Thinking Technology


Area Schools E-volve With Digital Makeover in the Classrooms

Scott McLeod has an online blog titled “dangerously irrelevant,” which is his take on American education. McLeod — an associate professor and coordinator of the Educational Administration Program at Iowa State University — charges that most schools in the United States serve their students poorly when it comes to technology and the tools needed for a 21st-century job.

To change that, McLeod gives workshops to school administrators around the country urging them to provide students with a digital education, which includes not only computers, laptops and Internet access, but a virtual wonderland of high-tech gadgetry that is making today’s classrooms virtually unrecognizable from the ones most parents remember. Move over chalkboards — today, there’s the electronic whiteboard, an interactive computer-based system that includes a large touch-sensitive screen and projector linked to a computer. Speaking of computers, both Macs and PCs are becoming the 21st-century version of pen and paper for even the youngest students.

Last year, the National School Boards Association called McLeod one of the voices shaping the future of education. If McLeod were grading your child’s school, would it get a passing grade? And what are the standards for an “F” or “A+” when it comes to high-tech honors?

Asked for examples of states that are doing a decent job with educational technology, McLeod said that Virginia was somewhat ahead of the rest of the country. However, he pointed to West Virginia and other states taking part in an initiative called the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as providing ideal models for schools throughout the country.

As part of that partnership, West Virginia’s educational technology plan calls for incorporating teaching computers, large-screen televisions and interactive whiteboards in half of all its classrooms by the 2009-10 school year, along with adding digital cameras, electronic responder devices and digital music players. The plan also requires that almost every school have an Internet Web page by 2010 and that 99 percent of the state’s elementary schools employ Internet-based instruction and software by then.

According to McLeod, Washington area schools are “making progress,” but more strides need to be made. “At some point, we have to move in the direction of getting a computer in the hands of every kid 24-7,” he said. “Labs and mobile carts are OK — as are having a few computers in each classroom — but teaching and learning change entirely when every student has a computer every day.”

So to see which area schools are faring better than others in the technology department, The Washington Diplomat has put together this primer on e-learning that spotlights various public and private grade schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Surprising Tech Surge in D.C. Public Schools In a little noticed development in the District, Mayor Adrian Fenty and his new school chief Michelle Rhee have brought on an information technology superstar, Vivek Kundra, to overhaul educational technology in the city’s ailing public schools. Kundra most recently served as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine’s assistant secretary of commerce and technology. A former software executive and international technology consultant, Kundra led a Virginia trade delegation to India and brought back million in investments.

When Fenty made a pledge last November to put computers into every D.C. public school and fix the often-defunct school Web links, he put Kundra in charge as the system’s chief technology officer. So Kundra’s office promptly ferried 5,900 new computers into the District’s public schools. “I ran it like a military operation,” Kundra joked in an interview with The Washington Diplomat. But joking aside, the massive job was finished just two months later at the end of January 2008.

According to Shirley Bellamy, Rhee’s new acting director of educational technology, “we now have a teacher-dedicated Dell computer in each classroom and three to five computers per classroom in every school — Apple computers for kindergarten through grade eight and PCs for nine through 12.”

Most urgently, however, Kundra has been installing a fiber-optic network that is a hundred times faster than the existing links in the city’s school system. This new network will be able to stream high-speed telephone, Internet and cable television information, including advanced multimedia applications, into every school. “In the fall, we’ll be done,” he said.

But that’s just the start. The goal is to place high-tech tools in every classroom, including wireless laptops, interactive whiteboards and videoconferencing abilities — all to prepare D.C. students for modern jobs and the global marketplace, Kundra said.

This school year, the team plans to set up four fully technology-equipped schools in the city. “This is not a pilot,” Kundra emphasized, calling it a practical step toward a larger goal. “We’ll have 40 classrooms this year that will have all this, including an interactive whiteboard in each class. We’re working on it now.”

