When Sandy Armstrong was studying to become a teacher, technology instruction was limited to learning how to use an overhead projector or run a reel-to-reel movie over a player’s spindle. This was 1989. Computers and advanced technology just weren’t part of the vocabulary or the curriculum in Armstrong’s pre-service program at Auburn University in Alabama.
Fast-forward 20 years and Armstrong is now the technology guru for the Auburn Early Education Center, a public kindergarten that is held up as an example of a 21st-century school, where gadgets and sophisticated software are abundant and seem to truly improve the classroom experience. In addition to other cutting-edge technological tools, a SMART Board–an electronic, interactive whiteboard on which text and images can be drawn, manipulated, and moved, then saved and formatted for eMail distribution–is set up in every classroom.
It’s Armstrong’s job to make sure the school’s teachers know how to use the technology. And that’s where she has a flashback, like she’s living in 1989: More often than not, the teachers who come to her school–fresh from pre-service programs in Alabama and nationwide–don’t know how to use and make the most of technologies like SMART Boards.
This lack of training might not seem to matter much if the teachers go to work in school districts that can’t afford high-tech tools. But the reality is that an increasing number of schools–large and small, wealthy and less so–are integrating technology into their classrooms. And the disconnect between the technology that exists in schools today and the training that pre-service teachers often receive “does the teachers and their classrooms a great disservice,” Armstrong said.
“Teachers are not prepared to use the technology,” she said. “It still amazes me so much, because the push is technology–but not at the universities where people learn to become teachers.”
In response to this trend, and the ever-more technically sophisticated classroom of the 21st century, some education schools are stepping up their efforts to train the next generation of teachers to be ready to integrate new technologies in the classroom.
“We can, and we should, prepare teachers how to use interactive technologies and Web 2.0 applications,” said Bret Gensburg, adjunct faculty member in the College of Educational Foundations and Leadership at the University of Akron, and founder of instructional tech company Eagle Technology Integrations. “In addition to those skills, we need to ensure that today’s pre-service teachers are ready and open to the technological changes that will occur in their professional careers.”
Because the fact is, technology is part of K-12 student life outside the classroom and is increasingly proving to be beneficial inside the classroom, said Tom Greaves, chairman of the Greaves Group, a strategic educational consulting company.
“Cutting-edge technology is essential,” he said. “It is widely accepted that an individualized or personalized education experience is the key to dramatic improvements in student performance. It is also generally accepted that full personalization is impossible in the current model of a teacher standing in front of the classroom lecturing and students limited to using textbooks. Full personalization requires the use of digital media.”
(Click here to see how the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education is preparing teachers for 21st-century classrooms.)
K-12 schools and districts are catching on to this idea and are boosting their spending in response, with technology expenditures expected to hit $21.9 billion by 2013–a 30-percent jump from $16.8 billion in 2008, according to Stephanie Atkinson, an analyst with Compass Intelligence. “The Obama administration is putting an emphasis on education spending, especially around technologies,” she said.
One of the more popular technology tools for the classroom is the interactive whiteboard. According to “America’s Digital Schools 2008,” a comprehensive report from the Greaves Group, the boards can help increase students’ motivation and participation, improve their social skills, reduce the need for note-taking, accommodate different learning styles, and increase students’ self-confidence.
“Schools today need to connect with students who don’t know life without video games, the internet, and iPods,” the report said. “Interactive whiteboards appear to engage today’s digital natives, with increased learning as the outcome.”
Interactive whiteboards “not only function as public display surfaces, but can also bridge personal and public computing space by enabling the sharing of information with students’ personal devices,” according to a recent whitepaper from SMART Technologies, maker of the SMART Board. “Highly visual and engaging for today’s tech-savvy students, interactive whiteboards create a focal point for whole-class learning. They also simplify the integration of multimedia in lessons and can improve student achievement.”
Allen Brooks, the technology teacher and coordinator for San Elijo Middle School in San Marcos, Calif., says his students “marvel and enjoy watching something, anything, happen on the board. The more creative I am, the more engaged they become.”
