Home » Area schools embrace new techno­logies

Area schools embrace new techno­logies

HARLEM VALLEY — Wordle. Glogster. Moodle. Back Channel. Prezi. Guest Atlantis. Anything ring a bell to anyone? If so, maybe you’re part of an Internet upstart on the cutting edge of digital technology.Or maybe you’re just an elementary school student in one of the local school districts.More and more, schools are stepping away from the traditional chalkboard and textbook approach to classroom curriculum and implementing digital technologies signaling a change in the way students are taught. But discussions at several school districts in the area, both public and private, indicate there is a wide range of technology available to suit each school’s specific set of needs.In the Webutuck Central School District, a presentation by author and education leader Heidi Hayes Jacob energized staff toward new ways to teach students, explained Sherry Fisher, a high school English teacher in the district who led a presentation at the Board of Education’s Feb. 7 meeting on emerging technologies in the classroom.She was joined by two of her students, Marina Ferreri and Megan Bailey. While Fisher went through the different Web applications being implemented in classrooms (the entire presentation was made in Prezi, similar to Microsoft PowerPoint), her students were busy discussing the presentation on another Web application, Back Channel. That program operates similar to a private chatroom that students in a classroom can join and participate in discussions with while a teacher is lecturing or showing a video in class.Fisher said she had her students use Back Channel during a useful but admittedly dry instructional video she shows each year. The difference, to her, was obvious.“The students were much more engaged,” she said. “Usually I would have to go back and readdress topics in the video, but this time around the students picked up on it immediately.”In the Pine Plains Central School District, the emphasis was balancing technology with affordability. Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Instruction and Pupil Personnel Services Catherine Parsons explained during an interview with The Millerton News that it had an effect on the district’s budget as well as a teacher’s approach to learning.“You want to try to bring new technologies into the classroom where they’re considered not as an ‘event’ but as an everyday tool,” she said.Parsons explained that operating on a limited budget, which on the surface might seem to encumber new technology, forces a district to think creatively. There are many ways to get around spending lots of money, she said, most of which involve open source software.Open source software is often free and provided in a way that allows users to examine the source code for the program and even change or improve it. Open source software is often a derivative of or functions in a similar way to software and programs that you can buy in a store. For the Pine Plains district, open source software lets the district utilize the same technology as Microsoft Office or Blackboard, but without the hefty cost.The same would apply for students who don’t have particular software programs at home. Open source applications taught in the classroom would allow a student to work on a Microsoft Word document at school, for instance, then take it home and continue to work without having to pay for Microsoft Word itself.That being said, the Web 2.0 technologies touted at the Webutuck Board of Education meeting wouldn’t have to break a school district’s bank account, either. Most of the applications Fisher presented are free for anyone to use, although some offer the option for upgraded features at a cost, usually for use in an educational or business setting.And although they’ve been around for a few years, interactive whiteboards are making their way into more and more classrooms. A projector connected to a computer allows the whiteboard to transmit the display screen across the board, and touchscreen technology allows pens, fingers and other devices to control what is projected on screen. The most prominent brand of these devices are called SMART boards, and every school, both public and private, in the area that was interviewed is slowly buying more and more each year, with the eventual goal of every classroom having one at their disposal.The overriding theme connecting many of the new programs and applications at the different schools is a move away from plain text and lectures toward a more interactive and often multimedia experience.“Students are being exposed to and learning with tools that are already very common to them,” Parsons said. “And they’re going to be required to use these programs when they look into outside opportunities, whether in the workforce or through continuing education. Whatever the next step in life is, they’ll need to be able to use online courseware to communicate in an online environment, to be able to operate multiple wireless devices.”At Webutuck, Fisher expressed the same sentiment.“These are ‘outside-the-box technologies’ that are teaching our kids 21st century skills,” she told the board. “We are teaching them to become 21st century employees and citizens.”At The Kildonan School, a private school in Amenia for students in grades two through 12 with dyslexia and other learning-based differences, the school uses current technology to enhance its alternative teaching methods that placed emphasis on visual and aural stimulation long before public schools began adopting online and digital technologies.In Kildonan’s Assistive Technologies Lab, recommended students receive one-on-one tutoring to keep them up to speed with their classmates. The lab, which Academic Dean Bob Lane said has been around for about eight years, started purchasing computer software for the program nearly four years ago, around the time that Director of Assistive Technology Jamie Martin came to the school.Different programs focus on particular tasks, including reading, writing, study skills, research and more. During one session, Martin and a student used Kurzweil 3000, a software program that analyzes scanned images, like those from a textbook, and reads the text back out loud.“It’s the same thing that we were doing with tutors before,” Martin explained, “but the technology lets us take it a step further.”Two students from Kildonan participated last year in a trial test to use a prototype of the Intel Reader, a portable handheld device that takes pictures of text and can then read it back out loud. Ben Foss, the director of access technology in Intel’s Digital Health Group, was the keynote speaker at Kildonan’s graduation ceremony last year; his speech revolved around his own dyslexia as well as the Intel Reader.“I think this generation of dyslexics has a huge advantage with the technology that’s available to them now,” Martin said. “We’re just formalizing it into an academic setting.”Despite all of the advantages and new frontiers that computer technology is exploring, anyone who tuned in to see a supercomputer battle human contestants on the television quiz show Jeopardy! last week knows the price of advancing technology is not without its minor quirks and hiccups. Fisher’s Prezi presentation froze several times on one of her slides, and the Kurzweil 3000 program couldn’t seem to wrap its digital head around large monetary values, referring to “$5 million” as “five dollars million.” A small price to pay for the advantages educators say these tools are bringing to teachers and students.For the public schools, stepping headfirst into a digital world is acknowledged as both a step in the right direction as well as the tip of the iceberg. Discussion at Webutuck following Fisher’s presentation touched on the probability of one day replacing textbooks with e-readers, which could also realize a significant cost-savings for the district in the long run. They also spoke to the relative disadvantage that teachers and adults find themselves in when dealing with emerging technologies.“I think there is a real disconnect between the students, who are digital natives, and me, who is a digital vagrant,” Webutuck’s Superintendent Steven Schoonmaker joked, playing off a term coined by educator Marc Prensky.For Parsons, it reminded her of a conversation she had years ago, before her time at Pine Plains, with a fellow teacher.“She was dabbling in what was considered cutting edge or emerging technology, and she was asked whether she was comfortable knowing that students were catching on quicker than she was,” Parsons remembered. “And she said, ‘I never really worried about how deep the water was after somebody taught me how to swim.’ As she was saying, there might be this vast pool of information, but she knows how to navigate it and work with it.“There’s a certain comfort level that needs to exist in technology to be able to learn it,” she added later in the interview. “I’ve seen 50- and 60-year-olds being able to use technologies in the same way as 18-year-olds. It’s about how you are open as a learner and as a person.”

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