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Digital Revolution: How Technology’s Transforming Teaching

Brad Broberg

Published on: August 28, 2012

Kids in digital classroomAs another school year gets under way, classrooms everywhere are being disrupted like never before, not by misbehaving kids, but by expanding use of technology. It’s disruption through innovation — a hallmark of the digital age — and it’s transforming how teachers teach and students learn at every grade level.

“When computers are used well in the classroom, they open up a world of possibilities,” says Ethan Delavan, technology coordinator at Seattle Country Day School.

Seattle Country Day is an independent school that serves grades K–8. All students visit a computer lab twice a week; while there, they work on projects that develop their ability to use and understand technology, including computer programming. They build a digital aquarium, invent a video game and construct a computerized Lego robot — all by the third grade.

“Most of the things we try to do allow kids to be creative and not just consumers of technology,” says Alice Baggett, technology specialist for grades K-3. “We’re always trying to build on things they’ve done before … so kids become comfortable about the next challenge.”

Besides the 20 computers in the computer lab, every classroom at Seattle Country Day School is equipped with a half-dozen computers. Students use them for research and individualized instruction, but that’s the tip of the iceberg, says Delavan. Teachers are constantly finding new ways to engage students via technology, especially through technology’s capacity for interaction.

Instead of asking students to write traditional book reports, for example, a third-grade teacher asked them to blog about the books and post comments about one another’s reports. “That back and forth is something that defines the electronic age in a way that’s quite different from when we were growing up,” Delevan says. Blogging their book reports introduces students to an emerging form of writing and to digital publishing skills that are important in the workplace, he says.

Multimedia on whiteboards

The Federal Way School District is sowing its classrooms with interactive whiteboards. When connected to the teacher’s computer, the whiteboard comes alive as a supersize computer desktop that can be controlled by touch. The teacher — or the students — can pull down menus, open files and highlight relevant sections. They can display content from the Internet — including audio and video — present multimedia projects and even write directly on the surface.

This technology is ideal for young children who’ve grown up with touch screens on smartphones, tablets and game consoles, says Jake Booker, a technology specialist with the district. “They have this expectation that their media is going to interact with them,” he says.

Accessory devices expand the benefits of interactive whiteboards. A handheld slate, for example, allows a teacher or student to control and write on the whiteboard remotely. And clickers enable students to answer questions posted on the whiteboard, with the results instantly available to the teacher on their computer.

Teachers can use the clickers to give tests or to see how well students understand a lesson as it’s being presented. “That sort of on-the-fly data is really important,” Booker says. “As a teacher, I can group my students as fast as I can ask them the questions. That’s very useful, especially in the early grades.”

STEM school opens

Seattle Public Schools launched its first elementary school focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) this month at Boren School in West Seattle. The school, reopened as a STEM Option School for grades K–5, features a range of math and tech opportunities, including a 32-station computer lab, interactive whiteboards in every classroom and a set of iPod Touches — mobile devices that do everything a smartphone does except make phone calls. 

The iPod Touch downloads educational apps, accesses resources on the Internet and “is a great recording device for students to share how they solved a problem,” says Shannon McKinney, principal. “It’s exciting to them — and that’s when the learning takes place.”

Schools large and small are taking advantage of the flood of portable devices on the market today — and their growing affordability — to shift from computer labs to computer carts that deliver technology directly to the classroom, where it can be more readily integrated into everyday learning.

Lacking the space and funds for a computer lab, First Presbyterian Church School in Tacoma last year introduced an iPad lab on wheels for first- through fifth-graders. “Some of the teachers use it daily,” says Nadine Kohler, marketing director. “The kids are way more excited to do their work on an iPad … and it saves a lot of paper.”

This fall, the Highline School District launched a fleet of mini laptops loaded with software that will provide 45 minutes of individualized math practice twice a week to every elementary student. “We tested it in several schools last year,” says Carmen Gonzales, assistant director for the district’s STEM program. “We saw some really great gains in math scores that we think will continue.”

Brad Broberg is an Auburn-based freelance writer.

Technology’s role in the classroom

Leslie Conery is the deputy CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), a worldwide association of educators and education leaders engaged in improving learning and teaching by advancing the effective use of technology and teacher education. We asked Conery to share some thoughts about technology’s role in the classroom for children ages 5–10.

Where can technology make the biggest difference in a child’s learning?

For young learners, technology can be effectively used as a tool for exploring, creating, experimenting, thinking and learning about the world around them. Hand-held, simple microscopes that can be held up to a branch or a leaf to look at patterns in nature, small bee-shaped robots that children program to move in different directions, and tools like Skype that can connect two classrooms in different parts of the world are powerful examples. This type of rich interaction with a real audience addresses a host of curriculum goals for young children. It’s active, engaging, a lot of fun and full of rich learning experiences.

Are there any common misconceptions regarding technology in the classroom?

Perhaps the largest misconception is the image of young children passively sitting by themselves in front of a computer screen for hours on end. This image is often coupled with the comment that young children need to be outdoors playing and experiencing the world. It’s a misconception because the best uses of technology for 5- to 10-year-olds are highly interactive, all about exploring, creating, and developing thinking skills, and usually done in pairs or large groups.

What should parents expect in terms of technology in their child’s classroom?

Rather than talking about what parents should expect, I’d prefer to suggest questions that parents might ask their children’s teachers or school administrators. “How do you use technology in the primary grades to help develop children’s thinking skills?” “Do you use digital microscopes or robots in the classroom?” “Do you use technology to support the teaching of core subject areas?“ If the answer is affirmative, then they might ask to learn a little more about the specific use. “Will my child have the opportunity to work with children outside our community to learn about other places?” What will that look like in my child’s classroom?” Perhaps best of all, a parent might ask, “How can I help?”


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