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Interactive Flat Panels a Key Tool for Teacher-Driven Learning

Modern interactive flat-panel displays support pedagogy and digital equity, while getting students physically involved in their education.

By Tommy Peterson

The difference was immediate. After rolling out Promethean ActivPanel interactive whiteboards and document cameras in 600 of the classrooms at Albemarle County Public Schools, teachers reported an increased excitement for learning.

This is exactly why the district’s implementation team brought these new technologies to the Virginia district of 14,000 students and 25 schools.

“We see students and teachers working together with the boards to learn things that they say they couldn’t have understood as well without them,” says Gene Osborn, assistant director for technology integration.

He remembers watching a third grade class in which teams of three students took turns at an interactive whiteboard that was operating in split-screen mode, with one child doing research on a geographic formation while the other two took notes. The note takers then annotated the research, and the team was able to save the work to present or continue working on later.

ACPS was intentional about choosing these tools. “We want to make sure that individual student needs, not the technology, are driving the teaching,” Osborn says.

Goals, not Gimmicks, Foster Learning and Student Engagement

The pandemic added new urgency to educators’ efforts to more effectively engage with their students. Eighty-five percent of writing teachers say that student engagement has fallen during COVID-19, and 76 percent of math teachers report a decline, according to a national survey by educational technology company Texthelp.

Some school districts, like ACPS, have already seen how these modern audiovisual technologies can increase student engagement. A study by Forrester Research for Promethean reveals that 70 percent of districts purchased interactive whiteboards primarily to boost students’ interest in lessons being discussed.

Janet Kolodner, a professor of the practice in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, says that these technologies must be used thoughtfully.

“Technology is only as valuable as the way it’s used,” she says. “Too often these tools are used as tricks for immediate engagement, instead of something that will help students engage and learn over a long period of time.”

“It’s not the bells and whistles of video games that we should be duplicating in the classroom,” says Kolodner, an expert in the fields of Learning Sciences and Learning Engineering.

She explains, “We need our classroom technology tools to help learners move to the next level of capability or understanding. That means that classroom tools should have the capacity to promote curiosity, support discourse and collaboration, and give students a sense of agency.”

Interactive, Versatile Tools Expand Teaching Opportunities

ACPS decision-makers wanted to provide the core technology tools for a modern classroom, as seen through the lens of instructional practices, says Osborn. The Promethean digital whiteboards offer a platform for collaborative learning, high-quality visual and audio presentation, and manipulation of content from many sources.

Osborn says that while “we see a spike in student engagement when the technology is introduced — you shouldn’t underestimate the power of novelty — the embedded professional development is crucial to maintaining that engagement.”

Part of that training focuses on sharing techniques for getting students to interact with displayed content themselves.

Adding these classroom tools also provides another benefit: increased digital equity. In “Driving K–12 Innovation: 2021 Hurdles + Accelerators,” the Consortium for School Networking notes ensuring students have access to connectivity and devices builds digital foundations. In a second report, “Driving K–12 Innovation: 2021 Tech Enablers,” CoSN cited digital collaboration platforms as one of its top five tech enablers.

“We want to give teachers the tools they need, ones that are versatile enough to help every student,” says Osborn, who leads a team of technology coaches who work with teachers in their classrooms, training them to use the tools to support, not replace, their pedagogy.

“We want all teachers to be able to walk into all learning spaces and deliver instruction with high-quality displays, high-quality speakers and advanced functionality,” he says.

While some students still lack connectivity at home, once they are in classrooms with a variety of modern audiovisual devices, they get a chance to use technology that expands their learning.

Childress Independent School District has made a big commitment to providing effective learning tools for its 1,000 students. Every teacher in the Texas district’s three schools can opt to have a Promethean ActivPanel in his or her classroom, and most of them do, says Sarah Mills, the district’s curriculum and federal programs director. While they don’t have formal metrics for student engagement, classroom reports support their value.

Mills says the digital whiteboards promote equity by enhancing the learning experience of all students, regardless of ability or special needs.

“Anytime you have a student able to interact with whatever they’re working on, it’s going to improve that student’s success incrementally,” she says. “When a special education student, for example, is able to manipulate the materials in a lesson, it’s going to be a more concrete learning experience, and they will retain it better. For any population of students, being able to engage with material in a concrete way solidifies the learning.”

Mills adds that the boards also boost student involvement at every grade level. “In biology, for example, the students get a chance to manipulate a cell, not just see a picture,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what age they are; whenever students are allowed to come up and mess with technology, it gets their attention.”

Modern Technology Supports Good Instruction

For all the misery and learning disruption it caused, the pandemic succeeded in pushing New Bedford Public Schools toward greater use of educational technology, says Robert Tetreault, the Massachusetts district’s CTO.

Last summer, NBPS made a $1.2 million investment in upgraded networks and devices, including new interactive flat panels for its three middle schools.

“Good instruction is what matters most, but we’re doing all we can at the district level to provide the latest technology to help improve engagement and enhance the achievement levels of our kids,” says Tetreault, whose district serves approximately 13,000 students in 25 schools.

NBPS plans to roll out interactive panels to its elementary schools as well. The high schools are equipped with relatively new short-throw projectors, but those will be upgraded to interactive panels when they reach end of life.

Key considerations in selecting modern audiovisual tools, besides their presentation and interactive capabilities, are ease of use and maintenance, connectivity options and technology life span, Tetreault says. Modern AV tools should be chosen to meet teachers’ needs, so it’s important to consult with them on purchases and provide them with training and support, he says.

“PD for teachers is really important so that they feel comfortable with the technologies and get all they can from the tools,” he says. “If the teachers can’t engage with the technology, they can’t engage the students.”

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