Miami's Public Teachers Scramble To Learn To Use New Digital Blackboards

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For Ada Nuñez, getting ready to go back to school is one word: overwhelming. Between the bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to school and creating lesson plans for a class full of incoming high school freshman, the first day of school is the beginning of another hectic year as a teacher.

This year, Nuñez, a history teacher at Hialeah Senior High, will have to worry about more than just finding parking and showing PowerPoint presentations. Like thousands of other Dade County teachers, she's spending her final weeks of summer scrambling to learn how to use the new digital blackboards the school district has bought for the new semester.

"I'm going to have to teach a classroom full of students when I'm not really an expert yet," Nuñez says. "In the end, it'll be a great teaching tool, but it's going to take time."

This summer MDCPS purchased more than 10,000 "Promethean boards" -- one for each classroom -- making it the largest purchase of those boards in the world. The $20 million bill was paid with school bond money, from a 2012 referendum voters approved for infrastructure improvements and technology updates.

And the boards aren't the only digital change coming this year. Every high school freshman will now get a tablet to take home for world history, and seventh grade students will also have a classroom set of tablets for civics classes.

"We realized that the one-to-one student relationship with a device needed to become a reality in the classroom," MDCPS Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in a bond committee meeting last month. "We want every child to be a part of the digital age."

Problem is, teachers need to know how to use that digital age. To help, the district has been requiring teachers to attend summer workshops. Still, it's a safe bet that plenty of teachers will spend the first weeks of the year prodding buttons and staring confusedly at the giant new monitors in each classroom.

Each board is basically a giant touchscreen computer, where teachers can display their lessons and show any kind of digital media straight from the teacher's desktop or laptop. While teachers and students can write on it, the board connects to mobile devices in the class, allowing teachers to project a student's computer or cell phone screen on the board.

Those features mean that once teachers learn how to use them in class, they'll probably be worth the effort.

"I've worked with these boards before and it's honestly so much more convenient for teachers," said Alex Garcia, a history teacher at Palm Springs Middle. "I can show presentations, videos, and do interactive quizzes and lectures with my students all with one board."

Students will also have a tech learning curve this year. Ninth graders will find brand new HP tablets waiting for them at school instead of a textbook for World History.

To pay for those devices, the district worked out a low interest loan with Bank of America. Students will have to pay for an insurance plan, or else a lost tablet could end up costing around $550.

While the school board and many teachers are pleased with the county-wide technology upgrades, some are still skeptical about how smooth the transition will be.

"It's a lot for the student and teacher to learn," Nuñez says. "But it really has much more uses than the standard projector or chalkboard."

Throughout the year, MDCPS will continue to have workshops for teachers to better familiarize themselves with the technology and learn about different resources available to offer students.

Besides these new big ticket items coming to the classroom, the school board is also shifting some old policies. Students will now be encouraged to bring their cell phones to school in a campaign the district is calling the BYOD, which stands for bring your own device.

This new policy, supplemented by the district wide wifi installation last year, will not only allow but encourage students to keep their phones out in class. For students without cellphones, school officials hope to provide other devices like laptops for student use.

"We're doing this transition in waves," Carvalho said. "We have made it our goal to get these devices into the hands of students."

By the end of this upcoming school year, Carvalho plans to have almost 100,000 mobile devices in the hands of students of all ages. More than 20,000 laptops will be put in elementary schools and almost 70,000 tablets will be in middle and high schools.

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