Back to the Books (and Laptops)

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

French teacher Normandie Lee stood in front of her class yesterday, face to face with the electronic whiteboard she had just learned how to use, and confessed, "Okay, I'm scared."

"You'll be fine," Cathy Ba, instructional technology coordinator for Gunston Middle School in Arlington County, said. Lee could control the computer-synced modern-day version of the blackboard with a touch of the screen, Ba reminded her.

"Push the X in the middle," one eighth-grade boy said.

"Slower," another encouraged.

"See, I knew you guys were smarter than me," Lee said, finally pulling up their homework assignments from the Internet. "This thing is so cool."

Across Northern Virginia, students and teachers returned to school, punctuating what was a two-week rolling start for the academic year in the Washington region. Like their peers who came back to District and Maryland public schools last month, these Virginia students are growing comfortable with classes where podcasting is routine, paper use is dwindling and whiteboards are increasingly interactive.

In one sign of the growing momentum for technological advances in education, SMART Technologies announced last month that it had produced its 1 millionth interactive SMARTboard. Company officials say they have sold 70,000 in the Washington region.

"I think what we've seen happening is there is a little less argument about whether technology has a role to play in education and more of a desire to know exactly what to do with it to optimize the benefit for students," said Don Knezek, chief executive of the International Society for Technology in Education, which has an office in the District. "It's less of a whether and whole lot more of how."

The society has joined with other groups to launch public service announcements calling on the presidential candidates to make "access to education technology and modern learning environments a top national priority."

Studies, Knezek said, show that school systems that have yet to invest in technology are hurting more than their students' employment potential.

"Before, we looked at a digital divide as an earning divide," Knezek said. "Now we look at a digital divide as a learning divide."

Three years ago, Gunston had two SMARTboards. Now, it has 17. As technology coordinator, Ba has to make sure they all work. As of 9 a.m. yesterday, only the one in Steven Brown's history and geography classroom showed a "no signal" stubbornly clinging to the screen.

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