Nat Giambalvo, a high-energy middle school math teacher, doesn’t need gimmicks to keep the attention of his students, but he’s not above trying one out now and then.
He has Albert Einstein and “Welcome Back, Kotter” costumes that he trots out on occasion when he wants to play characters. His classroom is adorned with a sign that reads, “Zombies and teachers, we both want your BRAINS.” He wears a Looney Tunes necktie.
There’s an easy give-and-take between Giambalvo — who moved to Texas from New York City with his family four years ago to teach at South Belton Middle School — and his math students, who call him “Mr. G.” They joke with him and he teases back. On a recent Friday, a group of students he taught last year have returned as eighth graders to try out a new piece of software that will be used in the school and in other parts of the Belton district, which has grown to 10,247 students.
Every student here has an iPad, an initiative launched two years ago. On these tablet devices, the students and Mr. G. are on their second day with “LiveSlide,” a web-based application developed in Austin by a small startup called Atlas Learning Inc.
“Everybody logged in?” Giambalvo asks. “Remember ‘SyncPad?’”
That was a whiteboard app students used last year to see materials on their devices presented by the teacher.
“This is kind of like ‘SyncPad’ on steroids,” he explains. “Remember I could write on my screen and it would show up on your screen and that was it? Now you have control. You can write on my board.”
The students, who have been using iPads long enough that the tablets aren’t so novel anymore, ooh and ahh at the added interactivity. Through a 15-minute demo, Mr. G. walks through several math problems, calling on students randomly via “LiveSlide” and allowing them to solve problems on their iPads for all to see without leaving their seats. He shows how he can poll students on answers, learning quickly whether the class understands and can move forward, or whether he needs to go back over material again.
“This gives me an opportunity to cover more and move at your pace,” he tells the class. If all goes well, he promises, that can mean less homework. And students can replay classroom lessons, seeing step by step what was covered each day. “This is ‘LiveSlide,’ guys. This is what you’ll be using,” Giambalvo concludes. The students applaud.
One of the students, Cierra Olivarez, gives a quick assessment of how the software works compared to what she’s used before. “It’s a lot more accessible,” she says. Olivarez says she’s most excited about being able to review what she learned in class at home. She’s come up with her own marketing slogan for visitors from Atlas Learning who are studying the class. “Magic at the tip of your fingers,” she proclaims.
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Given how ubiquitous they’ve become, it can be easy to forget that iPads have only been around since 2010. The wave of tablet and touch-screen educational software taking advantage of the hardware has been a sudden tsunami.
“LiveSlide” and other apps being developed by the five-person team at Atlas don’t rely on the iPad to work. They’re web-based and can be accessed by computers (especially cheap, increasingly popular notebooks called “Chromebooks”), tablets and even smartphones via web browser.
It’s the product of quick incubation: the idea formed when University of Texas students Dakota Gordon and Andy Miller met in an entrepreneurship class taught by tech pioneer and professor of innovation Bob Metcalfe two years ago. They had the idea for classroom management software called “Homeroom” for teachers, parents and students, a product they’re still working on and testing with pilot programs and a lengthy waiting list.
“LiveSlide,” which was released publicly in August, is meant to take materials teachers would show on an overhead projector or whiteboard and make them more interactive and easy to present without an overkill of needless features or a steep learning curve.
“It’s meant to be simple and easy to understand without hours of training,” Gordon said. “Every teacher in the school should want to use the software, not just the four teachers in the school who are comfortable with the technology.”
Belton is the first school district to move past a pilot program and roll out “LiveSlide,” which involved training teachers such as Giambalvo before the school year started and incorporating it into its ambitious ongoing effort to equip each student with an iPad or laptop.
Donna Bownds, an instructional technology coordinator, says that unlike other tools the district has tried, this one gives students more interactivity with their teacher, allowing them to contribute to the lesson instead of being lectured to. Students can also take notes within “LiveSlide” and can focus on the material no matter their proximity to the front of the class.
Bownds has heard concerns about whether devices like iPads are a classroom distraction. The software is smart enough to let a teacher know when a student has switched web browser windows away from the lesson or has logged off to go play “Angry Birds.” She says that the iPads have been around long enough that most students have gotten the initial excitement out of their system, and software like “LiveSlide” keeps their focus on what’s being taught.
“That’s where we’re going, and this stuff isn’t going away,” Bownds said. “I think we’re actually better preparing them instead of taking them and distracting them from real life.”
Two years ago, Giambalvo didn’t know how to turn on an iPad, much less use it to teach. Now, he keeps the iPad on his right hand with a harness that allows him to move freely around the classroom without dropping the device. He insists that teachers who are afraid of interactive educational software or who feel that apps like these are a fad are missing an important tool to connect with students.
“Some teachers feel they’re going to lose their identity,” he said.
“This is not the teacher,” he says, gesturing to the touch-screen device. “You are the teacher and this is your assistant. You have to be open to it.”
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Will Atlas Learning succeed? It’s one small, angel-funded company in an exploding market for electronic textbooks, educational apps and cloud-based services that school districts must choose from.
A free version of “LiveSlide” is available for students and teachers, but the company hopes to make money from “Homeroom” and from a premium version of “LiveSlide” that costs $2-$4 per person per year.
Ron Reed, the executive producer of the SXSWedu educational conference, spent time with Atlas Learning when they debuted “LiveSlide” at South by Southwest V2V in Las Vegas last month. The company asked him to be on its advisory board, a decision he says he’s mulling over.
Reed said that Atlas is doing several things right in a crowded education tech market by keeping its software simple and easy to use. “What some companies fail to appreciate and Atlas understands is that the teaching day is really small. It’s measured in very precious minutes,” Reed said. “Teachers don’t have a lot of time to master and deploy. They need to have an impact in short order.”
Making the software usable no matter what device is used and making its software available on the web instead of through apps is also smart, Reed said. “Students are able to independently access content and engage with it. Classroom time can be spent on what they’ve mastered and need assistance on instead of the generic landscape. I’m not surprised Belton observes that.”
Joel Hardin, an eighth-grader at South Belton, is already convinced that this experiment will work.
“I think it’ll be helpful,” Hardin said. “It’s a better way for kids to learn. It’s interactive and students won’t just sit in the back avoiding the teacher calling on them.”
Find technology news, reviews and more at Omar L. Gallaga’s blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant.