• Eighth-grader Colin Sullivan answers a question using one of the touch-screen digital whiteboards at All Saints Catholic Academy in Gates Jan. 5.

Classrooms going high-tech

By Amy Kotlarz/Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009


Who knew the schism between Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054 could get students so jazzed up about religious history?

Yet many students in Sheila Abelein’s eighth-grade religion class at All Saints Catholic Academy in Gates had their hands in the air to answer questions on the subject during a “Jeopardy!”-style religious-history game.

To hold students’ interest as she called on them to answer questions, Abelein used a touch-sensitive, interactive digital whiteboard at the front of the class. After finishing the game, which served to prepare students for their midterm exams, Abelein used a few taps of a finger on the touch screen to send students online to a quiz on their textbook publisher’s Web site.

All Saints introduced 13 electronic whiteboards at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, and already they are firmly entrenched as teaching tools. One benefit, Abelein said, is that students are actively learning when they go up to use the whiteboard, which responds to touch from a hand or a special pen. The students who aren’t at the board, she noted, will pay attention to the classmate that is.

Such technology allows teachers to guide learning rather than control it, said Principal Monette Mahoney, pointing out that whiteboards are particularly effective with visual and kinetic learners.

“We are student-centered,” Mahoney said. “The teacher does not teach in one style. They teach to every child in the classroom.”

Mahoney said teachers have learned to use the boards during several training sessions. Once a session is complete, teachers immediately try out what they have learned, she said.

“The students can detect the enthusiasm of the teachers,” she noted.

New teaching tools

Educational-technology coordinators at diocesan schools help fellow teachers transition to new technology by showing them how to get the most out of it, said Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Carroll, assistant superintendent for government services and administration for the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools.

Over the last three years, more than 95 percent of the district’s educators also participated in intensive technology training, said Sister Carroll, who coordinates the use of classroom technology at diocesan schools.

She said that educational-technology coordinators also teach students and their parents new classroom technology so students will be more engaged in learning and will be prepared for a digital future.

“We’re talking about an interactive type of learning, and technology allows this to happen more easily,” said Sister Carroll, who was recently honored with a Making it Happen Award from the International Society for Technology in Education for her work in expanding the use of educational technology.

About half of diocesan schools have at least one digital whiteboard or are in the process of acquiring one, Sister Carroll said. Depending on its size and features, a whiteboard can cost between $800 and $10,000, according to one manufacturer’s Web site. Sister Carroll said she helps diocesan schools apply for federal and state grants to help fund new classroom technology.

The Internet also has become another integral educational tool, she noted.

“We are the only diocese where every school has access to a professionally managed school Web page,” Sister Carroll said.

Schools that opt to use a diocesan template can easily post information online for students, communicate with families and alumni, and publicize the school’s qualities to the public, Sister Carroll said. Teachers can post homework assignments and show off class projects on the pages, she noted. A group of schools in the Finger Lakes recently worked together to create a promotional DVD showing off the highlights of each school, and Sister Carroll said the finished product was uploaded to each school’s Web site.

The diocese also offers students home and school access to an online encyclopedia as well as safer, filtered Internet search engines. All schools in the diocese have access to high-speed Internet and technical support from diocesan information-technology staff.

Sister Carroll said the diocese is working with several local Board of Cooperative Educational Services public-school agencies to offer online professional-development courses and online courses for high-school students.

“Once you get to college, some of this (technology) is just taken for granted,” Sister Carroll noted.

The diocese also sponsors Internet-safety training in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and is working with a Rochester Institute of Technology professor to develop Internet-safety standards for public and private schools in Monroe County, Sister Carroll said.

Ultimately, she noted, teachers want students to use technology as they learn other subjects. For example, a third-grader working on paragraph development can use a word-processing program to complete the assignment, she said, while students giving reports can use software to put their information in a brochure format.

Ahead of the curve

Local Catholic schools may be somewhat ahead of the technological curve, based on information from a national report that compared technology in public and private schools.

Educational-technology consultant Susan Brooks-Young, a former Catholic-school educator and administrator who authored the report, said Catholic schools nationwide are only slightly lagging behind public schools in providing the latest technology.