The four schools are Amidon and Whittier elementary schools, Jefferson Junior High School and Coolidge High School. Bellamy is also applying for grants to support high-tech career education initiatives at Spingarn, Roosevelt and Ballou high schools. In addition, 11 D.C. elementary and middle schools last year received interactive whiteboards, and a number of other schools have gotten them through parent-teacher association fundraising, private gifts or individual grants.

Capitol Hill Day School: A Private Model in D.C. Capitol Hill Day School is a private coeducational school tucked into a corner of Capitol Hill just down the street from the Library of Congress that serves 230 students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. “Our students leave here well prepared to use technology and to do so in a way that’s responsible,” said Martha Shepardson-Killam, head of the school.

Indeed, with a topic-based curriculum that focuses on patterns and relationships, technology is seen as an integral thinking tool.

To that end, the school has a computer lab as well as wireless laptops on mobile carts, with 55 laptops, 30 new thin client notebooks and 65 other computers (all Dell) throughout the school. The school will also acquire an interactive whiteboard this year. Student cell phones though are not permitted. “The school is small and parents can easily reach us,” Shepardson-Killam noted.

All this technology goes hand in hand with learning tangible skills. For instance, third-graders learn typing skills, fifth-graders collect data from the Web for projects and create spreadsheets, while eighth graders leave with knowledge of desktop publishing and the HTML programming used to build Internet Web sites.

Beth Nalker, a fifth-grade teacher at Capitol Hill Day School, said she particularly likes to use computer software and Internet sites to teach math and science. She cited Geometer’s Sketchpad software with its interactive visuals as a good resource for younger students to understand geometric concepts. For her fifth-graders, she said they respond to astronomy lessons that feature Google Sky or Hubble Space Telescope Web sites. Nalker also uses geographic information system (GIS) software in lessons about earthquakes — “and we’ll use student versions of GIS to make maps in our China studies,” she noted.

In addition to providing tech guidance to students, Shepardson-Killam said the school also provides tech tips for parents, many of whom are concerned about safety issues in a rapidly changing online world that includes social Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Montgomery County: Maryland’s Public Heavyweight Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is the largest school district in Maryland, with 137,745 students this year in its 200 schools. The system also boasts a graduation rate of more than 91 percent, 80 percent of its teachers have master’s degrees, and it regularly produces National Merit Scholars.

MCPS also has a sophisticated Web site ( that offers visitors the choice of five languages for viewing the site, which features audio podcasts, educational videos and school newsletters.

In addition, MCPS has its own television studio that provides programs for both county schools and homes through public broadcast channels, as well as around-the-clock online webcasts.

According to Chris Cram, MCPS spokesman and instructional technology staffer, Montgomery County began using interactive Promethean-brand whiteboards in its schools three years ago and is putting them into every middle and high school this coming school year, along with some elementary schools. At the same time, the system is deploying Promethean wireless clickers called “Activotes” that let students communicate with a teacher during class by pushing buttons that light up an electronic class list.

So how does all this technology translate into real-life classroom experiences? At Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase, whiteboards went into all of the first- through third-grade classrooms last year. “There are pictures on it that move, such as a thermometer with a temperature reading that goes up and down,” said first-grade teacher Rachael Love. “You can write on it and turn what you write into typed letters, or move images around on it. The children love learning from the board.”

Each of her students also has an Activote at their disposal, and the class has an “Elmo” projector tool with a video camera that replaces traditional overhead projectors. Elmo sends live video images of student papers or projects — such as a clay sculpture — as well as videos or DVD movies directly onto a digital screen.

Outside of school, “children are involved with videogames, computers, iPods and cell phones,” Love said, “so our job as teachers is to use technology as a tool and motivate our students.”

Holton-Arms Embraces Technology Holton-Arms is a private college preparatory school for girls located in Bethesda, Md., that serves grades three through 12, with a current enrollment of 655 students. Brad Rathgeber, the school’s director of technology, explained that computers are not just used in the classrooms, but rather technology is integrated into the entire curriculum.