Obe Hostetter, the instructional technology resource teacher for Rockingham County, Va., believes “students definitely enjoy class more and are more attentive” when lessons are taught with SMART technology. “The interactive lessons help teachers involve students in their learning.”
Julianna R. Sciolino agrees. As the curriculum and technology staff developer for the Erie 1 BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) Western New York Regional Information Center in West Seneca, N.Y., she has seen first-hand the benefits of classroom technology. “The interactive whiteboards take cognitive processing to a whole new level,” she said.
The boards also engage the teachers who use them, the “Digital Schools” report said. Brooks would concur. As soon as he plugged one in, he “was hooked from that moment on,” he said. “I found that the more I ‘played,’ the more I learned, and the more I learned, the more I adopted the technology into my teaching practice and assisted other teachers with the same.”
At Armstrong’s school in Alabama, “we have a teacher who barely could use eMail, and she now uses the interactive whiteboards all day long,” she said. “It’s amazing, the difference it makes.”
Training in the use of interactive whiteboards and other classroom technology has benefits even for future teachers whose schools don’t have access to the best tools, according to Joe Walsh, associate professor of instructional technology and director of instructional technology in the College of Education at the University of Montevallo in Alabama.
“We have teachers who may be going into schools that don’t have interactive whiteboards or LCD projectors but can still utilize technology to increase the power of their instruction and the quality of their instruction,” he said. “Your proficiency with a wide range of tools will make you a better teacher. You could have the opportunity to spearhead a movement in your school, or find ways to integrate cheap technology like digital cameras into the lessons. The training is not a wasted effort.”
About 85 percent of school districts use interactive whiteboards in at least some classrooms, according to the “Digital Schools” study, and 11.8 percent have a board in every classroom. The most popular model is the SMART Board, first introduced in 1991 by SMART Technologies, a Canadian company that also produces interactive pen displays, digital signage, wireless slates, and educational software.
In the company’s earliest days, it was difficult to get buy-in from districts and teachers, especially given that their schools had slow modems, glitchy software, and slow processors. So SMART foundered until 1992, when the company forged a strategic alliance with computer giant Intel. With the company’s equity investment, SMART could afford to push ahead with its development and marketing, and penetrate the U.S. public school system.
“We liked the metaphor of a whiteboard, because that was something many teachers were already using in their classrooms, and very effectively at the time,” said Nancy Knowlton, SMART’s chief executive and co-founder. “We could transition from the non-digital world to the digital world. It was non-threatening, and took the whiteboards from being static to the media-rich, web-enabled world they’re in today.”
Adoption started slow, with SMART selling about 1 million boards in the first 17 years. But over the last two, the company has matched that figure.
“But we still face many challenges,” Knowlton said. “School budgets are an issue. There are also hurdles to get over regarding how districts would use these tech tools; they need a transformative agenda, and to put these tools everywhere. And then there’s teacher readiness to use the tool. That’s an important one.”
Take Elizabeth Lorch, for example. She’s a sixth-grade English teacher at I.S. 528 in the New York City public school system, who got her pre-service training by serving as a teaching fellow at Fordham University in 2007. “They did a lot of philosophy, but zero preparation for classroom technology,” she said.
This lack of technology-specific instruction is only part of the issue. The other reason pre-service teachers aren’t getting exposed to classroom technology like interactive whiteboards is because their own instructors aren’t using them — the people who are teaching the future teachers are more often employing traditional, conventional teaching techniques themselves.
That was the case, in the past, at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. “Our faculty, preparing these pre-service teachers, were not really integrating technology into their courses,” Walsh said. “We would have a standalone course on how to integrate technology, but when the students would go into their methods classes they weren’t asked to utilize the technology.”
Now Montevallo’s pre-service program includes technology in all aspects of the curriculum. “In a social studies methods course, for example, they may be asked to create a digital story,” Walsh said. “Technology instruction and integration is occurring outside our technology classes.”
About two years ago, Hostetter gave a presentation on SMART’s technology tools to the universities in his area. In the last year, those schools–James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University, and Bridgewater College–have begun instructing students on how to use SMART’s software. “I have noticed that many students from these three universities feel confident and ready to use SMART Boards when they enter local schools for practicums,” he said.