Catholic schools are increasingly turning to online purchasing -- an indicator of their overall acceptance of technology -- and three-quarters of Catholic schools now have high-speed Internet access, she said.

In the future, Catholic schools may be using more laptops and offering distance-learning courses, Brooks-Young said, noting that 23 percent of secondary schools offer such courses to their students.

“That’s double what it was in 2004 to 2005,” she said. “When you consider that is within a year, that’s significant growth.”

Equipment such as digital-projection systems, digital cameras and digital whiteboards are increasingly making their way into Catholic classrooms across the country, she said, and sales of whiteboards are projected to double by 2008 and again by 2011.

Nationwide, at least two-thirds of Catholic high schools have at least one digital whiteboard. Sister Carroll said about half of all diocesan Catholic schools have at least one whiteboard or are in the process of getting them.

Teachers need to be properly trained to use this technology to make sure they are getting all they can from it, Brooks-Young said.

“The danger with digital whiteboards is they can, if not used properly, let teachers off the hook (for innovation), because they are so similar to what they are accustomed to with overhead projectors,” she said.

Research shows that when students interact with technology to a greater degree, the best educational results occur, she noted. Technology fosters teamwork, problem-solving, independent research and sophisticated presentations, she said.

Brooks-Young said that the cost of the latest high-tech tools could be more prohibitive for Catholic schools than for public schools, but added that Catholic schools are turning to creative ways to fund their technology programs.

“A lot of them are setting up student programs for tech support because they don’t have the financial wherewithal to provide it,” she said.

New possibilities

All Saints purchased its whiteboards with funds from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mahoney said, noting that the school qualified for the funding because a relatively high number of students come from less-affluent areas.

The new technology allows teachers to jot down notes like a traditional chalkboard. The computerized information can then be reused for another class, printed out or posted to a Web page. The whiteboards are used with a laptop and projector, which allows teachers to access the Internet and other tools.

“There are a ton of tools, including graph paper and a protractor,” said Martha Grant, the school’s educational-technology coordinator. “Everything becomes interactive.”

The whiteboards can even record sound. These features can come in handy if a student needs to hear a lecture more than once, or missed it in the first place.

“Everything you say during class can be recorded, so when you play the file back it almost becomes similar to a podcast,” Grant said.

Cutting-edge classrooms found throughout diocese
 
Interactive uses of technology at other diocesan schools have included:

* St. Agnes School in Avon was the first school ever to receive a direct satellite feed from Madagascar, said Melissa Savino, the school’s educational-technology coordinator. In late November, the school made three virtual trips to the African nation, where Jeff Wyatt, a zoologist at Rochester’s Seneca Park Zoo, showed them leeches and taught them about several native animals. The students also chatted with noted primatologist Patricia Wright. The school routed its feed through the digital whiteboard in its computer lab, with the help of Gertrude Houston, a videographer and an aunt of three St. Agnes students. The students are also e-mailing pen pals in Madagascar.

* Fifth- and sixth-graders at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads created musical arrangements of songs using a music-writing program called Finale, said Cathy Ponzi, director of music. The program allowed students to customize their instrumentation, tempo, meter, note values and other musical building blocks. The students played back their creations at the end of each session.

“A lot of them really experimented,” Ponzi said.

Susan Nagle, the school’s educational-technology coordinator who introduced Ponzi to the program, said some students used their own music to accompany PowerPoint presentations they made. The program also helps students master basic computer skills, such as opening and closing files, she said.

“It’s a whole new level and depth of learning,” Nagle said.

* St. Ann School in Hornell has found several creative ways to fund its technology, said Penny Dessena, educational-technology coordinator.

The school’s Web page allows the community to donate used ink cartridges and cell phones to benefit the school. Families also can use the school’s home page for Internet searching as another way for the school to earn money, Dessena said.

“Every time somebody does a search, we earn money,” she said. “It’s just pennies, but it adds up.”

The school also recently won a digital projector through the Discovery Channel, she noted.

 

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