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UMW Education Department brings technology to rural students

UMW News Bureau

students working with a smart board

In the University of Montana Western Department of Education, aspiring teachers are learning to use innovative technology to enhance their teaching methods and implement those methods firsthand in the unique Rural Fridays education partnership with rural grade schools.

“Rural Fridays is a unique field experience for preservice teachers that brings children together from many of the very rural, two-room schools in Beaverhead and Madison counties,” Montana Western education professor Laura Straus explained. “Teacher candidates plan and teach a half day of lessons on each of the Fridays with the added benefit of extensive observation and feedback from the rural teachers and their university instructor.”

Teacher education students are utilizing Montana Western’s SMART Boards to teach grade school students as well as expose them to technology not available in the rural classrooms. SMART Boards replace traditional white boards and chalkboards with a digital version of the same concept. Teachers are able to use applications, write with digital ink, save projects performed on the board and give presentations on a large display so the needs of both visual and kinesthetic learners are met.

Montana Western has 12 SMART Boards located across the campus.

Straus added that the presence of SMART boards on campus has been an excellent chance for education majors to experiment with technology themselves.

“I think it's very important for students to have the opportunity to practice using new technology,” Straus stated. “These tools are destined to be an integral part of not only their student careers, but their adult careers and lives.”

Montana Western elementary education senior Jamie Janosko knows the importance of having experience using technology for her future career.

“Having a background rich in technology is essential in almost any job today,” Janosko noted. “Especially for teaching.”

Janosko experienced SMART Boards as a student in Montana Western classrooms and is now experiencing them as a teacher during Rural Fridays. She recently used one of the STC SMART Boards to present a lesson plan to Rural Friday children and then to play an educational version of the game show Jeopardy with the students.

Janosko said she enjoyed the experience of using SMART Boards with Rural Fridays students and realized even though they were from rural schools, many of the students were technologically adept. One of Janosko’s Rural Fridays students even helped her operate the SMART Board during a portion of the class. The occurrence would not be surprising to Straus, who is well aware of children’s exposure to technology.

“Many children today can rightly be called ‘digital natives’ because they have so much exposure to technology at an early age that it has become a modality in which they are easily engaged and in which they readily learn,” Straus added.

While students from some rural schools such as Wisdom, Mont. have access to SMART Boards, students at Reichle Elementary School in Glen, Mont. do not. Becky Jensen, a teacher at Reichle Elementary School, appreciates SMART Boards even though her school does not have the funds to acquire one.

“It’s definitely an asset to learning,” Jensen stated. “Anything to enhance curriculum and catch a student’s attention is great.”

After gaining first-hand experience with SMART Boards Janosko agrees they can be an asset to a classroom. She also understands there must be a balance between technology and human interaction.

“Technology is evolving the classroom,” Janosko stated. “It’s great students as young as fourth grade are learning how to write, open files, use programs, and be technologically savvy. It does need a balance. Too much technology takes away from learning how to interact with one another, especially at that age.”

When used correctly as a tool in the classroom SMART Boards have numerous benefits.

“Not only does it build technical skills but it increases students’ motivation and students are always actively participating,” Janosko said of SMART Board use. “Struggling readers and hearing-impaired students have programs to aid them in learning. It’s a great way to learn and differentiate. I love how you can be presenting in front of the entire class, as opposed to behind a computer clicking away.”

Although the SMART Boards do make some things easier, Straus and Janosko both understand they can also add complications for students learning to use them.

“I think the use of SmartBoards makes teaching both more efficient and effective,” Straus added. “It may not always be easier, as it does require extra thought and planning, but those things become second nature as the teacher increases his/her knowledge of the technology.”

Janosko says the trick is to use the technology as a supplemental tool, not a replacement, for lesson plans.

“In my opinion technology should not change the way a teacher teaches but should support or add to the topic they are teaching,” Janosko clarified.

Still, for rural schools that find access to such technology often out of their reach, SMART Boards are a tool that can bring the outside world into a classroom in a very hands-on manner. Both Straus and Janosko say teachers and students alike can benefit from SMART Boards’ potential to create entertaining lessons catering to different types of learners at the same time.