Wired for success

Published 11:59 pm Thursday, September 3, 2009

In Bill Ossenfort’s physical science classroom at Andalusia High School, there’s no need to worry about chalk dust from beating erasers together. In fact, there’s no need to worry about erasers at all.

When Ossenfort wants to write something on the board for his students, he uses a stylus to mark on the screen of his electronic tablet. Instantly, whatever Ossenfort writes down shows up on the projection screen behind him.

Welcome to the classroom of the 21st century.

“This is something I use every day as far as notes go,” Ossenfort said of the technology. “It’s great, because I don’t have to erase anything, I just scroll down to a blank part of the document and start writing again. And I can save everything I wrote during that class period.”

Ossenfort is not alone when it comes to AHS teachers utilizing new technology to enhance the classroom experience. Across the hall, biology teacher Angie Sasser uses an “ELMO” document camera in a lesson on cell structures.

She can place the model of the cell under the document camera on her desk, and a projector will then place the image on a screen for her students to view. When Sasser points to a part of the model, the image on the screen also shows her finger. It is like an old-fashioned overhead projector, but transparency sheets are no longer necessary.

“You can put anything under the ELMO and it will show up on the screen,” she said. “It’s great for doing dissections, because everything is magnified and students can see what you’re doing. We can also use it to go over worksheets together as a class. It’s a wonderful tool.”

Senior Kanesha Leslie agreed the device helps make biology and other classes more accessible.

“It really makes things lifelike,” she said. “We don’t have to just read from flat books anymore, we can learn in 3-D.”

The electronic tablet and ELMO document camera are just a sample of the technology teachers have at their fingertips. Gary Odom, technology coordinator for Andalusia City Schools, said the future possibilities are endless.

“It’s possible that in the future we might be able to give kids iPods and similar devices,” he said. “Then, we could be able to focus that technology with the students on an individual basis. They could use the Internet for specialized instruction specific to that particular student.

“Another possibility is that we might be able to put class instruction on a ‘podcast,’ and then if a student is absent from school one day, they can get that podcast and listen to what they missed.”

Odom said money for new technology is always limited, and will be limited even more over the next few years as school systems are forced to make budget cuts in a bad economy. Even so, he said the ACS is proactive in pursuing grants that will allow it to provide better and newer technology for its students.

“Sometimes it’s hard for us to compete with the bigger systems in the state,” he said. “So, we’ve had to be creative at times. We may not have a lot of SmartBoards (a projection screen that allows teachers and students to ‘touch’ and ‘write’ directly on the screen with a stylus), but we have the tablet PC and projection equipment. It’s basically the same thing, and it costs a lot less than a $2,000 SmartBoard.

“But there are always grants out there for new technology, and we’re doing everything we can to pursue them and give our kids the best technology and the best chance to compete in this 21st century world.”

Will Jackson, a sophomore in Ossenfort’s class, said he does not miss blackboards in the least.

“It’s a lot easier to just use the tablet,” he said.

Even in a world of new technology, there is still a place for the old stand-by school supplies, however. On the same day that Ossenfort was teaching with the electronic tablet, he was also asking his students to study index cards for an upcoming quiz.

“There will always be a place for the old-fashioned pen and paper,” he said. “What I like to say is that all this electronic technology is just a new tool in the toolbox. It’s not a new toolbox itself.”