Holton-Arms has 13 SMART Board-brand whiteboards, as well as a wireless network and specialized computer labs for music technology, digital photography and student publications. All middle and upper school students are also required to have their own laptops, and students have supervised access to the Internet through grade six, and unsupervised access (with parent permission) from grades seven to 12.

In the Holton-Arms lower school, a design technology program teaches problem solving and basic engineering skills, Rathgeber said. Conducted in a specially designed large room with a central work area flanked by computers, the program allows students to build and program real robots using Lego Mindstorm pieces (Lego sets that combine programmable bricks with electric motors, sensors and other robotic instruments). In addition, fourth-grade girls can construct their own go-carts while fifth- and sixth-graders use computer simulations to test the principles of flight.

“We do movie creation in any class, or sixth-graders might put data about Egypt into an Excel spreadsheet,” Rathgeber added. Students and teachers might also use Audacity voice-recording shareware in language-learning classes where a teacher posts an online assignment and students respond by inserting their voice into the lesson.

In short, emphasis on integrating educational technology is pervasive, and multimedia applications serve academics at all grade levels, Rathgeber said, from the youngest students “all the way up.”

Virginia’s Promising Approach This past spring, the Virginia Department of Education surveyed staff in almost 500 of its public schools about student use of classroom technology such as computers and the Internet. Although the official survey results haven’t yet been released, the department agreed to share some of its findings with The Washington Diplomat.

According to the survey, each week, 81 percent of elementary students in Virginia public schools use a computer at school at least once, 76 percent go on the Internet to look something up, 53 percent use an interactive whiteboard in a classroom, and nearly one-third use digital photography or video equipment.

Moreover, 89.3 percent are relying on these technologies to practice or review topics in assorted school subjects, 80 percent use it once or more each week to prepare for standardized tests, and 60 percent use it to take tests or quizzes.

And in an interesting reflection on teacher strategy, the survey also found that more than 80 percent of students use this technology to work cooperatively with other students, often on cross-disciplinary projects.

However, it’s important to note that all of this data has been self-reported and therefore not verified by any outside party. Nevertheless, according to Julie Mersiowsky of the Virginia Office of Educational Technology, these grade-school students are using high-tech tools to solve real-world problems, create media or Web-based presentations, conduct online research, and learn to visually represent abstract concepts.

Falls Church: A Premier Public Miniature Located in Northern Virginia, the Falls Church City Public Schools (FCCPS) District calls itself the “premier small school system in the nation.” It also has the honor of being among the tiniest, with four schools serving 1,900 students.

There are computer labs and computer carts in all four Falls Church facilities, and the system is gradually putting interactive whiteboards into its two elementary schools.

Looking at some of the current numbers, Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School has 85 computers in four labs and nine mobile carts with 145 laptops, while George Mason High School has seven labs with 25 computers each and one laptop cart, according to FCCPS Director of Communications Karen Acar.

“Yes, Falls Church is investing in technology,” said Jed Frei, a third-grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School who uses an interactive whiteboard in his classroom. “If you’re teaching math, you can project images of coins onto the screen, say, ‘Show me 36 cents,’ and a student can come up to the board and drag coins to a cash register. It’s visual and tactile and students are very engaged by it.” He added: “A class can generate a story together — the teacher types it and projects it onto the screen, and a student can come up and underline the verbs or put a hand on a word and move the word around.”

Frei also has a video-based Elmo projector in his classroom, which he said is useful for projecting science experiments onto a screen so that everyone can see them, or for editing a student paper together as a class.

In addition, the school system is piloting an “Angel” online learning management system in all four of its schools that uses free software and requires a password for access. It’s similar to the expensive Blackboard brand used to create a virtual learning environment at the college level. There are different ways that “Angel” is being deployed at each Falls Church school — from typed-in discussions and homework that can be posted online to a secure, internal e-mail service that teaches younger students how to exchange e-mail appropriately.

