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A Primer on the High Tech School

ripvanwinkleTechnology was long seen as the curse of the classroom, just a glorified SRA (those over a certain age will remember the SRAs, those colored-coded individualized forms of torturous reading). SRAs gave way to computers and “drill and kill” became the domain of technology in the classroom, because that’s all that computers were capable of doing. Now technology may finally be driving the way students learn. But for those of us who aren’t in academia, the gear, the issues and the buzz are quite different. 

I spent two days being a voyeur at ISTE/NECC, a conference about technology’s role in education. It provided me with a welcome call to 21st century education in the classroom. While there wasn’t one single “killer product” on the show floor, the sum of a bunch of solid technologies is giving teachers a real chance at cultivating the original thinking part of their students.

Collaborative Education: We all have memories of the group project where one person did the lion’s share of the work, but the new collaborative tools bring both novelty and structure to group projects. Systems like Promethean’s ActivClassroom, eChalk, and Saywire offer schools complete collaborative systems. Promethean’s is centered on its electronic whiteboard. Saywire includes a suite of social networking tools that includes blogs, wikis, document sharing, and more.

Digital Storytelling: Digital storytelling has become the new buzzword for the old fashioned research paper. Images, audio, first person research, videos, drawing, and other elements create reports that are more lifelike and encompassing than ever before. The student plays the role of multimedia author and a new sort of research product is born. Tools like Google Apps for education and Apple’s iLife are helping students create complex and visually arresting reports. Some good examples of the modern classroom’s projects can be found here.

Distance Learning: There are many who think that the savior of ridiculously priced colleges will be online learning. The cost per student to have access to top notch curriculum and personalized instruction is lower when you eliminate the physical bricks and mortar. Video, online assessment testing, and multimedia  curriculum are the enabling technologies.  The University of Phoenix and Kaplan are the 100-pound gorillas, accredited full degree schools, but watch for newcomers like University of the People (a free degree based on open source curriculum) and institutions like MIT, Stanford, and others to incorporate online components into their regular courses of study.

Personalization: What happens to the student who’s never learned his multiplication tables? As he progresses through the school curriculum, he never recovers from missing a piece of the puzzle. Students who fail to master basic concepts fall behind forever. Software and hardware that can track a student’s progress, giving them remedial or accelerated instruction as needed, sometimes tailored to their specific learning style, provides some assurance that every student will master a unit of information before moving to the next. Solutions include products like McGraw-Hill’s Acuity Unwired, which relies on hardware clickers distributed to students who use them to “click” on an answer and makes tracking progress easy. My eCoach offers a full solution for individualized lessons.

Learning Games: There’s a part of school life that is just a big game of Jeopardy—with laundry lists of facts and figures. Sites like BrainPOP that teach odd facts in strange and humorously hip ways have their place in the classroom.

eBooks: E-books may not be particularly satisfying for reading the next great novel, but there’s a lot to like about them as textbook replacements. They are easier on the back, easier on the pocketbook, and easier on the eyes (with adjustable fonts). With tools for underlining, note taking, web lookup, and immediate downloads, they hold tremendous potential to be more powerful than a traditional book. The Kindle DX, with its larger screen format, is currently being tested as a textbook replacement in five universities.

Electronic Smartboards: Blackboards are erased without a trace, but smartboards keep the knowledge flowing. A teacher at a smartboard can “write on the board,” interact with software and the web, track student progress, and record lectures and then distribute content to the entire class.  Blackboard is the big kahuna in this category, but some of the most interesting products you’ll see in this space are ones like mimio that turn any wall surface into a smart electronic board.