Interactive whiteboards are the new overhead projectors, which in their turn were the new chalkboards. Classrooms need ways of putting material up where all of the students can see it, and teachers need ways to create and change the material. But how can we tell if new technology is really improving teaching?
That's one of the questions being asked at the Florida Education Technology Conference this week in Orlando. The answer, some participants say, is to create a way to get teacher feedback on the technologies.
NPR's State Impact reports that two conference participants have created a website, EduStar, that will create a database of information much like consumer reports. The difference is that teachers will be the only ones giving ratings and reports, and they will tell what other teachers want to know. One of EduStar's creators, Aaron Chatterji, explains:
"My mother's a teacher," Chatterji said. "She has a smart board in her classroom and a lot of teachers have those across the country. To my knowledge, we don't have great data to know whether smart boards actually make a difference. As we invest all this money on new technology and new hardware, we ought to know if we're spending our money on the right things."
Non-profit research facility WestEd has the same concerns about untested whiz-bang gadgets. Senior Program Director Steve Schneider says that use of higher and higher technology in the classroom is inevitable as the new generation becomes our teachers:
As more teachers who grew up using cell phones, iPads and other devices move into the classroom, Schneider said, they're more likely to incorporate those devices into their lessons.
But what works, as opposed to what's available? Schneider agrees that teachers need to know this before committing school or personal resources to the classroom.
Right now I think the research is lagging behind at some level," Schneider said. "I think overall they leave it to the practitioners to say âIs this working for my students?'"
One reason that there's an explosion of products for classroom teachers is that many schools are shifting to the new Common Core-based curriculum. 45 states and even some of the US territories have adopted Common Core standards. By standardizing what's expected of students, which is the central mission of the Common Core project, states find it easier to buy curricula and enrichment materials from outside of their own boundaries than when they were tied only to their own legally defined standards.
The change in the education market makes it easier for new technology to break into what has been a very closed market.
In the past, it was difficult for smaller businesses to compete with the large curriculum companies, Chatterji said. It was too expensive for small companies to hire a sales staff to sell to thousands of school districts across the country.
Many innovative marketing ideas are opening up the technology market. Of particular interest to participants at the FETC conference, Florida is backing its digital textbooks initiative with allowing its teachers to reach outside old boundaries:
There's clearly a need for websites such as EduStar to begin helping teachers sort out what's helpful for their students and what's just glitter. Even when education is about bytes and bits, it's still really about the kids.