Outfitting a classroom with shiny new technology is great, but if educators can’t keep the equipment up to date, much of the luster can be lost, and then students can become disheartened and teachers discouraged. Now the technology director of a regional service agency in Washington state has devised a low-cost strategy intended to beat the predictable obsolescence that often afflicts classroom technology.

The Sustainable Classroom Grant Project is meant to strike a balance between the perennial budget concerns of public-school educators and the swift pace of technological advancement by creating a replicable model for the integration of classroom technology that can remain viable beyond the three- to five-year obsolescence cycle of most computers.

The initiative–funded at $8,400 per classroom–is the pet project of Debbie Tschirgi, director of educational technology for Vancouver-based Educational Service District 112, one of nine regional service agencies serving Washington schools. Her offices have partnered with vendors and local resellers to design a classroom model that will be piloted in five classrooms this fall.

Each of the five classrooms will be equipped with one computer bought by the district; a SMART Board interactive whiteboard and peripherals from SMART Technologies; a Hitachi CP-RS55 digital projector; a Califone Sound System; an AverVision 300 digital document camera; an Avocent Longview Wireless Extender for the projector; an eInstruction wireless response system; an annual subscription to eBoard, an online educational learning environment; and other peripherals and software solutions that are requested to ensure a successful implementation of the project.

The companies whose products will be used in the pilot classrooms already had won bids to provide technology to ESD 112’s schools and have “enthusiastically donated” products and services to Tschirgi’s project. Tschirgi also has set aside some of her own department’s funding to supplement the project as needed.

Tschirgi is no newcomer to strategic thinking. In 1995–as the technology boom was still in ascendancy–she wrote a grant proposal to underwrite the development of high-tech classrooms in which technology supported teaching and learning to meet Washington’s academic learning requirements. Her proposal was funded.

“At the heart of that technology grant was the one-computer-to-every-four-students ratio,” Tschirgi said. “What we set out to prove was that we could change classroom cultures by providing teachers with high-quality professional development around best practices and technological integration.”

The name of the grant was TELDEC, an acronym for “Technology and the Essential Learnings: Developing Effective Classrooms.”

“We did the right thing; we proved that technology could be used [to support] the curriculum [successfully],” Tschirgi said. “But now we know that it was not the best thing: It was not replicable. Districts without the funding couldn’t replicate the model, because of the high [degree] of classroom access to technology. It was not replicable, and it was not sustainable.”

She added, “I’m hearing that some of the teachers who were involved during those TELDEC years still have the same equipment in their classrooms, because the districts don’t have the funds to replace [the equipment].”

Ten years later, many educators have come to believe that technology plans with such high student-to-computer ratios are expensive to deploy and fraught with difficulty from an administrative point of view. Further difficulties arise when the software becomes obsolete, or the machines begin to wear out, or both.

“It now looks like a sustainable model that focuses on one computer and a number of other technologies is what’s needed at this time,” Tschirgi said.

The sustainable classroom plan is presented as an alternative to more costly laptop and desktop programs designed to increase the student-to-computer ratio. At the center of the plan is a single computer that the teacher uses for instruction. The supporting technology infrastructure provides permanent classroom support for this computer at a one-time cost (or nearly so), ideally through several PC obsolescence cycles. The combination of a whiteboard, projector, sound system, and personal response system makes up for the lack of individual computing devices for students by allowing them to engage with the instructor, the technology, and each other, while not leaving them huddled around a single desktop PC four at a time.

With the ESD 112 plan, only one computer per classroom must be replaced within the typical three- to five-year obsolescence cycle. The sustainable classroom model depends largely on equipment that need not be replaced in three to five years.

“In these ten years,” Tschirgi said, “the definition of technology has broadened. In 1995, technology meant ‘computers.’ [Today,] technology has become … a solution that fits a need.”

The need, she said, remains the same: increased student achievement. The holy book that her grantees will attempt to emulate is “A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works,” by Robert Marzano.

“We will use those technologies to reinforce the proven strategies from [Marzano’s] book,” said Tschirgi. “The reason we chose that book is because there are a number of districts in our region and state that are doing studies of the book and the strategies in it that are proven to increase student achievement.”

Here are the strategies discussed in “Handbook”:

  • Identifying similarities and differences;
  • Summarizing and note taking;
  • Reinforcing effort and providing recognition;
  • Homework and practice;
  • Nonlinguistic representations;
  • Cooperative learning;
  • Setting objectives and providing feedback;
  • Generating and testing hypotheses; and
  • Questions, cues, and advance organizers.

Tschirgi said her grantees will metabolize those nine strategies and use the technology to strengthen them. Grantees have agreed to take part in web-based collaboration on how they have used their classroom systems to achieve their goals, and to develop best practices among themselves and for the district’s future use.

“As a teacher, very infrequently do you get together and talk about what you’re doing, what works for me, what worked for my kids, et cetera,” said Kristy Schneider, a sixth-grade teacher of math, science, art, and reading, who was one of the grant winners. “You [don’t] get that time with other teachers.”

Another teacher taking part in the project, Jerri Ann Patten, said she’s also excited about how Tschirgi has chosen to run the project.

“Debbie’s running this a lot like action research–kind of documenting the impact that technology is having on student learning as we go,” Patten said. “I like that.”

Tim Fahlberg, a representative for eInstruction, which produces the Classroom Performance System (CPS), a wireless classroom response system that’s being used in the pilot, described how his company’s technology relates to the outline in Marzano’s book.

“There’s a huge piece of those nine principles that relate to formative assessment: Get immediate feedback, and use that to drive review,” he said. “Our product provides teachers with a relatively painless and engaging way to do formative assessment. By putting CPS in the classroom, I can get students to respond without embarrassing them and know how the learning has gone.”

The wireless eInstruction keypad system permits anonymous, immediate student responses to teacher polls and allows educators to view the success of any given lesson immediately. Its data-management system also allows teachers to track student progress and performance data against state standards.

Bob Berry, a representative from Troxell Communications, a reseller that connected the district and many of the vendors whose wares are being showcased through the Sustainable Classroom Project, said the program will provide a much more effective learning environment in general.

Ultimately, Tschirgi said, she hopes the project will “weave seamlessly” into school improvement and building plans.

“We’re developing these models that we hope will support increased student learning in the classroom,” she said. “We’re not saying that technology is going to increase student achievement. We’re saying that these teachers will use the instructional strategies identified to increase student achievement–and they’ll use this technology wherever it fits.”

Links:

ESD 112 Educational Technology Support Center
http://www.esd112.org/edtech

SMART Technologies Inc.
http://www.smarttech.com

AverMedia Technologies
http://www.aver.com

Califone International Inc.
http://www.califone.com

eInstruction Corp.
http://www.einstruction.com

Hitachi Global
http://www.hitachi.com

Troxell Communications Inc.
http://www.trox.com