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July 2010: White boards: Future is now

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

It's pretty hard anymore to imagine life without a cell phone, iPod or computer. Technology has rocked our world and will continue to do so, especially in the field of education.

It's exciting to tell you that right now, our first wave of 620 Albuquerque Public Schools teachers and administrators are spending their summer days getting comfortable with a revolutionary classroom tool that research shows will create stronger teachers and better learners.

The technology waiting in the wings for next year's students is a response system commonly referred to as the electronic white board. The white board will allow teachers to communicate with their students in the language kids are most comfortable with nowadays — text, web, audio and video. The focus remains on content, but the delivery of the lesson is more interactive so that participation and engagement between teachers and students is enhanced.

I remember the first time I saw an interactive white board in action. A kindergarten teacher was using it to take lunch count. Each student came up to the board to make his or her selection for the day — sack lunch, hot lunch or milk only.

The students had to find their names on the board, comprehend their options and push the appropriate button. Within seconds, lunch count was done and the front office had the necessary data to place an accurate food order for the classroom. And the kids had a short lesson in reading, sorting and decision-making.

My next experience with the white board was in a high school remedial algebra class. The teacher wrote a problem and three possible solutions on a portable electronic tablet that was projected for all to see on the whiteboard. Each student had a clicker in hand that allowed him or her to enter an answer. Only the teacher knew which students had answered correctly and who needed additional instruction.

Information is power, and that's especially true for teachers. This performance snapshot provided the teacher a quick assessment of her class so she knew instantly who in her class had grasped the concept.

Other obvious benefits of the white board were evident as well. There was no fear of participating for risk of being embarrassed if the answer was wrong. All eyes were on the screen, and there were no discipline problems. Students were engaged in learning. This is what you get when you combine a strong teacher with a good teaching tool.

Research on the electronic white boards is impressive. One of the most respected education researchers of our time, Robert Marzano, studied the effectiveness of the white boards and found student test scores improved by as much as 29 percent in classrooms where experienced teachers used this technology.

Teachers at Zuni Elementary can attest to the effectiveness of the white boards. Zuni is a magnet school for communications and technology. The end-of-the-year projects at the school were presented to parents and community members using whiteboard technology that is in most of its classrooms. Students in the upper grades did research on subjects like the Navajo culture and then presented the findings to their classmates and others using the white boards.

During the school's open house, visitors went from classroom to classroom to listen to the presentations that were made by students in all grades.

Zuni Principal Deborah Elders explained to the parents that the presentations were not about the technology, but by using the technology, students and their audience gained a better understanding of the subject.

We're moving forward this summer with the purchase of more than 3,000 white boards for APS classrooms and, as I mentioned earlier, preparing teachers to make the best use of the equipment. We're using some of the $130 million set aside for technology from the $616 million in capital funding that voters approved in February. Given all that research shows what white boards can do, we expect a substantial return on the investment.

It has been exciting to see the overwhelming response from our teachers eager to train on the white boards. In classrooms where white boards already exist, the enthusiasm is contagious among the students. Our greatest hope is that through the use of this technology we will continue to engage our students so they will perform better and enjoy the lessons along the way.

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