Educational technology reshapes classrooms

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Gone are the days when students sat in neat rows of desks all day while a teacher lectured at the chalk board.

Today, you're more likely to see students spread across all corners of the room, huddled in groups around a computer or other electronic device, some practicing skills they've yet to master while others forge ahead with new material.

It's not your parents' classroom anymore.

Educational technology, from interactive textbook supplements to games and apps for mobile devices, is reshaping the classroom, offering a personalized approach to learning at a time when state policymakers are standardizing curriculum.

“Today, the teacher is the facilitator, the instructional decision-maker,” said Lara Luetkehans, dean of the College of Education and Educational Technology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “It feels very different for teachers; they're not just getting up and lecturing, but really understanding the unique needs of each child and how to meet them in order to move them forward.”

Pennsylvania adopted a version of the Common Core, a set of national education standards that aim to ensure graduates leave high school with a standard base of knowledge, in May 2012. The PA Core blends state standards with some of the national suggestions, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

“The standards are a goal line, and how the schools get students to that goal line are the plays played on the field,” Eller said. “Whatever instructional strategies, textbooks, materials (are used) ... is all at the discretion of the local school.”

At Founders' Hall Middle School in McKeesport, Michael McCabe's eighth-grade American history class reviewed lessons about the Revolutionary War using the school's new interactive learning lab.

Inside the SMALLab, or Situated Multimedia Arts Lab, an overhead projector displays a game onto a large white mat on the floor, and 12 cameras around the room's perimeter capture students' movements.

McCabe uses a game with colored balls to illustrate the progression of the War of Independence between American and British forces. Different colored balls represent groups of soldiers at various points in the war.

From the movement of the colored balls, students are able to identify one game as having depicted the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, a major turning point in the war.

“This (room) allows us to hit on higher level thinking,” McCabe said.

Critical thinking is a primary focus of the new PA Core, Eller said.

While Pennsylvania's old standards focused on facts across more topics within a subject area, the PA Core aims to get students to apply what they're learning to real-world situations, Eller said.

Classroom technology can engage students on seemingly dry topics and help those who learn visually to gain a better understanding of the lesson.

To help his fourth-grade students learn the letter names of lines and spaces on the musical staff, Edgeworth Elementary School music teacher Erik Kolodziej divided students into pairs and gave each set an iPhone or iPad with an app called “Flashnote Derby,” a timed race that tests students' ability to identify musical notes as they are shown on a staff.

“502!” exclaimed Ellie Bates, 9, as she pumped her fist with satisfaction at her score.

“Learning on computers is much easier than what we used to do,” she said.

Her partner, Sara Ruhl, 10, agreed. “I think it's actually pretty interesting because you're playing a game,” she said. “It makes (kids) more into it.”

Kolodziej said he could have quizzed the students on note names using a dusty set of flash cards, but he decided to try the app instead.

“To me, it's about meeting the students where they are,” Kolodziej said. “I'm trying to make it enjoyable. There has to be a fun element to learning.”

That's the approach Jessica Pollock, a business computer and information technology teacher at Norwin Middle School, is taking with her eighth-grade classes.

Using software called Gamestar Mechanic, students learn game design basics, how to write instructions and how to code actions such as jumping and running. After building a game, Pollock said students play each other's game and answer analytical questions about the level of difficulty, how appealing the game looked and whether they understood the game's core mechanics.

“They don't even know they're creating focus groups,” Pollock said. “You do that in the workplace all the time. That's a skill they can use forever.”

Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or

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