Teaching is complicated. But technology in the classroom doesn’t have to be

Image: Christopher Columbus High School.

Remember your eighth grade science class and the type of technique you used? In all likelihood, your classroom experience predates computers and the overhead projector, or perhaps the VCR was the most high-tech your lessons have become.

Seeing a computer in elementary school was a novelty for many who grew up before 2000, and even then they were usually only used to learn certain skills, such as learning to type or entering numbers into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Things have come a long way since then, and many children are now equipped with laptops, iPads and other pieces of tech kit both in and out of the classroom.

But simply giving a child new technology doesn’t necessarily fulfill the promise of teaching them something new, especially when you consider that more than 50% of children have a smartphone by their 11th birthday.

Alex Sage, senior director of technology and innovation and a former student at Christopher Columbus High School, believes that technology in the classroom should not be responsible for student learning: it should simply enhance their learning.

A former Christopher Columbus student, Sage spent several years working in and around the cruise industry and offers a unique perspective on how this can inform classroom teaching. According to Sage, there is very little difference between a school and a cruise ship.

“I know it’s mind-boggling to some people, but it doesn’t make a huge difference; we’re trying to put the student experience first because that’s what the study tour is all about,” he tells ZDNET.

“Cruise lines put the guest experience first. When you step into a cruise terminal, the experience begins the moment you walk in and drop off your suitcase. It’s either on your mobile phone or on a fixed screen that’s interactive, and that’s what I brought to education.”

In June 2021, Sage spearheaded a digital signage project at Christopher Columbus High School that saw 135 interactive whiteboards installed throughout the school. Every classroom at the Miami, Florida school is now equipped with a Samsung Flip 3 device – including the school’s basketball court.

When the pandemic forced students to learn from home and adapt to digital learning, educators lost their students’ attention and learning suffered. But once schools opened, digital learning didn’t disappear; for many it has become the norm.

Sage says technology should never be the driver of the classroom. “Technology should complement what you do. It complements all the different teaching styles,” he says.

Also: The Pandemic’s Surprising Impact on K-12 Computer Science Education

As a former student, Sage remembers the difficulties teachers faced in finding new ways to engage students and wanted to offer a solution. Interactive whiteboards offer a low learning curve for teachers and students while encouraging interaction and collaboration, he says.

In the school’s gym, for example, the boards serve as an enhanced learning tool, allowing coaches and players to re-watch game footage during practice or determine game strategy for future games.

Micah Shippy, director of education technology consulting and solutions at Samsung, is a former educator who has led the integration of Samsung technology into schools across the country.

Shippee looks back on his days as a middle school basketball coach and remembers how tedious it was trying to coach his players with a traditional whiteboard and marker. “I coached basketball for 12 years in high school and the expo marker and backboard were never big enough, never comfortable enough, and it was a real pain in the neck,” he tells ZDNET.

“But to have a computing device that’s more than just an expo marker and a stat extraction board that’s increasingly going digital, I think there’s a lot of value in that.”

Also: Students want to learn to code, but the school system is an obstacle

Capturing and keeping students’ attention is a constant challenge for educators, with many teachers believing that smartphones, social media, and near-instant access to online information are depleting children’s attention spans.

Whiteboards don’t necessarily teach kids hands-on tech skills, but they help students understand how to use technology as an asset for content creation and collaboration, Shippee said. “[Students] you can find a YouTube or TikTok video for almost anything and stay busy. This is creation and collaboration [elements] that we need to work on by helping our students understand better, because these are skills that will extend beyond their K-12 experience,” he says.

Remote and hybrid working have become significantly more popular in the past two years, and even with the announcement of back-to-the-office policies, many workers still rely heavily on remote work technology and digital collaboration tools.

Samsung’s senior vice president of corporate displays, Harry Patz, believes that today’s students need to acclimate to this kind of technology before they get to the work environment. “We prepare them for the real world when we do virtual meetings, where multiple people in four or five locations can work together,” Patz told ZDNET.

While it is essential to find new ways to teach children valuable skills to use after they leave school, it is even more imperative to find new, interactive ways to teach children while they are still in school . Students must first be well-rounded in basic reading, math, science, and art skills to succeed in the workforce.

Also: Young people avoid technical courses. This will make the skills shortage much worse

Since the pandemic, every state has seen a drop in reading and math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, according to the Nation’s Report Card.

The same study also shows that despite a nationwide decline in scores, private Catholic schools such as Christopher Columbus High School outperform public schools in every single measure.

Samsung’s Flip 3 whiteboards retail for $2,500 per board. To put that in perspective, Christopher Columbus had 135 planks, a cost of almost $350,000. Most public schools don’t have the budgets for this kind of technology investment, and reliability and longevity are usually the deciding factor for schools whose budgets don’t see a refresh for seven to eight years.

Shippee argues that creativity and innovation in the classroom ultimately rely on leaders being open to trying new approaches. New technology can be expensive, and there’s no argument that K-12 schools remain criminally underfunded. But any investment that serves to better educate children and equip them with the practical skills needed for an increasingly digital workplace can pay off.

“Children are children and teachers are teachers; it’s really about the leadership and the permission we give in our community to try new things,” says Shippy.

“We need people who have that innovative mindset to help educators get to a place where they can be innovative in the classroom.”

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