When it comes time to divvy up the technology budget, districts have more choices than ever. So it may come as a surprise to hear how fiercely some tech experts defend something as seemingly basic as classroom audiovisual equipment.
"If I had to spend money on anything for our schools, I would choose document cameras and LCD projectors," says Andrew Berning, chief technology officer at the Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas.
With $40 million in bond issue money, Berning's district has invested heavily in technology in the last few years. But the biggest bang for the buck has been an array of high-tech A/V equipment. "We had 700 classrooms with A/V carts and another 1,400 without. When we compared the statistics, we found a significant increase in math and reading test scores for the A/V classrooms," Berning says. "It's the most impactful technology I've ever seen, and I've been in educational technology for 15 years."
If your idea of A/V is waiting for the "beep" to advance the filmstrip, well, you might be in for a surprise. Today, A/V includes LCD projectors that project a billboard-sized, crystal-clear image of anything you can watch on your computer monitor. It includes interactive white boards that allow students to interact with the display, document cameras that serve as a 21st century overhead projector, sound systems that make a teacher's words audible in every corner of the room and student-response devices that keep a class engaged and teachers on top of who comprehends the material.
And there's a slew of content for all this hardware: streaming video, Web sites, PowerPoint presentations, interactive software, videoconferences and more. "There's an old saw that television was supposed to revolutionize education and it didn't. But in reality, it has. It's just taken a long time to come about," says Mark Gura, the former head of technology for the New York City Department of Education and now a consultant for educational researchers like Fordham University. "Schoolhouse Rock didn't have enough impact because it came on every once in a while and you couldn't choose when to watch it. We've just gotten to the point now with digital technology that you can get content on demand-more choices and exactly what you want, when you want it, and again and again."
A big part of A/V's appeal is its ability to reach more students than relying on textbooks and lectures. "Multisensory capability is the power of A/V. It addresses more learning styles at once-the auditory learner, the visual learner and the tactile-kinesthetic learner who is helped by seeing things happen," says Carol Simpson, an associate professor in the School of Library Information Sciences at the University of North Texas. "Close-captioning is also really helpful with video, especially for ESL students, connecting the words to the images."
Students of every stripe, however, are drawn to images, movement and sound. Teachers have an easier time attracting kids' attention with a good A/V system and content, and studies show that A/V materials improve student learning and retention.
Experts agree that even used in its most basic way, a good A/V system is a useful classroom tool. When a teacher puts his or her notes up for students to follow along, that's helpful, especially if a PowerPoint includes visuals or even video clips to illustrate the point. A document camera can allow a teacher to use many more visual clues to illustrate the point, and Web sites that include educational software or streaming video can take a class far beyond the school's walls.
The power of A/V really becomes apparent, though, when the focus moves away from the lecturing teacher and toward empowering the students themselves. From students shooting their own videos to interactive whiteboards that allow a student's input to be seen by the whole class, A/V can be a portal to interactive learning.
Bill Benoit, co-founder of Videre Conferencing, can rattle off a range of interactive videoconferences now available to students. "The Baseball Hall of Fame has a math program built around baseball statistics; the Smithsonian has a program on invention that engages students by having the teacher tape an envelope below each seat before class begins. The presenter at the Smithsonian asks them to look under their seats, and it sparks a conversation about how they were built and put together," he says. "It's amazing what's out there, and how it opens the doors of the classroom to the world."
"At its best, the technology is a lever to help teachers change their pedagogy from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. A lot of teachers would love to change their focus to the students, but they don't have the tools. It's like wanting to play football without a helmet and pads. You can get in the game, but it's gonna hurt," says Pete Just, technology supervisor for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indiana, where almost every classroom in the district (more than 800 rooms) now has A/V systems that include a laptop, projector, interactive whiteboard, DVD player and VCR to access television in real time.
Nothing Is Perfect
As with many forms of ed tech, where A/V can go wrong is in the implementation. Few would argue that having a good A/V system in the classroom is an asset, but even its most ardent supporters agree that unless a district makes some wise decisions along the way, A/V won't have nearly as strong an impact.
Let's start with the expense. To keep costs at bay, take a good hard look at what you're getting for the money and plan ahead for how you will integrate the equipment into the schools' curriculum and teaching goals. And know that sometimes saving money today can cost more tomorrow, if your new equipment is quickly outdated.
"Have a very candid conversation with any company you're working with. Ask their company strategist to come meet with your administrators. What's coming next? How long will this investment hold? The answer may be to pay a little more to get a model that will be compatible with the next generation of features," says Marina Leight, vice president for education at the Center for Digital Education.
Equipment quickly becomes ineffective if the teachers don't take advantage of it. The problem can be as simple as a setup that doesn't operate easily or often doesn't work (see "It's the Little Things" sidebar below). Even more troublesome are educators who use the A/V equipment to entertain the class or make their lives easier.
"Librarians distribute the videos, so I know that there are teachers who just show anything," says Simpson. "Schools have materials for first graders to learn from-five-minute-long clips created by National Geographic on how farms work, for example-but some want an hour off so they'll show the movie Babe instead. Well, if you watch an hour of Hollywood videos a week, for 36 weeks a year, over the course of a school year you've just lost a week of instructional time."
Developing Good Habits
Even when teachers aren't interested in using their fancy A/V equipment just as a way to "reward" students with entertaining videos, they still can have trouble knowing how to get the most out of the investment. Experts agree: The most important way to ensure A/V equipment truly has an impact on learning is to invest in professional development.
"If you're going to put forth the money for the hardware and software, you have to show teachers how it can impact their classroom and you have to provide support, or it usually doesn't make a difference. That whiteboard just becomes a screen to show videos on," says Amy Gates, supervisor for instructional technology at the Lees' Summit School District in Missouri, which spends more than a quarter of its tech budget on professional development.
Gates says her team always strives to make any training directly connected to what the teachers will be doing in their own classrooms, using examples and case studies that are relevant to the curriculum. "There are teachers who may be uncomfortable with the equipment, but they'll change their pedagogy if they know it will help their students," she says. "The change may come slow, in small steps, but once they can see the impact it has on their kids, they'll keep learning how to better use it."
"What's going on in the classroom is mirroring what's going on in the real world, with a variety of ways to access content. The distinction between technologies is becoming wonderfully fuzzy. It used to be that A/V was inherently a group experience, but now it can also be personal," says Mora. "I think the next shift is going to be a way for teachers to work with small collaborative workgroups."
Add in the ways that students can create content-from increasingly inexpensive digital video cameras to group-edit whiteboard activities-and the opportunities become dizzying. "There's something about A/V that provides a kind of visceral, immediate response," says Mora. "The classroom without this is becoming a particularly out-of-step place to be."
Carl Vogel is a freelance writer based in Chicago.