JHU helps put technology into neighborhood schools

When Nathaniel Eugene's eighth-grade students were reading about Athens, Greece, during a social studies lesson, they wanted to know exactly where to find the city. Eugene didn't pull down a map or ask the students to open an atlas. Instead, he told the students to take out their computer tablets and use Google Earth to virtually explore the city.

Eugene, a teacher at Barclay Elementary/Middle School, located near Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, is one of two Baltimore City Public School teachers selected for a smart classroom pilot project developed and funded by the Greater Homewood Community Corp. in partnership with Samsung and Johns Hopkins. The other pilot participant, David Cataline, teaches at nearby Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School.

Stakeholders associated with Margaret Brent and Barclay, including Johns Hopkins, were seeking opportunities to incorporate technology into the schools' learning programs, says Salem Reiner, the university's associate director for economic development in the Office of the President. "Successful schools are a key component of the success of the Homewood Community Partners Initiative," says Reiner, referring to the effort launched in 2012 by the university to explore and support the common areas of self-interest of Johns Hopkins and community residents around the Homewood campus. "And the use of applicable technology can play an important role in realizing this goal."

Last November, one classroom at each school was outfitted with 30 Samsung Galaxy Note tablets and docking keyboards, along with a Samsung ATIV PC for the teacher's desk and a 65-inch interactive touch screen whiteboard. Eugene uses the technology in his sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade history classes—for nearly 100 students—almost every day.

"I've always been interested in technology, so this has been a great experience," says Eugene, who had experimented with using tablets and smart televisions in his classes before this project. "It's just amazing that with technology you can do so much. If you harness it properly, you can have so much wealth of knowledge available to kids."

As with the Google Earth lesson, he focuses on interactive ways to engage students and keep them on task. Using Samsung School, a software program that enables instant sharing of screen content between his control tablet and the students' tablets, Eugene can monitor in real time what each student is doing.

"If I suspect the kids are distracted, what I can do is shut everybody's tablet down so it really is useless," he says. "If I think you are wasting time, I could have your work instantly projected to the [whiteboard] screen. We can keep tabs on you."

The software, he says, has also simplified his lessons by minimizing the need for textbooks and hard-copy handouts. Reading assignments can be uploaded in PDF form to the Samsung School website and accessed by students when they log in from their tablets. They can then circle, underline, personalize, and save the digital copies through Samsung Note, an app on the device.

"I can work individually at my own pace; I don't have to go at other students' pace," says Asia Dupree, an eighth-grader in Eugene's class. "Using the tablets makes my work easier."

Eugene agrees. "It's kind of hard to go back to teaching without all these features," he says.

At Margaret Brent, Cataline, who teaches sixth grade and is also the school's technology coordinator, is using the interactive features in similar ways. He recently sparked a class discussion after students took a math quiz using their tablets.

Instantly following the quiz, Cataline projected a rundown of the students' results onto the whiteboard, which showed not only their scores but also the questions that were most frequently correct and incorrect among the class. Using the whiteboard, he switched between the questions and a digital notepad to help the students solve the incorrect problems as a class.

He says he's encountered some glitches with the technology, like Internet connection issues and software conflicts, but he's optimistic for the future.

"Right now, we're just focusing on getting used to the program," Cataline says. "If [the project] continues, I think those things might fall into place and we'll be better off."

Margaret Brent Principal Pamela A. Smith says she'd like to see the project continue but that no plans to expand it have been made yet. She says she's been exploring possibilities for further use of the existing technology at the school, possibly incorporating it into other grades and subjects beyond Cataline's class.

"I thought it was a good experience when they told me about it," she says. "And then when I saw it in action, it just validated my thoughts. The students have everything right at their fingertips."