Technology Inspires Innovation in the Classroom

By Melissia Mason
Working a geometry problem looks a bit different today than it once did. The traditional work of pencil on paper, chalk on chalkboard, and messy erasing has now been replaced with dynamic technology that facilitates active and collaborative problem-solving. But it doesn’t stop with geometry.
Technology has become an essential piece of every conversation about nimble classroom strategies, especially with the recent necessity of remote learning. Even before the pandemic forced the issue, Emma Willard School had introduced iPads into the classroom for both faculty and students, most notably in the Mathematics Department. 

“Geometry is a problem-based course with no traditional textbook,” Mathematics Instructor Raimie Utterback explains. “Students are working together to solve problems and class discussion highlights the topics and key points of the course. This method relies heavily on students’ solutions and their sharing of the problems.” The traditional method of sharing involved working problems on paper or on the whiteboard. This manual manipulation limited the ways in which students interacted with one another and with possible solutions. 

Enter the iPad. With tools like Notability (note-taking and annotation tool), Desmos (advanced graphing calculator), or GeoGebra (interactive geometry, algebra, statistics and calculus application), students could share problems, draw directly on them, make annotations, and receive digital feedback from their instructors. “We realized that the technology really enhanced students’ ability to put together a good solution,” Raimie says. 

In the early days of the iPad program, students would complete their geometry problems in their notebook, then come to class and work in pairs to input their problem into a limited number of devices that lived in the classroom. They would present the problem and solution to the class, then upload their notes to a shared drive for others to access and review later to enhance understanding. 

In March of 2020, when students were sent home to finish the school year remotely, Director of Academic Technology Nick Marchese took the opportunity to redistribute the students’ classroom devices to faculty. Teachers in other departments quickly discovered that the iPads were a useful tool for their work as well. Using handwriting felt more authentic, yet was still digital and shareable. This greatly facilitated the all-important communication with students while they were learning remotely. Nick, Raimie, and EdTech (a team of faculty from each department who provide training and support for faculty) partnered together to offer technical assistance to those who were new to the idea. 

Upon returning to campus last year, necessary COVID precautions eliminated the ability of students to share devices and work closely side-by-side. Geometry instructors had to shift their thinking back to pencil and paper. “We tried a few different technologies for students to share their work with each other,” Mathematics Instructor Laszlo Bardos shares. “But we settled on having students take a picture of their work and paste their picture into a Google document that teachers presented to the class. This was limited in that it was a static image of their work. On pencil and paper, we lost out on many alternate solution methods.”

When Emma Willard School returned to full in-person learning this year, Nick was faced with a dilemma: the previously used student iPads were fully engaged by faculty, and yet the iPads had proven to be an excellent way for students to collaborate. Thus began an effort to ensure access to iPads for all students in certain math classes and all faculty who wanted them. What started as a pilot program with about 40 faculty iPads used primarily in the Mathematics Department and eight student iPads that lived in the geometry classroom, has now expanded to include over 120 iPads in use by both students and faculty across departments. 

“The iPads are a much nicer way for students to present their work because they update their solution on the spot as the class discovers mistakes. They can add explanations and highlight points of interest,” Laszlo explains. “We don't tell students how to do things, so students can be creative in how they approach problems. Last year, it was very difficult for students to explain alternate ways of solving a problem because we couldn't easily show their work. Now, with iPads, any student in the class can quickly show their work to explain their method by simply mirroring their screen to the TV in the front of the room. It’s very slick.”

For faculty, the professional development program has expanded as well. Under Nick and Raimie’s leadership, teachers meet all together once a month, as well as in monthly small groups for discussion and support. Those who became “super-users” last year serve as “innovators” to lead each group. “We want to elevate the fact that we have a wealth of knowledge that developed organically from figuring things out on our own last year,” Raimie shares. Drop-in hours with Nick and Raimie are also available for extra support, and a variety of workshops are offered every few weeks to target specific skills (like using Showbie to comment on, highlight, and voice annotate assessments).

As we reflect on lessons learned in the past couple of years, there are some ideas that are valuable to preserve. The agile use of technology is one growing edge that has served to inspire intellectual inquiry across disciplines and creativity throughout our curriculum. We applaud the innovators who spur us forward!
    • Notability (note-taking and annotation tool)

    • Desmos (advanced graphing calculator)

    • GeoGebra (interactive geometry, algebra, statistics and calculus application)

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Honoring its founder’s vision, Emma Willard School proudly fosters in each young woman a love of learning, the habits of an intellectual life, and the character, moral strength, and qualities of leadership to serve and shape her world.
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