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21st Century Teaching Tools Engage Students and Expand the Boundaries of Learning

In part one of this two-part series, we discussed technology for overall communication and safety/security in schools. Today we highlight classroom learning technologies

January 14, 2008

By Jenny Carless, News@Cisco

It is not always easy to reach consensus on important education issues. Concerned people, all of whom have children's best interests at heart, may not be able to agree on content or strategies.

But one thing a majority of Americans do agree on, according to a recent poll, is the importance of information technology to the future of learning and 21st century skills.

The use of information technology is growing rapidly in schools across the country today - not just for communication and safety/security, as we saw in part one, but through a wealth of innovative tools and services that engage students and teachers in the learning process.

The recent poll on Americans' attitudes towards technology in the classroom was sponsored by Cisco.

"Cisco has been a long-time proponent of blending technology and education," says Charles Fadel, Cisco's education global lead. "Technology has certain attributes that can help achieve educational transformation."

"Perhaps the biggest promise of technology is that it can mass-personalize, per an individual student's learning style. It strengthens education because it scaffolds the learner in multiple learning dimensions - visual, auditory or tactile, for example," he adds. "Technology also motivates, because young learners are drawn to it; and it connects them to a world of people and information."

The poll, conducted by Zogby International, revealed some interesting results, such as:

  • The majority of Americans said that networking technology makes schools more connected to communities and levels the playing field among more and less affluent schools by providing equal access to educational content.
  • Fifty-nine percent agreed that "information technology is a vital tool that can help educate students, and more should be done to incorporate information technology into the learning process."
  • Overall, 69 percent of Americans believe that science and math courses should be made mandatory for grades 7 through 12, as part of an effort to place a greater emphasis on science and math skills.

Engaging Students

"Our data have shown pretty persuasively that students have a set of expectations around technology," explains Peter Grunwald, founder and president of Grunwald Associates LLC, a market research and strategic consulting company. "To the degree that schools can go at least some way toward meeting those expectations, they'll have a much better chance of engaging students - and of course engaging them is critical to maintaining their interest and ultimately helping them achieve."

Teachers are finding innovative ways to use information technology tools to help engage their students. Classroom technologies include the Promethean ACTIVclassroom; Wireless Generation mobile educational assessment applications, Skype, PASCO equipment and software, ELMO document cameras, Internet services like schoolnotes.com and many other tools and services.

Helping with History

Thanks to video conferencing, students in Rebecca Endt's Moss Point High School (Moss Point, Mississippi) have learned about, and made friends with, a group of children in Christine Amberg's classes in Schmiedefeld, Germany.

"History is a wonderful thing, but I also want my students to think about the future," Endt says. "We can't build a sustainable future with our kids in the dark about the rest of the world."

Connecting to the Internet via Skype (with a webcam and microphone) and projecting through her Promethean ACTIVboard, Endt enables her students and those in Germany to see and engage with each other regularly. They've all learned that, despite the physical distance between them, they have a lot in common.

Moss Point students have also enjoyed voice conferences with children in India and established friendships through ePals with children across Europe, Africa and Asia.

"These new tools have also reinvigorated me," says Endt, who hopes to establish an international student exchange program. "When I think back to how I used to teach, I can't imagine having continued for 25 years to retirement, but this has lit the fire in me all over again."

Making More Global Connections

Through "Project Connect," the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) successfully wired 1,400 schools - building a highly secure, reliable network. With more than 70,000 wireless access points, the NYCDOE has also created one of the largest wireless networks in the world.

The new technology capabilities have helped students significantly improve their research, analytic, project and collaboration skills.

For example, high-speed connectivity now creates new learning opportunities and dynamic lessons. Students use digital photographs, laptops and video conferencing as they combine lessons with real-world experiences.

Some New York City schools have implemented video conferencing-based curriculum, connecting their students with students in other cities around the world. For example, as part of a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project, New York City students work with students in Turkey and Israel, e-mailing each other while collaborating on projects. Approximately 100 students then visited their e-pen pals in Turkey at a NASA Space Camp in Turkey.

"Technology is an excellent opportunity for the children to see a broader perspective of life and get a larger sense of what's possible in the world," says Ann Leiter, principal, P.S. 56, district 27, Queens, New York. "They also see what's possible for their lives and can now place themselves in that context."

Physics Can Be Fun

Tommy Sumrall teaches physics and other science classes at Forrest County Agricultural High School in Brooklyn, Mississippi. He's noticed a big difference in his students' levels of interest and comprehension since he began using more technology in his laboratory teaching.

Sumrall and his students use data collection devices from PASCO, interactive white boards, Internet resources and more - all connected on an IP network.

"Now we can electronically measure times and distances very accurately and precisely," he explains.

"As an example, my physics students are currently studying 2-D motion," he continues. "We project an object into the air at a given angle and measure how long it's in the air and how far it goes. That happens too fast for us to gather accurate data manually, but this equipment not only measures accurately, it displays the data instantly. So we can spend our time on the scientific concepts - not tediously building graphs."

"I'm sold on this," Sumrall says. "I've been teaching for 15 years, and I know these kids have a better understanding of the concepts than the students I've had in the past. And now they actually look forward to lab time!"

Replacing Textbooks with Laptops

Technology can also play a role in transforming education on a much wider level. For example, Empire High School in Tucson, Arizona recently took the bold step of replacing all student textbooks with laptop computers.

'We're attempting to do two things: number one, we're trying to engage students more in the learning process; the second thing is to make education more relevant," says Calvin Baker, superintendent of Vail School District. "We have noticed that our students are, as we expected, more engaged in the learning process."

According to Cindy Lee, Empire's principal, the students have reacted positively to the new learning environment.

"They are excited to come to school; they love working on their laptops," she says.

Math Comes Alive

Jenny Doleac, a math teacher at Oak Grove Middle School (Hattiesburg, Mississippi) uses a Promethean ACTIVboard, an ELMO document camera, the Internet and other resources to bring mathematics to life for her students.

"The Promethean board allows the whole classroom to be interactive," she explains. "And through the Internet, I have an infinite number of resources at my disposal."

"This technology has made my teaching so much more effective," she says. "My students are already comfortable using technology, such as playing a game to learn to add and subtract integers, so this way they relate much more to the lessons."

A Focus on Reading

Technology can also help assess students' reading ability - and free teachers to spend more time teaching.

As a reading specialist at Rowan Elementary School (Hattiesburg, Mississippi), Hope Magee assists very young children (kindergarten through third grade), on a one-on-one basis, with reading. She has found the mCLASS DIBELS hand-held literacy measurement device by Wireless Generation to be invaluable.

"I use it to time their reading and to note their letter-naming fluency and skill in segmenting the words," she explains. "The data are automatically tabulated, so my reports take much less time to prepare - which gives me more time to help my students with their reading."

Offering students a more engaging learning experience and freeing teachers up to have more time for their students are just some of the ways technology is transforming classrooms across the country. These 21st century tools, made possible on IP networks, expand the boundaries of learning and prepare students for their future careers - helping to build a foundation for the success of the students and their communities.

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, CA.

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