This kind of effort will allow future teachers “to actually transform the classroom and take full advantage of the technology,” Greaves said. “Effective technology requires careful planning and implementation. Far too often, this step is overlooked.”
To help address this situation and promote technology-assisted education in the nation’s K-12 public schools, SMART in 2008 teamed with Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Fla., to make the company’s interactive whiteboards a more constant and seamless part of the school’s Teacher Preparation Program.
As part of the partnership, the college receives technology and support from SMART in exchange for researching the use of SMART Boards in the K-12 classrooms of the Polk County School District and working with the teachers there to integrate the boards into the elementary school curriculum.
“As recent adopters of SMART technologies, specifically the SMART Board, there was a great need [in the Polk County schools] for professional development in SMART integration for K-12 teachers,” said Jennifer Brown King, who–as assistant professor of education and director of the Educational Technology Center at Florida Southern–heads up the SMART Integration Project.
King’s students go through four intensive weeks of SMART integration training. After demonstrating sufficient skills and putting together a mini-lesson that incorporates all the SMART tools, these pre-service teachers are designated as “Tech Buddies” and are paired with K-12 teachers in the Polk County schools. The duos meet five times during the semester.
(Read more about FSC’s SMART Integration Project here.)
“On day one, the Tech Buddy team goes to the school as a formal introduction to the K-12 teacher. While the teacher completes a questionnaire, the Tech Buddy team surveys the classroom using a SMART checklist in order to determine what technology is in the classroom,” King said. “The data from the checklist and questionnaire are used to design a specific training plan for the teacher over the next three meetings. Then, the Tech Buddy team and the teacher mark their calendars for the next four meetings and begin to collaborate on a lesson, which the Tech Buddy team will teach on day five.”
During days two, three and four, the in-service teacher is given a primer on the use of SMART Boards, SMART Notebook software, and maximizing teaching and learning through interactive strategies. “On the final day, the Tech Buddy team teaches the mini lesson to the teacher’s students. Both the Tech Buddy team and the K-12 teacher complete a SMART evaluation about the experience,” King said.
This partnership benefits both the pre-service and in-service teachers, King said. “The K-12 in-service teacher receives professional development without ever leaving his or her classroom, while the pre-service teacher is provided a realistic and authentic learning environment in which to implement the SMART technology.”
Later in the term, the pre-service teachers put together a unit of instruction on a topic and for a grade level of their choosing, King said. The unit is developed by choosing six chunks of instructional content, such as a six-page SMART Notebook lesson or a peer teaching lesson using a SMART Board; modeling the chunks of content by using a SMART document camera to capture a worksheet; attaching other technology tools, projects, and activities, like a related PowerPoint presentation or a podcast; reviewing content in preparation for classroom assessment using other SMART Notebook tools; and assessing mastery of content by creating a 10-item test.
King’s students seem to appreciate all the exposure to and training with SMART products–and most say they’d never seen these kinds of technological tools before enrolling at Florida Southern.
“When I was a K-12 student, there was little or no technology in the classroom. Usually the most technological thing was an overhead projector. I had never seen a SMART Board until I started FSC this year,” said Wendy A. Lacey, a freshman education major from Winter Haven, Fla. “I think that, at this moment, there is not enough technology in the classroom. I think technology is very important in the real world of teaching. Right now kids love technology. It’s what they like, so why not use it to catch their attention and enhance their learning experience?”
And the benefits to properly trained teachers, their schools, and their districts are enormous. “Teachers can do things quicker and easier and have everything at their fingertips,” Armstrong said. “More motivated teachers are going to be better teachers. I have seen this. And I know that, after I taught with technology, I won’t ever teach without it again.”
Editor’s note: Jennifer Brown King will be presenting the results of her SMART Integration Project from 9:45 to 10:45 a.m. on Tuesday, June 30, at the Embassy Suites Convention Center in Washington, D.C., during the National Educational Computing Conference.
Christine Van Dusen is a freelance writer who frequently covers education and technology.