Traditional teaching tools are biting the chalk dust in East Valley schools, as chalkboards, white boards and slide projectors are being replaced with new computerized, digitalized versions. Schools in Chandler, Tempe and Mesa are piloting high-tech classrooms where nearly everything is done on computers.
The Scottsdale Unified School District is even asking voters to approve an $89 million override to pay for laptops for every high school freshman, interactive white boards, document cameras and wireless Internet connections in every school.
The sharp turn toward better technology inspires some teachers and overwhelms others.
“Imagine what some 19th century school marm would think,” said Danny Robledo, a teacher at St. Ambrose in Tucson, who attended a workshop in Scottsdale to hone his skills using SMART boards — interactive white boards that look like flat-screen televisions and work like touchscreen computers.
“In 10 years, this will be the norm.”
Yet without proper teacher training, the technology purchases can amount to nothing more than wasted dollars, said Gary Bitter, Arizona State University professor of educational technology.
The SMART boards, which cost $1,200 each, are just one popular piece of educational equipment popping up in classrooms. The boards, which must be hooked up to a computer to operate, allow teachers to write on the screen, then use handwriting recognition software to type up what they have written.
They include software like maps, graphs, clip art and protractors which teachers can use to create virtual lesson plans.
The boards keep students, accustomed to iPods and hightech video games, engaged in class activities, said Janine Gearhart, director of educational technology in the Mesa Unified School District.
Instead of using a felt board to engage students in a story, she said, a kindergarten teacher might use the SMART board to add music, text and interactive components to the story. A high school chemistry teacher might use the boards to explain the periodic table of elements.
“With PowerPoint, they’re just watching it go by. This . . . they can go up and write on it,” said Julie Solomon, training manager for CCS Presentation systems, the company that distributes the boards locally.
She said there are at least 4,000 SMART boards in the state, and more than 2,600 teachers have been trained to use the equipment.
Mesa school district just purchased more than 25 SMART boards to use this fall. The Tempe Elementary School District is piloting four high-tech classrooms that will have the boards, said David Diokno, the district’s director of information technology.
As Tempe rebuilds five schools, Diokno said, educators hope to find out what technology works best so they can create “classrooms of the future.”
While some children are lucky enough to be exposed to technology at home or at mom or dad’s workplace, some lowincome students don’t have the same opportunities, he said, so building technology into schools helps “level the playing field.”
Yet new complex technology brings with it problems —chiefly, concerns about how to train teachers to effectively use the tools.
While children quickly pick up the technology, it often takes teachers longer, Diokno said.
“It can be hit or miss in a classroom,” he said. “You might see students using a computer in one class where teachers are on-board. You go into another classroom where it might not be in use because the teachers are fearful.”
To help teachers, some larger districts, like Mesa, have educational technology staff that go into classrooms and work with teachers.
But smaller districts aren’t always able to do that.
Higley Elementary School teacher Carolyn Fairall admitted it’s hard for her to keep up with the changing technology — and a lot has changed since she started teaching 35 years ago when she “hadn’t even heard about personal computers.”
Since then, it seems she has to learn something else just about every year; this coming fall, she must learn how to use a new electronic gradebook. And it became harder last year, she said, when cutbacks eliminated the school’s computer teacher.
“I think we all felt threatened when we had to do it on our own,” she said. “It’s kind of frightening for an older person, but you have to keep up with the times.”
Teachers also have to learn how to keep their students focused on the subject matter, not just the bells and whistles of the technology.
“It’ll be a battle at first to keep the students from being overly fascinated with the new technology,” said Nicole Lueders, who teaches at Mesa’s Lincoln Elementary School. “Everyone will want to be the person up there touching the screen. But that’s not necessarily a huge disadvantage.”
These days, teachers-intraining at ASU learn about new technology like SMART boards before graduating, Bitter said. The university also offers distance-learning opportunities for current teachers to brush up on the new programs.
Bitter said, however, that parents can’t assume an older teacher will be less tech-savvy.
“There are just as many senior teachers who get excited,” he said.
“Some were ready to retire, but (new technology) lit a fire underneath them and now they’re really excited about using it.”