Ed-tech Q&A with eNotebook creator Kevin Giffhorn

Kevin Giffhorn, WeLearn Educational Software founder, eNotebook creator, and 2011 Maryland Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ High School Teacher of the Year, recently took the time to lend us his insights into the education technology industry.

He discussed issues in education that could be fixed with technology, obstacles for adopting technology in the education space, and more! Check out the Q&A below.

ET: What’s one of the biggest issues in education that could easily be fixed with technology, and how?

KG: Testing. With the new Common Core State Standards being adopted by over 40 states, two agencies (SBAC, PARCC) won the contracts to create and administer these tests. Both SBAC and PARCC have stated that these tests need to be administered electronically. However, most school systems are not prepared to move away from typical paper and pencil tests to meet this mandate. The problem here is not that the new tests will use technology, the problem is that most schools do not have the infrastructure to administer these tests electronically.

There needs to be a better way to run these tests than merely using a computer lab. While this might work well in English class, it can be quite difficult for students to type math equations into a computer. This is compounded even more where the student needs to show their work on a multi-step problem; each line would be a new typed equation. Some type of tablet device would be better suited for this. The students could then complete the English portion traditionally (typed or handwritten) and the math portion with a stylus.  I believe the iPad (or another mobile tablet product) could be used extensively here. Additionally, if there are tests, students will need test review software available to better prepare them for both the format and the material on the test.  My company, WeLearn Educational Software, is developing different review software for a variety of tests at all levels.

ET: If you could provide students nationwide with one education technology product, what would it be?

KG: iPad – new student version.  When the iPad was introduced, it was definitely ground-breaking technology. Not to be undone, the Android operating system has tried to get a foothold in the marketplace and was overall unsuccessful until the Kindle Fire.  While having many of the benefits of the iPad, its largest drawback is its screen size. It is too small to allow for taking notes as to replace a traditional notebook. Now there are rumors about an iPad version with a smaller screen to compete against the Kindle Fire. I disagree and say Apple needs to create an iPad with a larger screen. By having a screen with a writing surface as large as a sheet of paper, Apple would incorporate their highly successful iPad technology into the writing market and be one step closer to creating the truly digital student classroom we’ve been hearing about for years.

Another important feature of the iPad is that software development has migrated from a few large software companies telling the masses what they should use to the development of over 500 million apps by all sorts of developers on the iTunes App Store. Apple could have stayed focused on developing their own suite of software for the iOS but instead encouraged developers from all over the world to develop apps that could be distributed through iTunes—which benefits Apple by taking a 30% commission on all app sales and developers by having an established user base and distribution channel. This has allowed software that is truly developed “for the people, by the people.” I developed my first software app, eNotebook, based on my own teaching experiences and perceived needs in the classroom, and I have spoken to many other educators who have done or are hoping to create their own apps as well.

ET: What do you think are the biggest obstacles in adopting technology in the education space?

KG: I think there are three main areas that are the largest obstacles regarding technology in the classroom. First is the school districts’ technology policy. Many schools have extremely limiting policies regarding technology including no Kindles, iPads/iPods, or anything that could possibly have a wireless connection. While wireless security is an issue, the policy needs to be rewritten to address these issues, not eliminate them.  By creating an Acceptable Use Agreement that outlines what is acceptable and what is not regarding new technology as well as the repercussions for violating the agreement, the classroom and the students could both benefit from the new technologies.

Second is a lack of professional development regarding educational technology. In education, when budgets are cut, the professional development department seems to be one of the hardest hit. This is very unfortunate. Even if a classroom has the best technology, if the educator doesn’t know the best ways to incorporate it into the curriculum, it will not be successful. When a district combines new technology with beneficial professional development, it allows both the teacher and the students to fully utilize all the components to help the teacher present the required curriculum and the students to better understand and adapt the material into their personal knowledge.

The last obstacle is the fear of the unknown. I have heard many districts say that YouTube is a waste of time, iPads are only used to play games, and students can surf the internet on Kindle devices. This fear of technology is keeping us from integrating new technology. I wonder if the same discussion was around when pencils and paper started eliminating chalk and personal slates; maybe some teachers thought pencils would be used solely as deadly weapons with their sharp points? YouTube has a myriad of educational topics and explanations, the educational and reference apps available on iPads can bring additional depth to almost any topic while recognizing the multiple intelligences present in our students, and Kindles allow students to keep forty pounds worth of class textbooks in less than one pound. By explaining to teachers, students, and administrators the correct way to use the current technologies, the fears can be identified and eliminated, and strategies for correct implementation can be created.

Big thanks to Mr. Giffhorn for his contribution!