Taking classrooms out of the technological dead zone

Can you hear me now?

08/23/2010  |  BOB KIRBY
technology and teaching

Wake up. Send e-mail. Shower. Read CNN.com. Commute. Update Twitter. The Internet era significantly altered the way most of us go about our daily lives. With smart-phones, wireless Internet access, blogs and social networking, we communicate and learn from each other in ways that are drastically different from just a few years ago. It should be no surprise, then, that today’s students retain and process information differently as well. Yet, many of the tools that we use to teach students — print textbooks, pencils, paper and blackboards — remain static.

In June, CDW Government LLC (CDW-G) released its 2010 21st-Century Classroom Report, a survey of high school students, faculty and information technology (IT) professionals. The report found that just eight percent of high school teachers believe technology is fully integrated into the classroom, while less than half (43 percent) of the faculty design lesson plans that enable students to use technology in the classroom. Just 26 percent of students report that they feel encouraged to use technology throughout the day. This disconnect is disconcerting.

In the ideal modern classroom, technology is not just an add-on; it is an integral part of the curriculum that connects students and teachers to each other and further engages students and teachers in the learning process. To realize this ideal, administrators, IT professionals and faculty must appropriate funding and dedicate time towards purchasing, installing and integrating new technologies in the classroom. More specifically, the modern classroom requires a robust infrastructure, cutting-edge technology and diverse professional development.

Begin with IT Infrastructure

Before districts build-out the modern classroom, they need to focus on ensuring a robust network to handle the technology. Increasing access to technology in the classroom can overwhelm existing networks. More users, devices and wireless access points translates to more data processing across the network. At the same time, increased access to technology opens the network to potential security vulnerabilities. Some of these challenges can be overcome by manpower, while others require a more complex mixture of time, energy and resources.

Districts should evaluate their current data center capacity and data backup processes to ensure that the network can support increased traffic. Are some servers grossly underutilized, while others are overloaded? Is data backed up offsite, and how often? How quickly can the district restart critical data systems after a disruption?

One solution is server and storage virtualization, which increases hardware utilization while often decreasing the data center footprint. Hardware, power and cooling costs are reduced, and streamlined technology management frees IT staff to focus on other priorities, including classroom support.

Additionally, some schools are moving to desktop virtualization, a method of running multiple desktops from the data center. Applications are updated centrally, further maximizing IT staff time, and desktop client devices can be shut off centrally, conserving power and extending the life of devices.

Virtualization also helps schools combat the increase in security threats that accompanies widespread technology access. IT staff can push out applications, patches and virus protection from a central location, rather than updating each machine individually. The network should also be routinely monitored for security vulnerabilities. Additionally, compartmentalizing student, faculty and administrator access also offers an added layer of protection.

A robust IT infrastructure is critical to ensuring that resources, energy and money are not wasted, and without it, even the most powerful technologies will fail.

Build a Modern, Responsive Classroom

With a solid infrastructure in place, schools can design classrooms that will foster interactive, engaging learning experiences. The following technologies are integral in developing a modern classroom that meets student needs and responds to changing conditions:

Enhanced audio systems: In childhood games of telephone — where the leader passes a word or phrase to someone, who then passes it to someone else, and so on — we discover anecdotally how hearing and understanding are separated. The same principle holds true for students who may sit towards the back of the classroom, away from the teacher. Employing a classroom audio system, including a wireless microphone and surround-sound speakers, brings a teacher’s voice to students, ensuring clear instruction from the front row to the back.

Interactive whiteboards: Interactive whiteboards enable faculty to teach from anywhere in the classroom, using a mobile computing device to project the lesson plan onto the board’s surface. The surface then becomes akin to a giant touch-screen computer, facilitating teacher and student interaction. Teachers can save the lesson and student input to the network and print documents or send them directly to students as notes.

