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Virtual Learning Tools Aid Students and Teachers Alike

1/11/2011 11:38 AM -

Are iPads and avatars the wave of the future in our nation’s schools? As these and other new technologies emerge, many educators are eager to embrace their potential as teaching tools.

In late December, students at Roslyn High School on Long Island were given Apple iPads as part of a pilot program aimed at replacing textbooks, allowing students to correspond with teachers and turn in papers and homework assignments, and preserve a record of student work in digital portfolios. 47 of the tablets were distributed to students and teachers in two humanities classes, and the school district hopes to eventually provide iPads to all 1,100 of its students.

Other districts have followed suit, with public schools in Arizona, Illinois, New York, Virginia and California launching their own iPad initiatives in recent months.

Supporters of the program believe that the iPad is a powerful and versatile tool with many educational applications, and laud its physical attributes, including its large touch screen and flat design, which allows students to maintain eye contact with their teachers and won’t weigh down their backpacks. Opponents have raised concerns about the extravagance of spending money on tablet computers at a time when school districts are short on funds, especially because their educational value has not yet been proved by research.

Indeed, technology experts have begun to point toward less costly options, like smartphones and e-Readers, that offer similar benefits at a fraction of the iPad’s base cost of about $500. But only time—and thorough testing—will show if our children truly learn faster or better by using these devices.

Meanwhile, teachers are also embracing new high-tech tools, such as the TeachME Lab and simSchool classroom simulations. Both programs offer teachers in training the ability to experiment—and make mistakes—in a virtual classroom setting without the worry of doing harm to an actual child’s learning.

The simulations are populated with avatars—computer-generated characters whose movements and speech are controlled by professional actors—with different features and emotional characteristics. Each virtual student responds differently to stimulus from a teacher-candidate in charge of the classroom, allowing aspiring educators the chance to properly prepare for the demands of practice.

While such programs have long been used to train professionals in medicine, nursing and aviation, they are uncommon in the preparation of teachers. As our nation strives to improve teacher education, including the variety, length and quality of field-based experiences, this technology offers great promise.

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