Education Ask the Mentor

Dan McDowell on Technology

September 29, 2006 8 min read
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McDowell, a 10-year veteran, teaches Advanced Placement and College Prep World History at West Hills High School in San Diego. He has a master’s degree in educational technology, has trained teachers to use tech tools in class, and was named the Western region’s Internet Educator of the Year by the company Classroom Connect in 2002. In his blog (, he writes about classroom management, technology projects, and students. Here are his answers to reader questions asked on our Web site.

What’s the best tech tool for communicating and sharing information with parents?

Two tools that I recommend are e-mail and classroom weblogs.

Although e-mail isn’t new, it should serve as a regular tool for communication. You can collect parents’ e-mail addresses, then store them in a spreadsheet or Word document. You might have to inform parents you’ll be using e-mail, so they can set their spam filters to accept your messages. I’ve used e-mail for years to inform about classroom events, project due dates, and online grade updates. I would not suggest e-mailing parents about a student’s behavior—the telephone is still probably the best option when discussing specific student issues. And I don’t want to overload parents, so I only send out e-mails about once a month.

Through weblogs, or blogs, you can publish important information regarding the class. Setting up a blog with Blogger (, Edublogs (, or WordPress ( takes only minutes. Blogs are not only easy to use, but they’re free, and parents can check them for information before calling you. Additions and edits are made through online forms. Because many districts filter various social software sites, you’ll want to check to see if any of the above blogging tools are blocked before trying set one up for your classroom.

What are some practical ways to get teachers to overcome a mental block they might have about technology in the classroom?

Too often people get wrapped up in technology for the sake of technology. But if we’re really trying to prepare our students for success in the “real world,” then we need to use these new tools. One way past that mental block is to show the value of and the need for technology and information literacy in today’s world. Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat is certainly a good place to start.

The second method is a mentoring system. By matching tech-savvy teachers with those struggling to integrate technology in their classrooms, you could bring about real change. If you can get the school or district to support an endeavor like this, even better!

The biggest piece of advice I have is to take small steps. No teacher is going to make the transition from little or no technology to a digital classroom overnight. It’ll take time, maybe even years. Start with smaller, manageable projects. Try e-mailing parents, using PowerPoint, implementing an existing technology-based lesson, or starting a classroom blog with one of the free blog sites mentioned above. Once you’re comfortable with one step, take another.

If you want to build an online activity, there are many tools available that only require the teacher to fill in online forms—no HTML or programming involved. QuestGarden ( is a perfect example of a tool that has cut the production of online lessons substantially. One of the greatest aspects of today’s new online technology is ease of use.

What is your vision of the ideal classroom in terms of access to technology?

The ideal classroom should reflect the world and the workplace. In order to prepare our students for life, we need to teach them skills that will help them succeed now and later. One of the most important skills that they have to build is information literacy in the 21st century. This can only really be done on computers connected to the Internet. They must interact with a lot of information in every discipline—manipulate it, mash it, and apply it. My ideal classroom would have 10 to 20 computers, ideally laptops, with Internet access and video editing capabilities. This would allow me to incorporate a wide variety of lesson types, from webquests to blogs to wikis to video projects.

What type of e-learning/course management solution do you use?

Last year I began using Moodle (, an open-source learning management system. I’ve been amazed at how much it has opened up the walls of my classroom. Similar to Blackboard and WebCT, Moodle includes forums for threaded discussions, chat rooms, a quiz function, assignment collection, a messaging system, blogs, and a number of other features. It also has individual student logins that allow the teacher to track student participation and close it off to the general public—thus eliminating any concerns related to online student safety. With Moodle being open source, the actual software is free.

This year, after changing schools, I went from having 16 computer workstations in my classroom to just two. Other than projecting work in whole-class sessions, what else can I do to maintain a high level of student hands-on time?

This is a tough one. What I’ve done over the years (and I have just three computers outside my teacher station) is rotate student groups through different workstations, three of which have computers. When not working at a computer, my students do tasks related to the lesson that require referencing the text or additional reading. As a high school teacher, I only see students for about an hour a day. In elementary classrooms, teachers could set up a schedule that indicates when and for how long students will be at the computer. Regardless of your method or situation, it’s essential that students utilize their limited computer time to the fullest by executing a specific task.

Do you know of a meeting program for Apple and Windows that has a whiteboard? I would prefer it if there was no cost. I’d like to be able to tutor students online.

There are some sophisticated commercial conferencing systems used by the business world, but they are pricey. Two possible free solutions are Imagination Cubed ( and Groupboard ( Both are Flash-based, have a chat function, and a variety of tools to write on the whiteboard. Imagination Cubed, developed by General Electric, allows a user to invite others to the whiteboard via e-mail or instant message. It also allows you to save, print, or e-mail the board after you’re done. The free version of Groupboard (you can upgrade for a reasonable price) has the option of being embedded in an existing Web site and is limited to only five participants. For just $10 a month, there’s a sizeable increase in functionality. Both tools are not ideal for writing text, but the integrated chat feature should balance that issue out.

Another option might be a combination of tools. If you’re only interested in examining text and don’t need a draw feature, you could use a collaboration tool like Google’s Writely ( or one of the many free wiki services, such as PBwiki ( or Wikispaces ( By coupling one of these tools with instant messaging or a chat room, multiple people could accomplish quite a lot at a distance.

How do you find the technology grants that are appropriate for your classroom and/or school?

Finding grants that fit your specific needs is a difficult task that takes some persistence. Many of the grants available are not large enough to solve bigger equipment deficiencies. As an individual teacher or even school, you need to have a specific project or goal in mind. Then search the Internet, starting with Google. There are numerous grant clearinghouse sites available, with lists of foundations and grant opportunities. Teacher Magazine publishes occasional listings online, and the National Education Association offers a large number of grants (

How can I integrate technology into mathematics?

There are a number of Web sites that incorporate games, learning objects, skill builders, and tutorials. These sites can be used as part of a lesson or as homework. Check out Explore Learning ( and River Deep ( I’ve also seen math teachers use PowerPoint and a video projector to illustrate concepts and specific problem types. The instructor can spend less time writing on the board and more time working out problems for the class. Adding a SMART Board to this equation allows the teacher to save what he writes and return to it the next day or publish it online. Graphing calculators and computer applications, such as Geometer’s Sketchpad, also allow students to see the effects of specific math problems.

In what innovative ways can I incorporate a SMART Board into my middle school mainstream and ELL social studies classroom?

SMART Boards are amazing tools. They bring a new level of interactivity to the classroom. They allow teachers to call up notes, outlines, and diagrams from previous lessons and to review important concepts. Additionally, middle and high school teachers can save their work for each individual class. Teacher mobility also increases; you can move around the room and don’t need to stay close to the computer station. Sessions can be saved as graphic files and posted to the Internet. This tool becomes even more dynamic when students are included. Amphitheater Public Schools in Arizona ( and SMART Technologies ( have additional ideas for incorporating this technology into the classroom.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2006 edition of Teacher Magazine as Dan McDowell on Technology


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