Interview | Manny Perez Gets Interactive with Education

Some very creative thinkers from MIT realized that students were so occupied with furious note taking that they weren’t fully paying attention to their lessons. They asked a simple what if question (“What if there was a way to obtain the whiteboard notes, formulas, and drawings without having to write everything down?”) and a company was born. That was 1997 and the company is Mimio. Their passion for discovery led them to invent what became the MimioCapture™ tracking system. Students could finally concentrate on each lesson, and obtain the notes afterward. Mimio has since grown and produced a number of subsequent breakthrough innovations to help educators focus more on teaching and students to concentrate more on learning, including the MimioClassroom. Manny Perez is General Manager of DYMO/Mimio (which includes recently acquired Headsprout, an adaptive instructional content provider). He’s been with the company for 14-plus years and knows a thing or two about product vision and the global education marketplace, having spearheaded the development of their very first product. With a computer science background and having previously served as R&D director, Manny rubs elbows with software developers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, instructional designers and project managers on a regular basis — in addition to the numerous educators and students who keep things real. Here, Manny, joined by T.V. Joe Lange, Ph.D., DYMO/Mimio Director of Learning Sciences, talks about technology’s transformative influence in education, from VCRs to iPads; how school districts can maximize ROI; and how school leaders can get just the right mix of technology and learning that will help them thrive in the years ahead.

Victor: How is technology changing today’s classrooms?

Manny: Today’s classrooms are in transition. Technology of all sorts is making its way into the classroom and offering new ways to engage today’s tech savvy learners. But the transition isn’t smooth, nor is it following a single path. That’s the challenge for educational technology companies. Think back just a few years. Classroom technology was once limited to presentations via slide projectors, filmstrips and VCRs. Now we find rich, robust interactive technology that uses LCD projectors, interactive whiteboards, notebook and desktop computers and the trending tablets, such as iPad. Technology is changing everything — how teachers teach, and how students learn. From whole group to small group to individualized learning environments, technology is everywhere and it has no boundaries.

Victor: Which technology, in your opinion, is the best suited to engage students and improve student outcomes?

Manny: Our first thought is there is no one “right answer” as to which technology will best engage students and improve learning outcomes. Educators have an idea of what an ‘engaged’ classroom looks like, and they attempt to create that in their own classrooms as best they can. We believe that practices that make those ideas come to life are more readily adopted, while those that miss the mark are resisted.

Some teachers may assume that more interaction is better than less, that collaboration is better than independent study, and that tackling problems and projects through discovery and inquiry improves classroom practice and produces more authentic learning. And often, technology purchases follow such beliefs.

Victor: What does research say about the importance of infusing classrooms with technology coupled with teacher-directed instruction and how that might drive improved student outcomes? 

Joe: Unfortunately, there are few well-designed studies to support the assumptions tied to more interaction, more collaboration and greater discovery and inquiry leads to improved learning outcomes.

For example, a well-know study by Carnegie-Mellon professor David Klahr and University of Pittsburgh investigator Milena Nigam (2004) compared discovery/inquiry base science teaching to directly instructing learners:

“….The most important result of this study is the relationship between learning paths and transfer. Children who became masters via direct instruction were as skilled at evaluating science-fair posters as were discovery-learning masters and experts.”

I think we can all agree that what we want from any learning activity is engaged, self-directed learners that actually are learning both content and process. It’s important to state that the research does not suggest that effective interactive learning environments cannot be designed. We think it’s important to keep in mind that adding technology just for the sake of adding it is missing the mark and the opportunity. Simply adding a game structure, collaboration, or interactivity does not ensure effectiveness. The model for which technology is right has to bear in mind the fundamental interface between all parts of the classroom — interactive technology, robust content, research-based software, teachers, AND students.

Victor: How can schools/districts maximize their ROI on their instructional technology purchases?

Manny: Effective and flexible products are key. For the greatest return on their investment, schools should purchase products that support effective instructional practices and that are flexible with regards to technology usage. Obviously, having technology in the classroom is one thing, using it with fidelity is altogether different and frankly, very important.

Essential to a successful outcome is that interactive learning activities have clear student accomplishments specified, that there is a way to measure those accomplishments, and that most, if not all learners demonstrate the desired outcomes.

We encourage educators to focus on the goal of combing effective instructional practices with the changing technological landscape now open to districts and schools. We believe if done well, technology and teachers can inform and enhance the other. Done poorly – without clear direction, goals and objectives, we may find there will not be the hoped for return on our educational technology investments.

When purchasing instructional products like interactive whiteboards or interactive instructional programs like MimioReading, school leaders need products that allow for greatest flexibility among and between technologies, and that actually produce real, standards-based outcomes important to teachers and students alike.

Victor: Shifting gears, how does content fit into the technology-rich classroom?

Manny: It’s important to note that no matter what the technology mix is – computers labs, but no computers in the classroom; interactive whiteboards, but no computer lab; or computers in the classroom but no interactive whiteboards or a school may have any or all or none of these and have iPads – none of it works without content. Applications are key to the effective use of technology. Without good content, the technology is just metal, plastic, silicon, and glass.

Victor: Should schools/districts invest in technology, content or both?

Manny: We are seeing a growing debate on this subject. What happens if schools invest heavily in applications for computer labs and then decide to shift to iPads? Or, what happens if a school likes the individualization afforded by computer applications, but wants the collaborative environment that can be provided by interactive whiteboard activities? What is really needed during this transition are applications that can help schools reach their teaching and learning goals no matter what devices they may have, now or in the future.

Joe: These should be research-based applications that either work across devices, or supply a similar outcome and work seamlessly with all their devices. That’s why we created new licensing that substantially expands the number and type of devices with which students and teachers can use the MimioStudio™ 9 classroom software for interactive teaching and learning. Educators can use the software to deliver lessons via our interactive whiteboards as well as via any third-party interactive whiteboards and projectors. The license also grants the use of MimioStudio software on all the computers within a selected computer lab, classroom, school, or district.

In our mind, this new licensing platform brings a new level of simplicity to interactive teaching and it delivers a much greater ROI. Our software can serve as a single software interface for all the existing interactive hardware purchases and course materials in a school or district. That means teachers only have to learn to use one software product, so they spend much less time training on software and more time using it for actual lessons and instruction.

Victor: How can schools and ultimately students, thrive during this period of technology-driven transition?

Manny: Be creative. Be flexible. Don’t be limited by rules of engagement from the past. Make it work. Schools need to be able to take advantage of any or all instructional technology found in any combination that meets their needs.

They might consider introducing iPads in one classroom, but have learners in other classrooms access the same lessons on a computer. If a classroom has no computers, but does have an interactive whiteboard, students should still be able to learn the same material.

What’s more, teachers should be able to take advantage of each technology’s special features, such as whole-group or small-group instruction using interactive whiteboards, individualized instruction using computers or mobile learning using iPads.

It can’t be overstated, as the new school year approaches, schools today require a completely integrated solution whether it be instruction provided by iPads or computers – accessible at school or in the home – or group interactive technology like whiteboards in the classroom. It’s time it all works together — and we all work together — to provide the best possible learning outcomes for our students.

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