Erasing student apathy

Interactive screens replace chalkboards and inspire pupils

December 01, 2006|By RUMA KUMAR | RUMA KUMAR,Special to The Sun

Bates Middle School math teacher Sarah Green doesn't have to wait for volunteers.

On a recent Tuesday morning, small hands fluttered eagerly in the air for a chance to answer a question about negative integers. But the concept, which they'll need to grasp before learning algebra next year, is not what the pupils are focused on.

They just want to use their fingers to drag colored dots across the new interactive whiteboard screen.

Anne Arundel County public schools are slowly replacing chalkboards with 4-foot-wide touch-sensitive screens that hook up to a projector and computer.

The screens, which teachers say encourage learning, might someday make paper worksheets and even textbooks obsolete. The interactive boards allow teachers to pull various lessons or data files off the Internet and incorporate them into their daily assignments for students.

Twelve county schools already have the interactive whiteboards. In Severna Park, Davidsonville and Millersville, classrooms have had interactive technology for as long as six or seven years, said Val Emrich, instructional technology manager for the county school system. But this fall, the technology has started to spread to schools with lower-income or high-risk students who are struggling to meet federal student performance benchmarks.

"In schools, everything boils down to economics," Emrich said. "You're looking at equipment that altogether costs about $3,000 to $4,000. That's a lot of money for schools to raise. But many of our schools are starting to see the benefits of the technology and how it can help improve student performance."

At Bates Middle School in Annapolis, which got five whiteboards six weeks ago, teachers are already seeing a boost in pupil participation in the classrooms.

"If you can engage students in learning, get them excited, then one of the effects is better academic performance," said Principal Diane Bragdon. "They live in a video game world. We had to find something that could get their attention. These whiteboards do that." Children, teachers said, like moving objects around the screen. They like writing on the screens, and they like the direct role they're playing in the lesson. There's no more of the teacher just standing in front of the class and pupils taking notes. "When they walk into the class and see the whiteboard here and the green light on, it's like their face lights up," said Laura Pinto, an eighth-grade social studies teacher.

Pupils who were shy to volunteer to do exercises on chalkboards or overhead projectors, are volunteering to do them on the interactive whiteboards, teachers say, because the whiteboards are so fun to work with. With interactive whiteboards, teachers are tapping into pupils' innate curiosity and interest in video and computer technology to help pupils overcome their shyness or self-consciousness.

Technology is also an equalizer, teachers said, which means it can be used as effectively in an honors class as it can be in a special education class. The whiteboards have also helped foreign-language-speaking students get involved in classes, teachers say.

Some of the high schools are using them with distance learning and conferencing software to broadcast and share Calculus 3 classes. This way, the county doesn't have to hire five calculus teachers. They can have one in Severna Park High School and can broadcast the lesson to other schools.

Interactive whiteboards have jumped in popularity since 2000, when roughly 10,000 whiteboards were in American schools. This year, 95,874 whiteboards are in American schools, up from 74,104 in 2005, according to England-based Decision Tree Consulting, a market research firm that tracks the interactive whiteboard market in 66 countries.

In the United Kingdom, where the average is two for every school, the government is allocating more than $140 million to buy additional units, according to DTC.

At Bates, Bragdon used funds the school gets to help its large low-income population to get the whiteboards. The school is also leaning on its parent organization to write grants for more funds. The parent group at Bates also sold holiday gift-wrapping and other items to contribute to the $7,000 needed for the whiteboards.

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