Frei says incoming students get smarter about such technology with each passing year. “I’ve been teaching six years. Four or five years ago you had to walk them through new tech slowly, step by step,” he said. “Now you do it once, they watch and then do it. I see it as something that benefits them and makes the classroom richer. It better prepares them for the future.”

Langley: Cutting-Edge Savvy The Langley School is a coeducational private institution serving 470 students in grades pre-kindergarten through eight on a nine-acre campus in McLean, Va. Its energetic director of technology and communication, Lee Nelms, has developed an astonishing array of educational experiences for Langley students that showcase cutting-edge technology tools.

“There’s a lot of nervousness about educational technology among parents and teachers in this country,” Nelms said, citing some of the common complaints: “Safety is a huge concern — cyber-bullying. Some parents are afraid that it’s [anti-intellectual]. Computers get lumped with passive television watching. Others are not comfortable with the technology itself and find it threatening.”

Her empathy for such concerns has helped Nelms develop programs that address some of the criticisms while also stretching learning boundaries, often creating initiatives that resemble simple playtime but involve sophisticated tools used by the most tech-savvy adults.

For instance, Langley teachers use portable, flat-tablet computers that look like old-fashioned slates, but all the tablets incorporate Skype technology, the same software that permits free international phone calls over the Internet.

The school also has three computer labs with 52 Apple computers and 19 PCs, as well as a variety of computing devices, including laptops and other small wireless devices.

The high-tech push at Langley begins at an early age. For example, 4-year-olds learn to program tiny robots called “Bee-Bots,” floor robots in the shape of, what else, a bee that children can direct through the push of a button.

Meanwhile, all grade levels take part in “Read Around the Planet,” an annual live videoconferencing session that links to a partner school in the United States or overseas. Each class has to research a project to prepare for the broadcast. Last year, a class of 3-year-olds performed “The Three Little Pigs” when they connected with schools in North Carolina and Texas. Among the older students, fourth-graders dressed like historical figures and challenged their partner students in Ohio to guess who they were. During the coming year, students studying Spanish will videoconference twice a month with students in Peru, while second-graders studying science will take part in a NASA videoconference titled “Our Magnificent Sun.”

Langley also has a media studio where students and teachers create their own films and live television programming. “It’s a separate room, painted all black, including the ceiling, with stage lighting, three cameras and a teleprompter,” Nelms said. It even has green-screen technology that can make students look as if they’re broadcasting from the streets of New York or the face of the moon.

As part of its social studies curriculum, students in grades six through eight produce weekly newscasts in the media studio, with fourth-graders providing the content. Films of the newscasts are edited and then posted online.

More than the mere gee-whiz factor though, this media studio has generated a 65-page script about American history, a filmed fashion show with narration in French, and second-graders singing songs about sun spots to prepare for the NASA videoconference.

Safety in Cyberspace: Advice for Parents Parents need to be proactive when it comes to the use of the Internet by children and teenagers, and they need to start “earlier and earlier” to protect them, advised Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University. Hinduja and Justin Patchin of the University of Wisconsin have just published a book titled “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying.”

One new development in this still-emerging field, Hinduja told The Washington Diplomat, is a bullying risk for children playing videogames online with players across the country or across the world, in which name-calling can occur, and younger children in particular can be confused or upset by it.

Passwords to Web sites are another area of concern. “If you ask a group of children how many know their best friends’ passwords, half the hands go up,” Hinduja said. “In our training sessions we ask children, ‘What could your worst enemy do if they had your password?’ and the light bulb comes on.”

Hinduga suggests that parents demonstrate a friendly interest in their children’s online activities and discuss appropriate behavior — from social sites like Facebook and MySpace to texting on the cell phone. “Ask if you can see their MySpace page; ask if they know the people who have access to it or have ever met up with any of them. Teach children to keep their passwords secret and teach them not to share personal information through Web sites,” he said.

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.