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Schools: High-tech gadgets are vital
Officials say students need to be prepared for changing world
A student uses a remote device to give his answer to a multiple-choice question. - photo by Tom Reed

Click here for video: Have a look at Lyman Hall Elementary teacher Katie Strickland in action as she teaches fifth-graders using an interactive Promethean board.

It’s not your grandma’s chalkboard local teachers are using to educate students these days.

In recent years, Hall County and Gainesville schools jumped on board the technology instruction train by using computers and online programs to augment the curriculum in reading, math, science and history. But now it’s full steam ahead for local school systems as educators integrate interactive white boards into all classrooms just as fast as school boards can afford them.

Nowadays kids have online social network accounts through MySpace or Facebook. They send text messages to one another during class rather than passing notes. Accustomed to instant information and instant responses, students need technology in the classroom to be engaged in instruction today and proficient in technology for the jobs of tomorrow, educators say.

Aaron Turpin, executive director of technology for Hall County schools, said he feels it’s apparent schools have a lot of catching up to do in the technology realm.

"Students live outside the school house sometimes very differently than how they live in the school house," he said.

To keep students of all ages tuned in to learning how the human body digests food, why whales eat plankton and where the events of French philosopher Voltaire’s novella "Candide" took place, educators have rolled in a new tool — the Promethean board.

When off, a Promethean board looks much like a regular dry-erase white board. But with the flip of a switch, the Promethean board, which acts as an interactive big screen computer, brings learning to life. Rather than picking up chalk, teachers pick up a pen that functions as a wireless hand-held computer mouse. A click here and there can pull up an infinite amount of graphics, maps and multimedia components, including video.

Just about any application available on the Internet can be viewed on the white board and used as a teaching tool. Teachers can illustrate nearly anything — money, fractions, stories, grammar structure — to provide students a visual aid as they grasp concepts in any subject.

Turpin said the Promethean boards are becoming the standard for Hall County classrooms. The boards already are in place at several county schools such as the World Language Academy and Lyman Hall Elementary. Technicians presently are installing the white boards at C.W. Davis, East Hall and West Hall middle schools.

Katie Strickland, a fifth-grade teacher at Lyman Hall
Elementary, said the Promethean board makes teaching easier. In addition to saving paper, it allows her to demonstrate huge numbers to students when teaching math concepts.

"I wasn’t having to draw (blocks) on the board, I could just drag them on the (white) board," she said.

Strickland said classes she’s taught using the Promethean board seem to understand math concepts better than the classes she taught before using the white board. She said it’s a great tool for new teachers.

Her favorite aspect of the Promethean boards is the Activote component, which allows students to respond to multiple choice questions from their desk using a small, wireless computer mouse. The individual student results immediately are revealed to the teacher, and Strickland can determine whether the class understands the material enough to move on. She also uses the Activotes for pop quizzes.

When asked what school was like before the Promethean board was in their class, Strickland’s fifth-grade students replied in unison: "Boring."

Even with a 50 percent discount off technology purchased through state or multigovernment contracts, Turpin said the Promethean boards can cost the school system up to $3,700 a pop, including full classroom wiring and installation. If a classroom already has been wired for a projector, he said the board and installation total $999.

Gainesville schools are on a similar track.

Keith Palmer, director of technology for Gainesville schools, said the school system is spending more than $356,000 of a recently awarded state grant to purchase interactive white boards — the chalkboards of the 21st century. The state charter implementation grant provided the Gainesville school system with $600,000 to implement its new systemwide charter status. On top of the $356,000 to purchase the white boards, Palmer said the system also is using a portion of the grant to train the staff to use the new technology.

"The 21st-century classrooms that we will be able to purchase through the charter system grant is well-timed," Palmer said.

He said two years ago, the school system embarked on a plan to outfit a large number of classrooms each year with smart Boards, but funding for the plan largely was curtailed this year because of budget constraints. As the budget gets cut, technology is cut accordingly, he said.

Palmer said he believes it’s unfortunate that one of the primary uses of Georgia Lottery proceeds initially were marked for technology in schools, but that tapered off within about five years of the lottery implementation.

Palmer and Turpin said the school systems also are responsible for the costs to maintain and refresh computers and other technology. Turpin said seven years is the age cap for most computers in the county school system before they must be replaced to accommodate new advanced programs. Palmer said for the city school system, having an adequate number of technicians to maintain technology is a challenge.

Turpin said the county schools’ technology program has about nine Dell-trained technicians. By using only Dell-brand computers in the schools, the system has been able to standardize technology and use its own technicians to repair the school system’s 10,000 computers. Not only does having Dell-trained system technicians mean repairs get done faster than having Dell technicians make the repairs, it’s also financially beneficial. Turpin said Dell reimburses the school system for the time its employees spend making repairs.

Although the cost of technology rises as school systems scramble to keep up, Turpin said schools can’t afford not to invest in cutting-edge technology. He said although the Hall County school system, like most others nationwide, are trying to cut costs everywhere without negatively affecting education in the classroom, technology should be deemed a crucial element in children’s basic education if they are to be competitive nationally and globally.

"We have to be very smart with our limited resources as we travel down this path," Turpin said. "Our students need to have a skill set of basic technological applications because what we have today will be different from what we have six months from now."

But technology also can be cost-saving.

Turpin said purchasing computer reading programs, such as Lexia, costs the school system $300,000. But with the reading program that students also can access online from home, it saves the school system millions of dollars in purchases of reading textbooks for kindergartners through eighth-graders.

"You always need some print materials, but the quantity of materials goes down," he said.

Eloise Barron, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for Hall County schools, helped to develop the Georgia Performance Standards during her time with the state Department of Education. She said she believes the investment in Promethean boards and computers is well worth the price.

"Teaching is changing, learning has changed and technology allows students to be able to find the answer if they don’t know the answer. ... You can find anything about any topic you want to know at the push of the button," she said. "It’s changed the way we teach tremendously."

Barron said after visiting schools in China last year, it’s apparent to her that innovative instruction using technology is the wave of the future.

"We can’t teach our students to be ready for the future without being in the present ourselves," she said. "And the present is technology."

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