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Whiteboards add color to old-school lessons

As newer forms of technology filter into local classrooms, interactive whiteboards seem to be attracting the most attention, from kindergarten through high school.

Educators say the whiteboards enable teachers to breathe new life into old lessons.

"Most of our teaching is teacher-controlled, but with these tools of technology, it becomes student-centered. Students come alive as they start using these tools," said James N. Oigara, assistant professor in the education department at Canisius College, who teaches prospective teachers.

"Students love interactive technology -- things they can work with, hands-on. This is now going to be the way to go."

The large whiteboard, posted at the front of the room, connects to a computer and a projector. Using various software and websites, teachers project images that students can interact with.

Even simple programs like Paint take on particular appeal on a large whiteboard. When the teacher projects that program onto the screen, students can use their fingers to draw images on the whiteboard.

Students can navigate through websites projected onto the whiteboard by clicking on links, for example.

The whiteboards can also be used with programs that are more specific to classroom lessons.

For example, in a class where students are learning to use graphing calculators, the teacher might use a program that can project a large image of the calculator each student has. Then, a student could walk up to the whiteboard and "press" the keys on the projected image of the calculator, which would then respond just like a hand-held calculator would.

"Ideally we want to see [interactive whiteboards] in all rooms because that's the classroom of the 21st century," said Daryl Janus, director of instructional technology in West Seneca, which has installed them in about half its classrooms already.

Although the price tag can be hefty -- up to $10,000 per classroom for the whole system -- the whiteboards have become commonplace in wealthier suburban schools as well as cash-strapped urban districts like Niagara Falls and Buffalo, which have tapped into state aid that reimburses most of the cost.

In many districts, officials said they expected the whiteboards to be used most heavily by high school teachers, but teachers at all grade levels have been incorporating them into lessons.

The Buffalo Public Schools will have more interactive whiteboards than any other local district. In two years, Buffalo will have one in every classroom -- nearly 2,800 of them, according to Sanjay Gilani, director of information technology.

"We're going to cover every instructional space," he said.

Interactive technology helps teachers bridge the gap to their students, "digital natives" who can't remember a world before the Internet or text messaging, experts say. While some students might respond well to more traditional teaching methods, for other students, the technology really helps make a lesson click.

"It can make a huge difference," said Ramona R. Santa Maria, assistant professor of computer information systems at Buffalo State College. "It's all about learning styles. You might not be able to hit the learning style of a student with a piece of paper and a pen. But you might be able to hit the learning style of that student by using a simple drawing program."

As engaging as the technology can be, it's also quite time-consuming for teachers to learn how to incorporate it effectively into their lessons.

Santa Maria, who teaches people who teach in schools across the region, said her students often stress the need for adequate training.

"A lot of times what ends up happening is that the technology is brought into the school, everybody's excited about it -- and the training doesn't happen," she said.

She made the analogy of someone who buys an iPhone but doesn't know how to do anything but dial a phone number on it. It's only with adequate training that teachers are able to fully realize the potential for using the technology in their rooms, she and Oigara said.

"If teachers are going to use a whiteboard interactively, how it is meant to be used, it is not going to be one day, two days, three days of professional training -- it's a whole semester," Oigara said.