Student response systems (SRS):SRS are perhaps one of the most exciting technologies to develop during the past few years. With SRS, teachers can pre-program questions or create them on the fly to ascertain student comprehension. The technology involves students more fully in the lesson and allows teachers to alter lesson plans quickly based upon student feedback.

Student computing devices and digital content: Laptops, netbooks and smart phones are pushing classroom technology beyond word processing and PowerPoint presentations. And when a student computing device is combined with the growing library of digital content, it can augment and often replace traditional textbooks, enabling student access to information beyond the text and reducing districts’ textbook bills.

Telepresence and virtual learning: Though gaining in popularity in higher education, these are emerging technologies in K-12. Telepresence can connect students across the globe in a way that was never possible before. Years ago, American students relied on the mail system to deliver letters to pen pals in Europe, Asia and South America. Today, students share experiences daily via the Internet and webcams to students across the globe. The technology can also offer students in remote or small districts the opportunity to take advanced and specialty courses not offered in their schools.

Invest in Professional Development

Now that we have the technology infrastructure and the classroom tools, what do we do with them? Like all other teaching tools, faculty members need to learn how to use technology to support and improve their teaching capabilities and lessons. Districts need to understand that the depth and frequency of professional development they provide is directly tied to the success or failure of a district’s technological program. Infrastructure and classroom technology will have little impact if teachers do not understand how to use their new tools or feel uncomfortable integrating them into the curriculum.

Successful professional development programs begin long before the shiny new computers and interactive whiteboards arrive at the school’s loading dock. Faculty must first buy into the idea that technology is a positive tool for teaching students, which often requires them to learn new skills and overcome reservations about providing technology access to students.

After the technology is implemented, districts must continue to provide professional development in order to reinforce teachers’ skills and help them develop new ones. Without continual reinforcement providing teachers the opportunity to test and troubleshoot new uses of the technology, teachers can “get stuck.” Biweekly or monthly “tech refresh” sessions, led by faculty peers, are a great way to ensure that teachers are actively using the tools and expanding their skills.

30,000 Foot View: Where Technology in the Classroom is Heading

CDW-G’s 21st-Century Classroom Report asked students which one technology tool will be most helpful to their education. Students reported that computing devices and digital content are their top choices; in other words – access. Computing devices and digital content have the potential to radically transform education. Though the increased access can be disconcerting at first, if used properly, the increase in students’ active engagement in the learning process will soon assuage the initial fears.

Computing devices, whether desktops, netbooks or even smartphones, give students ready access to information and provide students with a communication tool to connect with each other and with their teachers. Additionally, with their own computing device, students are free to learn and explore on their own time. Aiding student access is the increased use of wireless networks, either supported by the district or provided in partnership with third-party vendors, like cellular companies, which some districts are beginning to do.

Digital content, which includes everything from digital textbooks to online content to open source information and curriculum, is gaining traction in education as well. The sheer cost to replace print textbooks every few years, is enough to give districts pause. Presently, many districts are evaluating the cost of new textbooks, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and comparing the cost of a computing device and licenses for copyrighted material. What they find is that the latter option is more cost effective in the long term.

Combining computing devices and digital content, districts can cut textbook expenditures, eliminate paper textbooks, and provide students with access to essential 21st-century skills. This education “power couple” can improve teacher creativity by knocking down the walls of the classroom, allowing teachers and students alike the opportunity to expand horizons of their education.

In CDW-G’s 21st-Century Classroom Report, just 43 percent of students reported that their high school was meeting their technology needs. It is time to listen to them. Students are eager to learn – and learn interactively. With a robust IT infrastructure in place, districts can integrate technology into the classroom and, in conjunction with the proper professional development, teachers can succeed in delivering learning in ways that best fit 21st century students’ needs. Students will benefit from engaging learning experiences that go beyond our e-mail, CNN.com and Twitter habits, and ultimately, prepare them for the transition to higher education and/or the workforce.

Bob Kirby is vice president, K-12 education, CDW Government LLC. For information.
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