Five years after the state first deployed laptops to seventh- and eighth-grade students, Maine schools continue to move forward with new technology in the classroom, but now the focus is on how technology makes it easier to exchange information.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is you have to get over the ‘wow’ factor,” said Monique Culbertson, director of curriculum and assessment at the Scarborough school department.

Schools districts like Scarborough and South Portland are bringing in new equipment, such as video production tools for fine-art electives at Scarborough and more Smart Boards at South Portland, but the purchases aren’t about just amassing the latest techonolgy. The districts are looking to the technologies to help wrangle the mass of information available in classrooms.

“One of the key pieces is collaboration. Understanding comes from collaboration,” said Culbertson.

One such collaborative initiative is the deployment of laptops for all Maine high school teachers and administrators this year.

The laptop recipients will be provided professional development programs, and will be able to connect with each other and share professional experience.

For Jeff Mao, coordinator of educational technology for the Department of Education, it’s a conversation that has been happening between technology professionals as long as the Internet has existed, but for education professionals the conversation has just recently begun.

Mao said the state is working on establishing systems that would enable greater collaboration between teachers, such as online forums. A centralized system could also connect teachers at small schools that may only have a single teacher for a subject with other schools, allowing increased professional development.

Many of the most successful teachers, said Mao, are the ones open to change and ready to experiment with technologies that can not only increase student engagement, but also provide access to more information in a manageable way.

“It’s overwhelming how much information is out there,” Culbertson said.

It’s how the teachers interact with it that is the defining practice. Scarborough is working with an open-source online classroom tool called Moodle, which will enable both students and teachers to uppload completed assignments and download supplemental resources.

Moodle has some 30,000 registered private sites, which have amassed over a million courses and over 10 million quiz questions. The site and other online applications could not only connect students to their teachers and other classmates wherever they are – on vacation, sick at home or at night while doing homework – but also could allow students to connect to students or teachers in other classes, or even other schools. Culbertson said Moodle is being rolled out in pieces, with interested teachers joining in now to work with the program, and then to spread their experience to other teachers.

There are twice as many early-release days this year as in years past at Scarborough for professional development dealing with new laptops and sorting through tools available for classroom instruction. Teachers will be forming into method groups instead of attending seminars to set goals on how to enhance classroom instruction, Culbertson said.

For Mao, this and in-class collaboration are the perfect examples for the students of lifelong learning, a staple principle in most educational programs. With many students having the same or more advanced technological savvy than their teachers, the collaborative environment encourages working through ways to understand the information they have access to.

Scarborough is also moving forward on more visual learning applications, such as Inspiration and its younger version, Kidspiration, both of which help students visualize research projects with graphics, timelines and visually organized notes that with a click can be formatted into a traditional outline.

South Portland this year is focusing on increasing other visual technologies to engage students and increase comprehension of course materials. Three new Smart Boards have been added to their existing 25, with one to go in a ninth-grade math classroom and the other two to be awarded next week based on a competitive bid among interested teachers. Smart Boards function as touch-screen white boards. Teachers can write on the board and erase it with a touch, or with a virtual eraser. Student documents can be pulled up and edited and videos can be brought up from the Internet.

“That’s the way these kids are used to communicating,” said Andy Wallace, the South Portland school district’s director of technology. “It’s all visual. That’s where it’s going. It’s a visual generation.”

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