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Young team pitches need for digital classrooms

The future of American schools may have been parked for three sultry hours Friday afternoon just off Kings Drive.

Outside, the white and orange tour bus looked like a promotional vehicle for a summer music festival. Inside, the revolution was underway, led by four people scarcely old enough to drink a legal beer.

They belong to iSchool Initiative (ISI), and they’re on a six-month tour across America to preach the virtues of a digital classroom. They pulled onto the CPCC campus as the final event in “Getting to the Core of Teaching & Learning,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ 2013 Summer Institute.

At the head of this tour stood Travis Allen. Four springs ago, he was a 17-year-old high school student whose teacher confiscated his smart phone when he took notes on it. Now he’s in Kennesaw State University’s business school, 20 miles from Atlanta, and has “dedicated his life to mobile learning and changing education to suit today’s youth.” (So says an account at ischoolinitiative.org.)

He blew into Charlotte after a big conference in San Antonio to give a keynote speech at Halton Theater Thursday. His team of four (plus a documentary filmmaker) went into full-press seminar mode Friday.

“We don’t want to do away with teachers or tell them how to teach,” said Sunny Narshi, ISI’s seminar coordinator. “We show them how we learn. Some students do best with visual learning; some are auditory. Some are kinesthetic and learn (by doing). Digital technology can help all of them.

“This can be overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with technology, and it can be scary for teachers to let students take control of some of the process. Travis likes to say that a teacher shouldn’t be a sage on the stage but a guide on the side.”

He and his cohorts seemed to be preaching to the choir in Charlotte. Holly Spangler, who’s in her second year as technology teacher at Beverly Woods Elementary School, echoed the ISI message:

“Traditional education has been the same for so many years that it takes kids like these to speak up and say, ‘I learn in a different way from the way you learned.’ We all talk about treating students as 21st-century learners. Well, teach them the way you teach 21st-century learners.”

The ISI mobile classroom gave a hint of how that might work. At one end hung a “blackboard” on which kids could write with special pens; at the other stood an interactive table, where they assembled a virtual puzzle by moving images with their fingers.

In between came a Mobile Tool Kit: components for wireless solutions, content sharing, virtual assessments, professional development, social networking, device management and educationally oriented tablets.

ISI has teamed with preferred business partners who can bundle a package of services. (You’ll find those at the website.) Allen estimated that an entire classroom could be furnished for a year with these services for $400 to $500, not counting things such as lockers where tablets could be stored and recharged. But he stressed that ISI’s message is about solutions – such as Narshi’s session on helpful Google applications – and not equipment.

He also urged educators not to worry if they know less about the digital world than pupils. “Most of us think students know how to use technology, but they do not know how to do it at all from an educational standpoint,” he said.

Olavee Williams, who works with exceptional children at Lincoln Heights and Turning Point academies, acknowledges that shorter attention spans mean students need more and different kinds of stimulation:

“Students need to be interactive, to have more freedom in the learning environment,” she said. “We should help them learn to think critically, and technology can help us do that.

“There’s nothing wrong with letting them teach us sometimes, too. We’re creating a community of learning.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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