Retrofitting the Archaic Classroom on the Cheap

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Greater emphasis is placed every day on blended learning environments that utilize digital content. Many teachers are attempting to implement such a pedogical shift in older classrooms that do not naturally support such efforts. These classrooms lack the standard equipment of the 21st century school including common student devices, interactive white boards, short-throw projectors, or document cameras.  This expensive equipment is helpful for a teacher creating a blended or completely digital learning environment.  However, the inability to fund such high ticket items does not mean that a classroom cannot provide technology-embued instruction.

Schools can still create a modern environment within the constraints of an older classrooms by identifying lower cost alternatives. This includes the use of netbooks as a student device, repurposing a laptop as a document camera and/or purchasing an inexpensive document camera, utilizing a portable low-cost LCD projector, and using an iPhone or other smartphone as a remote input device.
Laptop Alternatives:

Schools that wish to create one-to-one computing environments do not need to spend the $1000 plus per device to provide a class set of full function laptops.  One clear alternative is a netbook, a device that does not have the processing power, memory, or screen size of a laptop, but can serve quite well as a standard classroom device.  This is especially true because more educational computing is cloud-based, meaning that appications are accessed on the Internet rather than running locally on the computer.  For example, Google Docs provides a word processing experience similar to Microsoft Office with a lesser processing demand for the device.  In addition, Google Docs is free.  Asus is the most popular netbook manufacturer with several options in the $300 range.  For the frugal administrator, spending $5000-6000 to outfit an entire classroom with devices may be an attractive option.

There are also a number of tablet computing options including the Apple iPad, HP Slate, and Samsung Galaxy Tab.  These devices provide a high powered computing experience with a bit of a cost break compared to a laptop at around $700.  However, this price difference does not justify the limitations of a tablet – the lack of an included physical keyboard, ethernet connection (iPad), and durability questions generally make these devices inappropriate for the frugal educator.  They have value as a supplement to a traditional laptop, but not to replace it.
Document Camera:

A laptop with a built-in webcam can serve as a fully functional document camera. This retrofit only requires a laptop or netbook computer along with an inexpensive textbook stand and a free downloable video mod program such as VLC. I have had success with the Fellowes Wire Study Stand ($5.69 on Amazon) and my 13 inch MacBook. For those without a built-in webcam, the price of webcams has dropped considerably of late. One very inexpensive model available on Amazon for $6, a USB LCD webcam, has no built-in microphone but is adequate for use as a document camera and there are several full function webcams available in the $20-30 range.

Macs and PC’s are equipped with a number of different options for displaying live video from the built-in webcam including Moviemaker (PC), Photo Booth (Mac), and Quicktime (File – New Movie Recording). However, I have had the best luck with open source media player VLC. VLC allows the video to be rotated 90 degrees. This is helpful when standing perpendicular to the screen and displaying content that cannot be turned easily such as if you are completing a math problem or writing. Achieving this effect in VLC is a bit complicated, but there are step by step directions available on line. VLC also allows for quick screenshots of displayed work.

For those without a laptop or who are uncomfortable with the use of a textbook stand, there are also inexpensive document cameras available that are adequate for normal classroom use. One example is the IPEVO Point 2 View USB Camera ($69 on Amazon). The reviews of this product are quite good and in some cases, teachers find its portability to be an asset that more expensive document cameras lack.  Another option is a webcam with an adjustable neck such as the HueHD Cam Clique – yours for $39.95 on the Hue website.

LCD Projector:
The price of LCD projectors has dropped considerably over the past several years. In fact, there are now portable pico projectors with limited capability that are available for $100-300.  These projects are generally only good in smaller rooms that are capable of being quite dark.  The best of the sub $300 lot is the Samsung SP-H03, which performs well in reasonable classroom conditions.  The Amazon page for this projector includes a video review that is quite helpful.

Wireless Mouse:
The most desired technology item in my current school is the interactive whiteboard or an interactive short-throw projector.  However, these are also some of the most expensive purchases out there.  One alternative to these pricey options is to use an inexpensive projector along with your laptop and to use your smartphone or iPad as a wireless mouse.  There are a number of apps for the iPhone and android that perform this function.  Two free apps that I have tried are Hippo Remote and Mobile Mouse.  They both work very well and allow me to operate my laptop from the back of my classroom.

 These devices along with a variety of free web-based tools can make a smartboard unnecessary.  Some of the websites that work well with a remote controlled mouse include Scriblink as an online whiteboard, Geogebra for math, Shmoop for English, Molecular Workbench for Science, and Pixlr for art.  A number of other useful websites are listed throughout

The sheer volume of free software available on the Internet is amazing – and it is growing every day.  Please browse this website to explore many of the options out there.  However, there are three web applications that I think are worth highlighting because they are free, they do not require an installed application, and they have the potential to be useful to the average teacher on a daily basis.

1) Khan Academy

Khan Academy is an immense library of high-quality instructional videos and interactive exercises focused primarily on math and science, but with some options in the humanities.  Khan’s impact is growing every day and could have a significant impact on remedial math instruction in your school right away.

2) Open Office

Open Office is a free open-source application that replicates most of the functionality of Microsoft Office.  It includes a word processing, spreadsheet, and presention application as well as a database program and a drawing tool.  Open Office has the ability to open word documents and to save documents with the standard .doc ending.  A great free alternative to MS Office, Open Office works on both PC and Mac.

3) Google

The Google suite of apps is amazing!  Among the free options are Gmail, the hugely successful e-mail application, Google docs, a word processing and document sharing program, and Google Earth, a tool for exploring the world.  There are many others, but these three are my favorites.  Google Earth does require download and installation, but this application, in particular, is worth its weight in gold.  What I like best about Google Earth is that it has broad uses throughout the curriculum.  It is a great tool for exploring geography and history in Social Studies, astronomy and geology in Science, scale and distance in Math, and literary settings in English.

Integration of technology does require an investment in professional development, most importantly, but also in hardware and sofwtare to support learning.  However, there are many ways to provide a technology rich educational environment without spending extravagently.  By examing the use of netbooks, document camera options, use of a smartphone as a wireless mouse, and the variety of free software on the web, school administrators can maximize their technology budget.

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