As young kids headed back to school this fall, many found that technology in their classrooms had become almost as ubiquitous as Jonas Brothers-plastered lunchboxes. Teachers and students alike are sweet on the new gadgets that have peppered schools.
"It can do whatever the computer does," says Luke James, a third grader in a Rockville Centre, N.Y., elementary school, who recently learned about the workings of the upcoming presidential election on an interactive SMART Board, which replaced the traditional blackboard. "You can touch it and everything."
Technology is getting a front-row seat in elementary classrooms, with the result that chalkboards have become a relic and "the dog ate my homework" won't fly as an excuse any more.
"If I say, 'Boys and girls, take out your textbooks,' they would say 'Oh, groan,'" says Connie Goetz, a fifth-grade teacher at Saw Mill Road School in North Bellmore, N.Y., whose school is on track to have eight SMART Boards by the end of November. "But because they were actively involved [with the SMART Board], they retained so much more."
Some parents might be concerned that technology would dehumanize the teacher-student-parent relationship or create a disparity between the "haves" in wealthy communities and the "have nots" in poorer school districts, but experts contend such gadgets bring helpful progress.
Not surprisingly, Torrance Robinson, co-founder and president of New York City-based eChalk, is one such proponent.
EChalk designs, hosts and manages Web sites for elementary, middle and high schools nationwide, providing e-mail and blog support and requiring secure logins to maximize student safety.
On eChalk-based school sites contain information such as homework assignments, syllabi and upcoming tests so students, parents and teachers can all be on the same page.
According to Robinson, eChalk has more than 1,000 participating schools and is helping to close the communication gap between parents, teachers and students.
In many cases, he claims, the school PTAs are the ones who ask for the eChalk implementation.
"By making the students part of the community where they are the clients, they are more engaged," says Robinson. "After implementing eChalk, parental involvement with school matters goes up a tremendous amount."
The same theory is held by executives at Calgary, Alberta-based SMART Technologies, makers of SMART Boards, which are interactive whiteboards linked to PCs and controlled via touch-sensitive screens or projectors and cameras.
Company executives point to recent studies, including some by the University of Virginia and the University of New Brunswick, that show that interactive whiteboards, which can set a school back between $3,000 and $5,000 for each unit, can improve student learning combined with proper teaching strategies.
"In general, teachers using SMART Board interactive whiteboards often tell us that they notice increased student motivation, greater participation in class and fewer disciplinary problems," says Nancy Knowlton, CEO and co-founder of SMART Technologies.
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Many education experts give these new technologies a thumbs-up for making learning more interesting and convenient, but others contend there could be some speed bumps.
A plausible drawback for SMART Boards stems from a lack of training and support, says Amy Gaimaro, assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y.
"I believe the most successful use of SMART Boards come from districts with excellent professional development training and technology support," says Gaimaro.
Likewise, while a cyber-based solution incorporating a chat or message board can mean a shy child can open up and be more outspoken, it could also have its problems for teachers, students and parents.
Communicating via a computer rather than over the phone or face to face isn't always the best method, say some teachers.
"E-mail can be misinterpreted," says Mary Lou Langdon, a first-grade teacher at Saw Mill Road School in Bellmore, N.Y., who prefers to set up face-to-face meetings with parents, or to at least speak on the phone, about student issues.
To deal with these new technologies and the nuances they bring to the classroom, education experts such as Gaimaro say teachers need to be trained not only in the technical aspects but also in network etiquette or "netiquette." Others stress that it's crucial to keep the playing field in education fair, a growing challenge as more expensive technology gets introduced.
"As more schools use these learning aids, we must continue to be aware of the technological divide and assure that all school systems have the mechanisms to fund use of technology," says Gabie Smith, associate professor of psychology at Elon University in Elon, N.C.
Still, with the current school-age generation so well-versed in technology, with video games and cyber creatures such as Webkinz so much a part of their lives, it only makes sense that tech tools be incorporated into kids' education, say experts.
"Engaging students with new cybertools to enhance their learning experience is here to stay," says Gaimaro, "and teachers can engage their students by using such tools effectively."