Future classrooms use active learning and technology

Mary Lester, a math teacher at the state's Distance Learning Center in Maumelle, instructs a student in Quitman, whom she can see on a video monitor, on a calculus problem. Lester is a former teacher at Mount St. Mary Academy.
Mary Lester, a math teacher at the state's Distance Learning Center in Maumelle, instructs a student in Quitman, whom she can see on a video monitor, on a calculus problem. Lester is a former teacher at Mount St. Mary Academy.

Computers and Internet access are mainstays of today’s Catholic schools, but classrooms will be changing to be even more reliant on technology.
That is if the administration and teachers are educated about the new products and if money can be founded to fund them.
So what will the classroom of the future look like? Arkansas Catholic interviewed several professionals in the state who are already toying with some of the computer hardware and software that are available today.
Microsoft is one of the leading companies looking at the current educational model. According to the software giant, the schools of today were based on the 19th century model when children of farmers left school after eighth grade and skipped high school in order to help their families. Over the past 150 years, schools really haven’t changed that much.
“Today, the three R’s don’t cut it. Twenty-first century businesses seek employees with a host of sophisticated skills, including the ability to solve problems, communicate effectively, think critically and grasp complex systems,” according to an 2005 article, “School of the Future: Understand the Vision” on www.microsoft.com.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in his book, “The Road Ahead,” “Improving education is the best investment we can make because downstream benefits flow to every part of society.”
Sister Judith Marie Keith, RSM, executive director of the Trinity Junior High School Educational Trust in Fort Smith, agrees. She said students must be educated in a different way from their parents and grandparents in order to transition into business. They need to be able to work as teams and know about other cultures and languages.
“Rather than being comfortable in the thinking process, efforts should be directed to encouraging our students to ’think out of the box,’” Sister Judith said. “The educational process is moving from a passive to an active learning process.”
Trinity started an educational trust to raise $450,000 for technology. Today the school has 105 computers and 30 laptops. Each teacher has his or her own laptop, and at least 60 more laptops will be installed in the school in the next six months.
It is likely that more schools will start using wireless laptops so students have access to the same information while in the classroom instead of going to the computer lab for research.
Several schools like Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock are already using Smart Boards, interactive whiteboards connected to a computer and projector. Smart Boards include lessons in most subject areas from kindergarten to 12th grades.
Phyllis Butler, the freshmen global regions and civics teacher, said she envisions some teachers getting away from paper textbooks and only accessing digital textbooks or completely doing away with standard texts. For the past three years Butler has used the Smart Board to display her own PowerPoint presentations for her students. The students also save about $300 because they don’t have to buy two textbooks for their history classes that year. In her subject area, new information and photos are available on the Internet so she tries to continually revise her lessons.
“The biggest benefit is you can stay updated every day,” she said.
For a taste of the technology that is five or more years away, one needs to talk to Cathy Walker, technology coordinator at St. Vincent de Paul School in Rogers. To network with other technology buffs, she has entered the virtual world. About 5 million people each day are entering the 3D world online called Second Life. Right now Second Life is a “place” used by businesses, universities and even political campaigns. In a few years Walker foresees high schools interacting with other schools around the world to do projects or create music or a newspaper.
“What is happening is in the next two years you will see a major shift in the Internet,” she said. “It will be like 10 years ago when everyone had to have their own Web site.”
Walker said schools will have more opportunities for “hands-on, interactive learning.”
The practical application for schools, especially high schools and colleges, is virtual tours through the Internet.
“It takes kids to place they would not be able to go because of expenses,” said Vernell Bowen, superintendent of Catholic schools. “It’s much better than a picture.”
Walker said students might view a photography exhibit at a college or tour the Louvre Museum in Paris. In some cases, a guide would be located at the site and could communicate back with the Arkansas classroom about what they are seeing.
Another area to address in the future is teacher staffing, especially in high schools. In some subject areas, including math, science and foreign language, the teacher shortage is even more severe today. Also, it is not as cost effective to offer advanced placement calculus if there are only two students signed up.
Distance learning is becoming more common across Arkansas and could be a reality for Catholic junior and senior high schools, Bowen said. To begin to address the need for specialized classes without the additional cost of hiring full-time teachers, Bowen took three educators on a tour March 23 of the Arkansas Department of Education Distance Learning Center in Maumelle.
Distance learning uses technology to link a teacher in the Maumelle center with a classroom in another part of the state. With a computer, camera and other technology, the students and teacher can see and hear each other and can even see work the teacher or student presents on a digital blackboard. Sometimes a teacher will even be instructing students in two or three different Arkansas cities at the same time.
Catholic schools can use the state’s program if vacancies are available after the public schools have been served, Bowen said.
Bowen said distance learning is a good idea for Catholic schools that can’t find a certified teacher in a subject area or have an overflow for a certain class and need an additional teacher.
“It provides an opportunity for the student to get college preparatory courses with highly qualified teachers,” she said.
The downside to distance learning is the cost. Schools must buy the $15,000 compressed interactive video system as well as a television, DVD player and camera for the classroom. Each student also has to have a computer.
Bowen visited the Distance Learning Center with associate superintendent Pattie Davis and two North Little Rock principals, Denise Troutman of St. Mary School and David Grimm of St. Patrick School. As they prepare for the opening of North Little Rock Catholic Academy this fall, Troutman and Grimm were exploring the possibilities of distance learning.
Shirley Pickle, the distance learning center’s instructional coordinator, said the center employs teachers in every subject area to educate students in 79 public high schools.
“Our biggest demand is foreign language,” Pickle said. “It’s so hard to find foreign language teachers. It’s even hard for us to find them.”
Currently the center has two French teachers and eight Spanish teachers on staff.
One thing won’t change as schools advance in technology, Bowen said. She said teachers need to have a love of children and a commitment to teaching.
“I really think teaching is a calling or vocation,” she said.

Malea Hargett

Malea Hargett has guided the diocesan newspaper as editor since 1994. She finds strength in her faith through attending Walking with Purpose Bible studies at Christ the King Church in Little Rock.

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