The digital classroom

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My first day teaching journalism at community college I walked into the classroom and knew something was missing. There was a chalkboard, TV, VCR, and overhead projector, but there was no computer in sight. “All my lessons are in PowerPoint,” I told my dean. “And I’m afraid I like to use the Internet.” She shrugged and said we could see about booking time in a computer lab next quarter.

What I would have done to have some of the educational technology I saw at Macworld Expo earlier this month at my disposal. Here are some of the highlights of what I saw on the show floor.

The amazing interactive whiteboard

From what I’d heard about interactive whiteboards, I imagined them as glorified computer projectors—that’s not really the case at all, as I learned after meeting with two whiteboard makers, Smart Technologies and GTCO CalComp. Both companies announced new software versions due out in March and showed off their products’ different strengths. But it was model educators who really brought home how these gadgets have become the centerpiece of the new digital classroom.

Seeing is believing My first demonstration came from Christopher Klein, a high school teacher from Maplewood Richmond Heights School in Maplewood, Missouri. He teaches video using a Smart Technologies’ Smart Board. The board he used at Expo was one of the company’s new 600 series whiteboards. It was big—77-inches across the diagonal—and looked just like a regular freestanding whiteboard…except for the PowerBook plugged into its base.

Students, Klein explained, have trouble believing abstract concepts—for example that filmmakers really follow the “rule of thirds” to compose shots instead of plopping the subject in the middle of the frame. By using the whiteboard he can show them.

As a video clip played on the board, Klein drew a grid across the frame and told me to watch how the movie’s subject stayed where the lines intersected. Truth be told— Mr. and Mrs. Smith uses compositional techniques championed by the ancient Greeks and Renaissance painters.

As a bonus, the Smart Board lets Klein record everything he scribbles or plays on the whiteboard during class so that there’s a record for absent students (a trick equally useful for distance learning.)

Learning language Back when I was president of my high school’s French Club, we learned the subtleties of language by listening to audiocassettes. Dr. Jack Franke of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, showed me just how far technology has taken language learning. (The DLIFLC is operated in partnership with U.S. Department of Defense and is, by its own account, the largest language school in the world.)

The school once gave students a stack of tapes when they began a class. Now students receive an iPod crammed full of audio files and video clips. Instructors filmed themselves acting out common scenarios—ordering food at a restaurant, for instance—so that students can see the words at work instead of just hearing them. With the iPod, they can review these at their leisure.

In the classroom, Franke teaches with digitized textbooks, video and sound files, and current material from international Internet news feeds. With these projected on his whiteboard, he can circle critical points with a pen or his finger and jot down related vocabulary words. With a few clicks, the Smart Board software uses handwriting recognition to change scribbles into print.

Of questions and quizzes GTCO Calcomp had a different trick to share. Instructors can embed questions into their presentations (made with either Microsoft PowerPoint or the company’s InterWrite software). Students use special wireless keypads to answer questions and then the results quickly appear, in a graph, up on the InterWrite SchoolBoard. What a great way to review for a test or have a classroom game show—especially if you’re teaching large classes.

What cost interactivity?

With an interactive whiteboard you can potentially replace the classroom TV, VCR, and whiteboard. Buy one with an integrated computer projector (most models require you have a projector already) and you can check that piece of equipment off your list too. Add some accessories—rolling stand, audio system, wireless module—and you’ve streamlined your classroom set-up considerably.

Of course, the interactive whiteboards aren’t cheap—the most basic configurations cost no less than $1,000. (You’d still need a classroom computer and projector. If you don’t have those already, add at least $2,500 to the calculations.)

A Smart Board 600 series board—with pens and eraser, USB cable, wall-mounting brackets and the latest version of Smart Board software—has a suggested list price of $999 to $1,999 (depending on size). (Schools may qualify for a 25 percent discount or a SMARTer Kids Foundation grant.) GTCO Calcomp’s InterWrite SchoolBoard (the business version is called the MeetingBoard) likewise comes with pens, cables, brackets, and software. It has a list price of $1,195 to $1,995 (depending on size). The company offers a 15 percent educational discount.

But as I saw at Macworld Expo, in the hands of a skilled educator the interactive whiteboard isn’t just another expensive gadget. It’s a powerful teaching tool—certainly better than a chalkboard and some time in the computer lab.

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