Robbinsdale schools will study whether interactive whiteboards, in addition to appealing to students, also help them learn.
Interactive whiteboards represent the kind of electronic educational wizardry that make many teachers salivate.
With them, teachers say, students can actually walk to the front of the class and manipulate numbers or symbols on a screen. That sort of approach, they say, appeals to the iPod, texting generation that loses interest at the first hint of a lecture or magic markers squealing on a traditional whiteboard. Plus, anything that can be called up on a computer can be displayed on an interactive whiteboard.
But do these expensive electronic gadgets actually improve student achievement?
The Robbinsdale school district has received a $160,000 federal grant to find out. The grant pays for an additional 25 interactive whiteboards (IWBs) for the district, training for teachers in their use, and studying comparisons of how classes using IWBs compare with those that don't have them.
Later this school year, teachers will be paired up, with one using an IWB and one not, to get a sense of how the whiteboards are working. As part of the study, the teachers' classes will be mixed up and switched halfway through the testing period, so that each class gets to use the IWB. Thirty district teachers at various grade levels are participating.
"We want to find out whether it makes a big difference in student achievement because it's a considerable investment," said Jane Prestebak, Robbinsdale schools program director for media and instructional technology. "We really have to think deeply about this."
Those costs include $1,200 for just the IWB itself, $125 for additional hardware, up to $700 for a projector, and another $1,600 to mount and wire everything, Prestebak said. Last year, Robbinsdale put in 55 IWBs, including those funded by the federal grant. District schools have 94 in all. Other districts have already taken a bigger plunge.
IWBs are, basically, large screens that can be installed at the front of a classroom. They can be connected to computers and the Internet. Programs are available that allow teachers to design lesson plans especially suited for the IWBs. Often, those plans involve students coming up to the screens and manipulating the images on them in some way.
"You can write on it with anything that touches the surface," Prestebak said. "You can use your finger. . .Some classes use flyswatters."
One IWB program allows students to move images of dice around as they study mathematical probability. Another allows students to move coins around as they are asked to demonstrate how much something costs. "If you just had some money and held it up, they would be bored and looking somewhere else," Prestebak said.
Many district teachers currently using IMBs swear by them, while noting that students must still do more traditional kinds of work.
"I don't use it for every lesson," said Doug Hubred, who teaches fourth grade at Noble Elementary School, in Golden Valley, and is one of the 30 teachers involved in the IWB experiment. "It doesn't take the place of a good teacher. You still need to get books in front of them. . .It does not take the place of a book."
But, as far as Hubred is concerned, his IWB has already proven its worth as an educational tool of the 21st century.
"What it does for my classroom is it brings the kids right to the lesson," he said. "They are forced to go up and do interactive things. ... I call it 'Nintendo learning.' I've had less behavior problems than I've had in the past. They just love doing it. They want to get up there. They've all got their hands up."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547