Schools Become High Tech

Lugging around bulky textbooks, wiping chalkboard residue off your hands, lining up for boring P.E. drills — all these ubiquitous schoolhouse images have become things of the past as cutting-edge technology transforms everything from the classroom to the cafeteria to the gymnasium.

Take Ardsley Middle School in Ardsley, N.Y. The school has computer-driven SMART Boards in several of its classrooms. These devices digitally project animated images that can be manipulated with the touch of a hand or written on with digital "ink."

While it may take some getting used to, the technology has had a positive effect on class time, according to Martha Snegroff, who has taught science for 42 years and currently teaches at Ardsley.

"It was intimidating at first, but … having the technology just has enhanced teaching. And, for me, it's made it a lot more enjoyable," Snegroff said.

According to research by the Software and Information Industry Association, 78 percent of teachers view technology in the classroom as an asset.

One reason why? Today's computer-savvy kids find these high-tech classrooms more motivating and fun, Snegroff said.

"Even a shy student I often notice volunteers, raises his hand, because he feels comfortable with the material and with using the devices and going up and participating," she said.

Her students agree.

"I love the fact that as technology progresses, it becomes more and more interactive," student Daniel Cohen said. "And I think it's just a really great way for students to learn."

Testing Through Remote Control

In addition to the SMART Board, another piece of new technology has been added to Ardsley classrooms. There is no need for paper when it comes to the dreaded pop quiz; rather, students use the Senteo Interactive Response system.

With the small remote control-like device, students punch in their answers. The hand-held gadgets then feed the information to the computer and tabulate instantaneous results. Using cool graphs and charts, the teacher can track the progress of the whole class.

Like Ardsley, Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., is turning to high-tech tools to help in the classroom. At Empire, you won't see students dragging huge books from class to class. Instead, each student gets a laptop with course material downloaded from the school's wireless network — leaving the kids textbook-free.

And across the country schools are turning to advanced equipment in their cafeterias. In 35 states, more than 2.8 million students have access to the MealPay system, which allows parents to make online payments for their children's lunches and monitor their nutritional choices from home. With a click of a mouse, parents may even ban certain foods.

High-Tech Exercise

Gym classes are also getting a digital makeover. Tedious exercise drills are so yesterday. These days, Dance Dance Revolution — the popular heart-pumping video game — is being used in more than 1,500 schools in 13 states as a regular part of the physical education curriculum.

Does this rise in technology mean that machines are taking over our schools? You might want to ask Asobo, an interactive robot being tested by researchers at the University of California. This R2D2 wannabe not only teaches shapes, colors and words, but it also responds to young children's emotional cues, providing invaluable information on how teachers and robots can best respond to them.

"We tried to develop [Asobo] in very close interaction with the teachers," said Javier Movellan, director of the Machine Perception Lab at the University of California San Diego. "So that this is not a replacement of the teachers, but this is a tool for the teachers to be more effective."

How Effective Is It?

The dramatic rise in technology raises the question: Does it help?

One argument is that a really great teacher doesn't need these devices. But getting kids to pay attention is key and because most kids are used to technological bells and whistles, their ability (and willingness) to sit through a traditional class may be lower.

Most studies of how kids learn show that technology helps in getting them to engage. Furthermore, it can reduce the amount of paperwork teachers have to do between classes and after school, freeing them up to develop curriculums.

All of these conveniences, however, come at a price. Snegroff's classroom alone could cost as much as $5,000. And teachers have to prepare for the possibility that their lesson plans could become the victim of a technology crash.

Some educators have voiced the concern that this equipment can create a larger "digital divide" between the haves and the have-nots. Many kids in this country don't go home to an Internet connection. When teachers using technology offer additional learning experiences on the Web, like blogs or Web sites, students who don't have home access to the Internet can miss out. And lots of schools have trouble allocating the funds not only to the hardware and software but also to the support staff for these gadgets.

Regardless, many think the age of tech-centric schools is here. "I think this technology is going to flourish," Movellan said, "and it's going to be very important in our daily lives."

For more information on high-tech tools for the classroom, check out www.smarttech.com.