Infrastructure

We Have the Technology

November 01, 2003 5 min read

How do you reach students of the Nintendo Generation? Give them tools they recognize, suggest researchers at the National Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, say the authors of a NAS report, Reinventing Schools: The Technology is Now!, there’s “a large and growing gap between the scant technology available in most schools and the rich technological environments students experience away from schools.” That’s not for lack of trying by computer companies. In recent years, the tech sector has unveiled all sorts of products that update—and, some argue, improve upon—basic teaching implements. Here are a few futuristic options for the book-and-pencil crowd, should they choose to move into the 21st century.

TABLET PCs

Replace: Notepads.

Features:Tablet PCs, manufactured by companies like Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba, are laptop computers with touch screens on which students can take notes and draw using an electromagnetic pen called a stylus. Students can convert handwritten notes into digital text, highlight them in colored digital ink, or search through them by keyword.

Who Switched: Teachers at Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio, say tablet PCs have helped both students and teachers tame classroom clutter and become more organized. Because students can take all their notes on the tablet, it functions as “a whole office in one little thing,” observes computer teacher Cynthia Mayo. English instructor Kevin Ryan has his students save their essays to the school server, which he accesses on his own computer, then responds to by typing or voice-recording his comments. “I can sit in an easy chair,” he says, “and not be flipping through piles of papers.”

Glitches: The tablet presents a distraction for some students, letting them play games, write e-mail, or send text messages during class. But schools can use software that allows teachers to monitor students’ tablets during class time.

Cost: $1,700 to $2,700 per tablet PC with unlimited “pages” versus 99 cents for a 100-page spiral-bound notebook.


ELECTRONIC WHITEBOARDS

Replace: Chalkboards, whiteboards, and overhead projectors.

Features: Electronic whiteboards, manufactured by companies like Panasonic, Hitachi, and Quartet, connect to computers that record handwritten notes and drawings exactly as a teacher scrawls them with a stylus. Teachers can later print out this information or post it on school Web sites. Some boards also have a projector function that turns the whiteboard into an interactive touch screen, generated by the teacher’s computer, that can access Web sites, electronic documents, and other computer applications.

Who switched: Scott Hawley, a physics teacher at Wichita Collegiate School in Kansas, says an electronic whiteboard is a boon to his students with learning disabilities because it allows them to focus their attention on him without worrying about getting all the notes down. For subjects that textbooks handle poorly, Barry Rose, a science teacher at Blalack Middle School in Carrollton, Texas, finds up-to-date material on the Web and shares it with his students using his whiteboard.

Glitches: Physics teacher Blair Cochran of Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School near Boston says that handling the stylus, which works best when held at a steep 90-degree angle, takes some getting used to.

Cost: $1,000 to $2,400 per electronic whiteboard versus about $100 for a traditional whiteboard or $300 for an overhead projector.


E- BOOKS

Replace: Books.

Features: An e-book is an electronic book that can be read on a portable e-book reader, a full-size computer, or a handheld device. Available in limited places when they were first introduced about five years ago, e-books can now be obtained from a variety of virtual outlets. Many educators purchase electronic versions of novels from online stores like Amazon.com and eBooks.com and load them onto school servers. Teachers also can subscribe to online libraries such as net Library or pick up free texts on Web sites maintained by organizations including the Library of Congress. When scientific theories change or leaders are deposed, e-book publishers have the ability to make immediate updates.

Who switched: David Tarr, executive director of Sun Valley Charter High School in Ramona, California, which opened in September 2002, says he and his colleagues chose to spend money on ebooks rather than textbooks because they wanted to offer students a wide-ranging research library but “couldn’t afford to buy 10,000 books.”

Glitches: There’s a dearth of quality secondary school content available in electronic form, according to Eric Walusis, president of Searchlight, an Ohio-based e-book consulting company.

Cost: Most e-books are free, but those that aren’t generally sell for $2 to $10 for one text that can be shared electronically. The mass-market paperback edition of Moby Dick costs about $5 for a single copy.


INFANT SIMULATORS

Replace: Five-pound bags of flour lugged around by students learning about the demands of parenting.

Features: Infant simulators are realistic-looking electronic dolls programmed to imitate baby behavior and teach students in health classes about parenting. The most sophisticated product on the market, the 6.5 pound Real Care Baby from Reality works cries, coos, and coughs in response to student handling and when it needs attention at various times of the day (and night), as programmed by the teacher. Students determine the baby’s needs, ranging from “feeding” to” diaper-changing,” then insert a nontransferable key into the doll for 5 to 35 minutes to simulate care. The doll’s internal computer records the quality of care provided.

Who Switched: Rhonda Jones, a teacher at St. Bernard High School in Louisiana, told the Times-Picayune in October that the four simulators she purchased last year with proceeds from candy sales are making an impression. “I get a lot of comments like ‘not having kids,’” she says of her students. “They’re definitely learning lessons, more than any lecture, reading assignment, or class assignment could ever teach them.”

Cost: $250 to $450 for a single baby simulator and accompanying curriculum materials versus about $2 for a 5-pound bag of flour.

—Lillian Hsu

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