Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Innovation Showcase: New Classroom Technology Aims to Inspire, Motivate Students

EWA’s 66th National Seminar was recently held at Stanford University, and we asked some of the education reporters attending to contribute blog posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Linda Shaw of the Seattle TimesStream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.For more on classroom technology, visit EWA’s Story Starters online resource. 

A two-foot high robot crouches on a desk, close to a student seated nearby. They both look at a computer screen that displays math puzzles. The robot, a white-and-orange machine named Projo, confesses he is worried about making mistakes and asks the students to make sure he doesn’t.

In one of the sessions on innovations at EWA’s annual conference, USA Today reporter Greg Toppo promised that Sandra Okita’s research into robots as learning tools would blow our minds. And it was indeed mind-bending to watch her video, in which Projo greets students by name and gives them hints when they get stuck— but not too many.

We often think of robots as the potential perfect assistants who would make no mistakes. But Okita, an assistant professor at Teachers College in New York City, instead programs her robots to be imperfect, so students can learn by correcting them. That’s based on the theory that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone—or, in this case, something—else.

Okita also wants students to develop relationships with her robots, so they are companions, not just machines. Her Projos talk, ask questions, wave goodbye.

But robots in the classroom might not be any more revolutionary than what’s already happening in the Riverside School District, where every students has a device – an I-Pod, Netbook, Kindle Fire, or any number of others.

Rather than make students power down their personal technology at school, the district welcomes it all. And if students don’t already own a device, the district lends them one, just as it lends out textbooks, said Jay McPhail, Riverside’s director of instructional technology. The district has been successful in getting businesses to donate devices, so officials have not used any of the district’s general funds to purchase them.

The students set up their own devices, load the programs and fix them if they break. The district doesn’t have a staff to maintain the devices; it relies on students for that.

The district also talks with families about good standards for online behavior, but what the students do after school ends for the day is the family’s responsibility. “There’s a core list of cloud-based applications that we use and above and beyond that…. that’s a question between you and your child,” McPhail said.

In answering a question about whether this program aids learning, McPhail said the district has seen “explosive growth” in what he called the “building blocks of literacy.”

The session also featured two other innovations:

  • Share My Lesson, an online lesson-sharing site created by the American Federation of Teachers and TES Connect. Teachers submit lessons that are then screened for quality before they are placed on the site. So far, there are 260,000 available, which could be overwhelming. But teacher Wanda Longoria, from the Northside Independent School District in Texas, said it’s easy for teachers to search for what they need. Longoria said the website is a great tool that keeps teachers from “reinventing the wheel time and time again.” The lessons are free. 
  • The programs at the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) in Mesa, Arizona, a vocational education center that draws the college and non-college bound, teaching them skills that can lead to careers or jobs that can pay for college. EVIT’s Superintendent Sally Downey said East Valley offers a new, rigorous model for career and technical education. Students spend half their day at regular high schools and half at EVIT, where they earn industry certificates or licenses in any one of dozens of programs – welding, nursing, autotech. EVIT also is tuition-free. “We say every scholar needs a skill,” Downey said.