at the Cedars School of Excellence in Scotland, is a pioneer in the field. He is also an Apple Distinguished Educator 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 in the school. Although the school is small, the experiment has had such promising results that the school later adopted iTunes U 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 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, Fraser Speirs’s co-host of the Out of School podcast about the intersection of technology in education and Director of IT at the Brainerd Baptist School 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, 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, emphasizing software such as iBooks Author for creating course content and technologies like AirPlay 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, 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 a number of other countries in terms of high-speed Internet access, and to remedy this, President Obama recently unveiled the ConnectedEd 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.


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Comments about The Evolution of Technology in the Classroom
(Comments are closed.)

James Deaton  2013-07-19 11:59
while it is good to use computers, whatever they are called, it is bad to give up on writing with a pen or pencil. I am not a doctor or a student. I am a 71 year old and from a suggestion of my sister-in -law, I have found writing help focus on the not losing memory. Something that is become common in this age. Give up on anything and you lose more than you can remember.
Michael E. Cohen  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-07-20 10:11
In addition, teaching cursive writing in the early grades is a great way to help children develop fine motor control in a way that typing doesn't.
Conrad Hirano  2013-07-20 11:09
According to a colleague, there's research which suggests that writing by hand increases learning, more so than typing the same text. So it's not simply the need to organize your thoughts to figure out what to write; it's the physical act of writing the words out by hand which somehow helps students retain more. It's one of the reasons we require students to turn in handwritten lab reports rather than typing them up.
David Rabinowitz  2013-07-20 13:44
You bring up a great point. I definitely think writing and cursive are good things to learn, but if it comes down to learning cursive or typing, it's hard for me to not choose typing.
John B  2013-07-22 16:42
JD, as one of similar vintage, I have similar reservations about writing versus typing. Although there's a difference, I wonder how different that is from doing math solely by calculator versus by hand. How many of us can still handle long division manually? How convolute, how complex are these choices? I'm also an instructor of wilderness navigation who has severe misgivings about reliance on GPS devices without basic navigational skills with map and compass. Expedience isn't without its trade-offs and carries distinct decisions that shouldn't be glossed over.
tom powers  2013-07-23 10:25
My high school offered a typing course, but I could never schedule it in the face of more attractive academic courses. So I was a one or two fingered typist through college and into a 40+ year career in computer technology (where soft-touch electronic devices allow for multi-fingered typing, but I still have to look at the keyboard most of the time). I'm no 120 wpm typist, but I can still type faster than I think. (As Blaise Pascal is reported to have said, "forgive me writing such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write a short one." Facility with generating output does not guarantee worthwhile output.)
For an 8-year-old, I'd probably teach cursive instead of typing. Cursive is a skill he won't learn otherwise, and it does have the fine motor skill benefits mentioned elsewhere. That said, I haven't used my cursive in 30 years, except for my signed name (frequent) and where formal inscriptions are needed (very rare).
tom powers  2013-07-23 10:30
To finish, the link here is related to David's comment that applications of early computers in primary school were "lame." Whatever today's technology is used for in primary teaching risks appearing "lame" just a few years down the line, or less. When hand gestures replace the point and click model, will we lament wasting all that time on the desktop metaphor? Should we teach Word and Excel in school? Probably, but not with the expectation that that knowledge will still be directly applicable 10 years down the line.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-07-23 11:47
To be fair, that particular wording was my addition in editing. The point, though, is that a lot of schools 15 years ago got computers and didn't have the foggiest idea what to do with them, so typing was about all they could come up with. There wasn't much good software, and teachers weren't generally clued-in on how to teach with it anyway. What made me cringe the most when Tristan was in elementary school was when the kids were taught how to use PowerPoint, from the perspective of it being an essential skill.
Steve Nicholson  2013-07-19 17:14
My high school set up a computer lab with 17 Radio Shack TRS-80s the summer after I graduated. At San Francisco State, where I majored in computer science in the early '80s, the dial-up number for the modem (which allowed one to do assignments from home instead of the on-campus computer lab) was a closely-guarded secret. I was one of the few who managed to talk a teacher into divulging it.
Charlie Hartley  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-07-22 14:54
I remember when our middle school purchased 15 Apple //e's, the first computers for students in the school. Since I owned one, and no one else on the faculty was interested in them, the principal assigned me to teach something with them. After a few stumbles, I developed a team approach competition using Carmen San Diego software that was popular with the kids. Later, I wrote a typing tutor program that I named "Computer Keyboarding 5." We used it in a 12-week class to introduce the kids to typing. Ah, those were the days!
David Rabinowitz  2013-07-22 19:02
I loved Carmen San Diego! I learned so much about the world from that game :)
Mike Blumenstein  2013-07-20 07:08
Another application that should be on every teacher and administrator's radar is ExitTicket.
ExitTicket captures the student's progress, checks for not only understanding of the specific question, but the understanding of the concepts and curriculum and engages the students with Gamification and badging. We are still in our Early Adopter stage, preparing for the full launch August 1st, sign up today to get grandfathered into the Early adopters group while you compare these for FREE.

"ExitTicket is a engaging student response system delivering instant feedback and performance metrics to teachers and students, allowing immediate intervention and reteaching with a tap of a finger, while tracking the student's progress."
Avi Rosenzweig  2013-07-23 13:42
For someone who took economics in college, it seems surprising that you don't spend a few lines in this article speculating about the opportunity costs of investment in gadgetry vs. investment in staff or training or food.
What good are nice tech interfaces if your staffing is mediocre?
David Rabinowitz  2013-07-23 16:53
That is a fair point. I know that many school districts are seeing their funding decrease and are turning to technology to replace teachers since in the long run they think it will be cheaper.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-07-24 08:22
From what I've seen in the Ithaca schools over the last 8 years (Tristan will be a freshman in high school next fall), technology isn't really being used to replace teachers but is instead largely being integrated into the curriculum in order to reflect the real world, where nearly all work is done on computers. But I have no idea if that approach is widespread or not.

What I particularly like are the technology classes, which are sort of the replacement for what shop class used to be when I was in high school, since the teachers quite rightly point out that "technology" is anything that humans create, from fire to Mars rovers.
Richard Mousigian  2013-07-25 05:14
The next step in evolution looks to be Chromebooks--Easier to manage, less expensive, and easier to create and save content.
Larry Cassis  2013-07-27 16:59
The state of Maine in 2001 under Governor Angus King instituted the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI) "The Maine Learning Technology Initiative made Maine the first state to seize the potential of technology to transform teaching and learning in classrooms statewide; first with a plan to equip all students and teachers in grades 7 to 12 with personal learning technology statewide; first to equip every 7th and 8th grade student and 7th through 12th grade teacher statewide with personal access to learning technology; first to empower every 7th through 12th grade teacher in every school statewide with professional development and support to fully tap the potential of computers and the Internet; and first to provide the option of home Internet access to every 7th and 8th grade student in every school statewide".. please learn more -- Regards to all from Sedgwick Elementary School on the coast of Maine
Larry Cassis
Technology Coordinator
James Leo Ryan  2013-07-27 20:30
I am one who went through high school and college when students had no access whatever to a computer or to a computing device. I'm also one who is a firm believer that it would be a great advance if students today were using such as iPads instead of textbooks, if only to do away with the tremendous bulk so often seems in student's backpacks. I also think that the cost of an iPad would quickly end up being less than the cost of a bulk of textbooks. Let's go forward and take advantage of the age of computing technology!