Special Report
School & District Management

Tech Tool Targets Elementary Readers

By Katie Ash — March 16, 2010 6 min read

Much attention has been paid to how mobile-learning devices can be incorporated into middle and high schools, but Seth Weinberger is targeting a different set of students: kindergartners through 2nd graders.

“The sweet spot of literacy is kindergarten to 2nd grade,” says Weinberger, the executive director of Innovations for Learning, the Evanston, Ill.-based nonprofit organization that developed a mobile-learning device called the TeacherMate. “If you get them [reading on grade level] early, there’s a real chance that you can keep them at grade level.”

TeacherMates are now being used by more than 40,000 students in 15 states, says Weinberger, and there are plans to adapt the TeacherMate software into applications for the iPod touch or iPad. And the decision to target the devices at elementary youngsters has attracted the attention of ed-tech researchers, some of whom say the elementary grades are where such devices could have their greatest impact on improving reading skills.

Cathleen A. Norris, a professor of learning technologies at the University of North Texas and the chief education architect for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company GoKnow, which provides educational technology, software, and curriculum to K-12 schools, says that “what you must do is catch [the students] at the early grades and make them successful. When children are experiencing success in early grades, they spend more time with [the subject].”

On the heels of the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which aims to provide low-cost laptop computers to students in developing countries, Weinberger wanted to create a relatively affordable, easy-to-use mobile-learning device for students in the United States. “Schools are unbelievably strapped for cash,” says Weinberger.

The TeacherMate device itself costs about $40, although with the reading and math software that has been developed for it, the total cost is about $100 per device. That’s not cheap, but it’s well below the cost of putting a laptop or netbook computer in the hands of all those youngsters.

Evaluating Effectiveness

Preliminary data on the effectiveness of the device are promising, although more research is needed, says William H. Teale, a professor of education in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His review of a pilot program, which put TeacherMates in 176 1st grade classrooms in the 409,000-student Chicago school district, found that students who used the devices performed higher on their end-of-year reading tests in three categories than those who did not have the devices.

Still, Teale cautions in his review: “Because of its design, this study does not speak to the issue of a causal connection between the use of the hand-held learning systems ... and enhanced early reading achievement.”

And no research is currently available on the effectiveness of the math software for TeacherMates.

The Game Boy-like device fits into the palm of a student’s hand and is controlled by eight buttons. It includes a speaker that both plays back sounds and allows students to record their own audio, a screen, and a usb slot to synchronize the devices with the teacher’s computer.

To use TeacherMates, teachers need a USB cable and a computer with an Internet connection where they can sync the devices, change the levels of the software that the students are working on, check on how well students are using the software, and listen to what the students have recorded during their lessons.

Instead of teachers’ needing to incorporate the TeacherMate into the curriculum, the TeacherMate is equipped to align directly with whatever math or reading curriculum the teacher is using, says Weinberger. That aspect of the device appeals to Patti Beyer, a 1st grade teacher at the 750-student New Field Elementary School in Chicago.

“The stories that they’re working on are the stories we’re reading. The letters [on the device] are the letters that we’re working on.” she says. “Every concept we hit is addressed by the TeacherMate.”

TeacherMates in Action

Watch elementary school students in Chicago use TeacherMate portable devices to improve their reading.

And not only is the device easy for teachers to use, it’s easy for students to pick up and learn, too, says Jenna Kelsey, a 1st grade teacher at the 750-student James Russell Lowell Elementary School, also in Chicago. She uses the devices for 15 to 20 minutes a day, usually as part of rotating centers where students spend some time reading on their own, with a teacher, and with the TeacherMate.

“They’re so used to hand-held games as it is that they are able to just play the game without much assistance,” she says. As a result, Kelsey is freed up to work with pupils one-on-one or in small groups.

Reinforce and Practice

Although students can usually navigate the TeacherMate software by themselves, the devices are not designed to be used on their own but to accompany teachers’ lessons, says Weinberger of Innovations for Learning, which developed the devices. Rather than being used to introduce new material and concepts to students, TeacherMates are intended to reinforce and practice skills that students are actively learning in their teacher-led classes, he says.

Adasia Phipps, Dejah Williams, and Denise Barnett, left to right, work on their TeacherMate hand-held devices at Manierre Elementary School in Chicago.

X. Christine Wang, an associate professor of learning and instruction at the State University of New York at Buffalo, is not familiar with the TeacherMate specifically, but she speculates that hand-held devices used for reinforcement and practice may not be making use of their full educational potential.

“The majority of researchers and teachers are now against the drill-practice type of learning” with technology, she says. “When we take children’s active thinking out of learning, we take children’s curiosity out of learning.”

Hand-held tools that allow access to the Internet, which do not include the TeacherMate, not only can be appropriate for elementary youngsters, but also can help foster collaboration and expand the walls of the classroom, says Wang.

But Kelsey, the teacher at Lowell Elementary in Chicago, sees the lack of Internet capability as an advantage of the TeacherMate. Because students can only access the software that she has downloaded and put on the devices, she can be sure that all her students are on task, unlike in the computer lab, where she has to monitor what each child is doing.

“I already know what’s going on [the devices] because I put it there,” she says.

Because each student has his or her own device, it’s easy to differentiate instruction, says Beyer, from New Field Elementary.

“It’s all individualized,” Beyer says, and it takes away the stigma of some students’ needing more reinforcement of a concept than others do.

Throughout the year that Kelsey has used the devices, they have malfunctioned occasionally, but usually just require a restart, she says. Innovations for Learning provides technical support if teachers run into more serious issues, she says.

Going Global

TeacherMates are also making their way into the hands of children around the world, thanks to the efforts of Paul Kim, the chief technology officer for Stanford University. Over the past year, Kim has traveled to Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and other countries to provide educational materials, including TeacherMates, to children who are not receiving any formal education.

Teacher Mary DuBois helps Desiree Lipscomb with her TeacherMate as Darius Wright works with his device at Manierre Elementary School in Chicago.

“I found it very useful because kids love them, and I don’t have to teach them anything,” he says. Even children who had never seen similar technologies can pick one of the devices up and start learning, he says. The software’s game-based approach, says Kim, helps youngsters learn on their own and engages those who may not be used to traditional instructional methods.

The platform that runs the software, which uses Flash, a multimedia platform popular for creating animations and interactivity, also makes it easy to develop new software for the TeacherMate, he says.

The durability of the devices has also made the TeacherMate a good candidate for Kim’s project.

“There is a growing digital divide, and we are leaving a big chunk of our society behind,” he says. “I like to give these children who have no access whatsoever to have an opportunity to reach their potential by giving them [this technology].”

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