Southwick Research

An Autobiographical Collection of Observations and Investigations

by J. Wanless Southwick, Ph.D.

 

 

 

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Education Technology

Beginning in 1986, I worked as a science and technology teacher in our small community high school. At first, I taught one "computer class" on a few Apple II computers. Soon my interest in using technology for learning blossomed into the acquisition of more computers, including the creation of a networked laboratory of Apple IIgs computers. During our transition into MS-DOS, my students won recognition for learning how to create interactive computer-based training programs using QUEST multimedia computer programming software.

As more interest in computer-based learning developed, and grants to purchase computer technology increased, our school district applied for and received grant money to acquire Windows-based computers and a Novell network to connect them all. Then a major grant initiative by the Albertson Foundation gave $250,000 to each Idaho school district. Since our rural school district was very small, we were able to create multimedia teaching stations in every classroom, Kindergarten through the 12th Grade.

Each multimedia teaching station was equipped with a multimedia computer, which was connected to the school's Novell network, the Internet, a color printer, a ceiling mounted multimedia projector, and an interactive SmartBoard at the front of the classroom. A goose-necked camera was attached to the computer, giving the teacher the ability to focus the camera on a classroom demonstration or document and project its image onto the SmartBoard at the front of the classroom for all to see. Each teacher was given a digital camera as part of the teaching package. Teachers could stand at the front of their students, project the classroom computer's screen onto the SmartBoard, and control the computer by touching the SmartBoard with their finger. They could project computer software screens to help teach concepts and even access the Internet directly for all to see. The classroom multimedia projectors were also connected to cable TV. It was a memory we will never forget when most of the high school students and faculty crowded into one classroom to watch a big-screen projection of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers as it was being broadcast live on that fateful day of September 11, 2002.

One of the biggest challenges was to teach teachers how to use all this new technology and how to integrate it into their classroom routines. We accepted the challenge and resolved to have all teachers and administrators achieve their state computer competency certification within one year. We were pleased to be the first school district in the State of Idaho to have all teachers and administrators earn their certificate. Many of the non-teaching staff also earned their computer competency certificates. We developed a schedule of faculty training that took a topic per month (e.g. word processing, spreadsheet, PowerPoint, etc.). In addition to regular inservice sessions, the Superintendent gave me a portion of weekly morning staff meetings to use a SmartBoard to demonstrate some aspect of the multimedia teaching stations that each teacher had in his or her classroom. Some teachers aggressively experimented with integrating their multimedia tools into their curriculum. Others were timid, even computer phobic. To encourage everyone, we held monthly "Chat, Chew and Cheer" sessions after school. In an informal setting, teachers would "chew" on refreshments, chat about successes they were having as they used the multimedia technologies in their classrooms, and cheer each other as awards were passed out for notable achievements with teaching technologies.

We even explored the promise of distance education. At first we tried using satellite-based distance learning, but we discovered it to be expensive and hard to synchronize with the regular school day schedule. Expenses came from extra tuition costs for each enrolled student, which were charged by the distance learning provider ("STEP Star Schools"), from supplies required for the classes, and from the cost of hiring classroom facilitators. At first we thought distance learning would save the cost of a skilled teacher's salary. We soon learned that we had to have an attentive adult in the distance learning classroom to keep high school students on task. We also learned that the adult needed to have some level of competency in the subject area to be effective as a classroom facilitator. The anticipated financial savings did not materialize. Further complicating this type of distance learning was the awkwardness of trying to mesh the distance learning class schedule with the school day. Never did the time schedule of distance learning class fit the school day schedule. We tried to accommodate misalignments, but when the class started 15 minutes or a half hour before or after the school period bell rang, it was awkward. Even the school year start and end dates, holidays, and vacations didn't match up. After a couple of years we abandoned this style of distance learning. We had more success with distance learning that was individual student based and asynchronous, so it could be used whenever the student was available. None-the-less, we found that high school students needed adult supervision to keep them on task.

We found that computer technology greatly facilitated education, but it took some adjustment for teachers to take advantage of it. For example, students adapted well to the use of word processing to prepare their written classroom report assignments. At first teachers were concerned that spell checkers would inhibit learning of proper spelling. Then it seemed to help students when the computer would underline a misspelled word in red, prompting them to figure out the correct spelling. Using copy and paste to extract encyclopedia text into a written report seemed to be a problem at first. Then it provided an easy way to teach students how to use quotes and the automated text citation features of their word processing software to avoid appearance of plagiarism. Soon teachers realized that presentation software, such as PowerPoint, provided a powerful new way for students to prepare classroom reports. Especially in our multimedia classrooms, it was easy for students to share their multimedia research reports by projecting their PowerPoint presentations onto the classroom SmartBoard. Such presentations had multiple benefits: the presenting student learned presentation skills, he or she got praise for his or her work, and the other students in the classroom learned from the presentation and classroom discussions afterward.

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