Bye-bye, blackboard

Bye-bye, blackboard

When Anne Munroe's pre-calculus students at Central High School get stuck when working on homework this school year, they'll have extra resources to help them.

The students can watch a recording of Munroe's lesson from that day's class, or go to a website she recommends for homework help.

Munroe got the idea for recording her lessons while attending a conference at summer's end that trained teachers about using interactive whiteboards.

Munroe will record the lessons she teaches in class using her Smart Board and a microphone she'll wear around her neck. (She's starting with a free 45-day trial for that microphone, made by a company called FrontRow, and is hoping to find grant money to buy it to use in class.)

She's also planning to create overviews of her lessons using a camera in her classroom that takes photos, videos and scans of documents.

"I've learned you just have to jump in" when using technology, Munroe said.

She took her students to the computer lab in the first week of school to sign them up for a website where they can access those materials. Parents will be able to sign up, as well.

The Champaign school district trained some of its own teachers and those from other districts on the use of interactive whiteboards at the day-long conference in mid-August.

An interactive whiteboard — one popular brand is the Smart Board — is like a huge computer tablet that's mounted on the wall, replacing a chalkboard or regular whiteboard. Interactive whiteboards can be controlled by touch, and teachers and students can use them for a variety of purposes. The goal in Champaign is to have one in every classroom, and some are located in other spaces where teaching happens, as well. Urbana has interactive whiteboards in all its schools, but they're not as widespread as in Champaign.

Matt Sly, an instructional technology coach in the Champaign schools, said planning for the conference started in February.

Many teachers aren't able to go to actual tech conferences, Sly said, so the idea was to create a version of one in Champaign. It offered about 55 different sessions, with a diverse selection of topics related to the interactive whiteboards.

A "Bootcamp for Beginners" session in the morning was packed, and in it, Smart Board trainer Jean Tulin started with how to turn on different models.

As she showed teachers tips and tricks, they "oohed" and "ahhed" and asked questions about getting started.

The conference also offered sessions for more advanced users, as well as ones on how to use related tools, like document cameras. Sessions also trained teachers on using the boards for specific subjects like math, language arts and science.

"We wanted teachers to feel much more confident," Sly said.

The topic is also important because students come to expect their teachers to use technology well, said Champaign instructional technology coach Heidi Bjerke.

"Students can get frustrated when teachers don't know how to do what (students) know how to do," she said.

Having or knowing how to use an interactive whiteboard doesn't make one a great teacher, Sly said, but it can encourage student engagement and can help students learn skills that they need.

"This is a piece of the puzzle, not just one solution," Sly said.

The boards can also appeal to students who have different learning styles, Sly said, including students who need to manipulate information in order to learn it, or audio learners, who are helped by hearing a certain sound effect after selecting a correct answer.

Mike Williams, who works in the University of Illinois' College of Education and whose expertise is in educational technology, said interactive whiteboards are another tool that teachers can use to connect with their students.

"In today's world, having a grasp on any modern tools (has) the potential to make you a better teacher," he said, and many of those tools involve technology or digital media.

"You're probably going to end up being more equipped to give students what they need" by learning to use such tools, Williams said.

When it comes to interactive whiteboards, the emphasis is on getting students involved when using them, he said.

"You should never stand in front (of a classroom) and lecture using a Smart Board any more than you should stand up in front and lecture about anything," Williams said.

If teachers using Smart Boards can get students more engaged in what they're learning, "it becomes more meaningful, it becomes more personal," he said.

If students aren't using technology at school, "they feel out of touch," Williams said.

"They feel powered off because they go from having homes in which they can access any kind of information, anywhere, and can collaborate and communicate with anyone, anywhere," he said.

Teachers who can use technology well might be able to connect better with those students.

But does using technology like interactive whiteboards help students learn better?

Williams said that in an environment of using things like high-stakes tests to evaluate how students are doing, "there are very few studies that are going to show a direct improvement in scores based on interventions involving technology on a broad scale."

"The science just isn't there yet," he said.

However, he said, he's confident that technology can reach students who might struggle in a more traditional classroom setting.

Williams said he's worked with teachers and students at local middle schools, and heard a story about one student in the office for a disciplinary reason. The student knew his teacher would be using a Smart Board in the following class period and told office staff members he didn't want to miss anything.

"That speaks to the power of technology, to engage students who are not engaged by today's system," Williams said.

Hope Morrison, a librarian at King Elementary School in Urbana, has had her Smart Board for five years, since a 2008 library renovation, and uses it for every lesson she teaches, she said.

It's useful in any situation in which she used to use a pencil and paper, she said. Students are eager to be chosen as the next person to write on the board, which means it can be an incentive for good behavior. Students also tend to pay attention, even when a classmate is working on the Smart Board.

Morrison said she's noticed that this school year, for the first time, students are no longer awed by the touch-screen technology of her board. They've already been exposed to tablets and smartphones, so they're used to being able to control devices by touch.

While she has to do a lot of work to get her lessons ready to use on the whiteboard, she's able to use the same materials in subsequent years. And it's convenient because she might see three classrooms of fourth-graders. She'll start with the same lesson, but save each individual class' progress using the board. There's no more writing "Do not erase" on a chalkboard, she said.

She also likes being able to use interactive features the Smart Board came with. For example, when reading stories from other countries, she'll have students try to find them on the map. If they choose correctly, they'll hear the sound of applause.

Morrison is also able to find and even use other educators' lessons for the board. She also uses a clicker system, which allows each student to answer a question with a hand-held clicker.

The system shows Morrison the results, which helps her know if students understand a concept. It will even show her a graph of the students' responses.

Stephanie Alves, a fourth-grade teacher at King, has been using the interactive whiteboard in her classroom for less than a year and used the school's mobile Smart Board the year before that.

She said she's found it gives students opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise, like using Google Earth to see mountains, rather than just looking at symbols that represent mountains on a roll-down map.

Or, last year, she was teaching students about the human body and used her interactive whiteboard to show them a model of a heart actually working.

"The students are able to see how it works, how blood runs through it," Alves said. "That gives them a better grasp of the concept."

She also plans to use her board to Skype with experts. She also uses to it show her students how to complete tasks online, rather than having the whole class gather around one computer monitor.

Alves said she thinks it's important that students are exposed to technology and how to use it.

"It's hard ... to tell where technology is going to go," she said. "We do know that workers are going to need to be able to think creatively. ... If they don't have that exposure (to technology), they're not going to be able to train their brains to think in that way."

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