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NEW HAVEN, Conn. — An ed-tech discussion at a national conference stalled for 10 minutes while organizers struggled with a high-tech method of figuring out who was in the room.

The exercise highlighted new software that has spread to classrooms around the world — and proved a perfect case in point for the discussion, “The Cutting Edge of Technology: Exploring the tradeoffs in schools’ early adoption of technology.”

Technology in classrooms
Chris Bostock of Achievement First. (Photo: Melissa Bailey)

The discussion took place Friday at the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference in New Haven, Conn. It featured two school administrators who have brought mobile software platforms into their schools, and two entrepreneurs who built them.

Moderator Eileen Rudden, co-founder of LearnLaunch, kicked off the panel with a demonstration of what that software looks like in a classroom. She asked audience members to get out their mobile devices, log onto a free Web tool called socrative, and answer a survey question:

“Please identify yourself:

A. Educator

B. Entrepreneur

C. Student

D. Other”

The results would be projected in real-time on a screen at the front of the room, she explained.

The panelists waited for 10 minutes while a Yale student addressed technological glitches: Some people had trouble logging on with their iPhones. And the results were not transferring from a laptop to the projector screen.

If this were a middle-school classroom, a panelist later noted, so much idle time might be dangerous.

“I could just ask you” who you are instead of doing an online survey, Rudden remarked. But that wasn’t the point of the panel. The panel addressed how schools tackle challenges like that one, and when it’s worth the extra effort to invest in new technology.

Chris Bostock, principal of Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, recounted how his school partnered with the tech start-up Kickboard to change the way the school tracks student behavior.

When a kid acted out in class, Bostock recalled, teachers used to fill out paper forms and walk the papers to the front office, where an administrative aide would type them into an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheets were clumsy to handle, and sometimes the data was entered incorrectly, Bostock said.

Technology in classrooms
Jennifer Schnidman Medbery of Kickboard. (Photo: Melissa Bailey)

In 2011, one of Bostock’s colleagues met Jen Medbery, CEO and founder of Kickboard, at this conference. That same year, his charter school hired Kickboard to provide a way to track student discipline online. The method debuted school-wide that fall.

Now Amistad High teachers log on to Kickboard with their laptops and file discipline information themselves. School administrators get a real-time view of behavior patterns in the school. At first, staff spent significant extra time figuring out how to use the new tool and working with Kickboard to adjust it. The investment paid off, Bostock said: Kickboard has “illuminated our student population in a way we had never seen before,” he said.

Assistant Superintendent Patrick Larkin, of Burlington, Mass., recounted how his 3,100-student public school district is using a mobile tool not just for administrators, but for students. Burlington High School was one of the first schools in the nation to distribute iPads to all staff and students.

Larkin said before that switch, staff walked through the school and concluded that “what we’re doing day-in, day-out in our classrooms is pretty boring.” There were “extremely low levels of student engagement and higher-level thinking.”

Teachers now use socrative to quiz kids with simple surveys, and even to administer multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests. Students take the tests on their iPads. Socrative grades the tests and compiles the answers for the teacher. Socrative, founded in 2011, has spread to all 50 states and 150 countries; 750,000 teachers have signed up, according to CEO Benjamin Berte.

Larkin said his school district faces resistance from staff who “like it the old way,” but has found that socrative keeps students more engaged in school.

In a question-and-answer session, Tian Yang, a Newark math teacher, questioned whether technology is really helping students learn. He said he has found that “having cell phones and calculators has really hurt students” in their ability to do math.

Medbery offered a counter-example: When she taught 8th-grade math, she convinced her school district to buy wireless transmitters for TI-83 calculators. With the transmitters, she could project 30 students’ answers to a graphing problem on a screen in the front of the room. That enabled her to check students’ understanding much more quickly, and helped the class think through problems together, she said.

Bostock said having laptops has empowered students to become “amazing professional advocates” because they can better communicate with teachers about what they need. Bostock, who teaches an SAT reading class, said he was receiving evidence of this claim as he sat in the panel discussion.

“Students are emailing me about my class right now,” he said.

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