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Visual Learners Aided by AV and IT

Aug 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Linda Seid Frembes


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The use of teaching tools to help visual learners (students who learn by using visual aids) are plentiful thanks to the proliferation of AV technology in the classroom. While students of yore could rely on charts and graphs or pictures in a book, today's visual learner can experience live, dynamic models that can better demonstrate relational data. "When you can show the relationship between data, students can start to ask 'what if' questions," says Mona Westhaver, president and co-founder of Inspiration Software in Beaverton, Ore.

The company recently released InspireData, a software package for students in grades 4-12 that allows them to explore and solve problems graphically while seeing live changes of the science, mathematics, or social studies dataset. InspireData is the sister software program of Kidspiration, the popular software for grades K-5 that help students build graphic organizers using pictures, text, and spoken words.

Inspiration Software actually has its roots in the pre-IBM, pre-PC days. Westhaver and business partner Donald Helfgott founded the company 25 years ago based on their idea for a visual planning and organizing software to help people in companies produce data-entry screens. "At the time, it was revolutionary to design visual fields with someone sitting at the terminal," Westhaver says.

The flagship product, called Inspiration, was released in 1988 for business customers and organizations that used the software for programming analysis and design work. The transition to visual mapping applications came almost by accident. "It was being used by a manager at a Fortune 100 company to explain workflow and process flow. He was using it as a visual idea processor for group brainstorming sessions and found it picked up on collaborative techniques," Westhaver says. "The concept of using a visual map was picked up by advertising agencies, business consultants, and even used in criminal investigations to look for common threads in the information."

Around the same time, Inspiration's education customers were noticing that certain state standards talked about using visual mapping in the classroom. For example, helping students to visually map and outline a story first, and not write the outline after the fact. In 1996, the company moved from business-to-business to education. "We were the first people doing visual thinking on the computer," Westhaver says. "Now we have over 25 million students worldwide using the products."

While in the past, software was used as something the kids did after completing an assignment or it was considered remedial. However, the use of computer technology coupled with AV technology in the classroom is now more the norm than the exception. As a result, software programs have taken center stage as a way to help kids think and understand. "The biggest challenge today is how to take advantage of the devices kids are bringing into the classroom, like iPods, smart phones, and Palm devices," Westhaver says. "These kids are digital natives versus our generation of digital immigrants; we really had to learn this technology while they have grown up with it."

According to Westhaver, drivers of software adoption include the explosion of information that allows kids to explore and question its meaning. "There is a need for people to be learning constantly. We need to prepare kids for the global economy; it's a different world that requires different preparation for it," Westhaver says. "There is a huge shift happening in the world. You can't solve the problem the same way you did yesterday."

As for content in the classroom, Westhaver says she sees it all going to digital. "People are doing lots of different content, but there are issues to resolve like how do you get paid for content and how do you vet the content," she says. "We are not in the content business. We try to inspire ideas; our hope is to have teachers use our lesson plans to inspire their own ideas. Our materials are supplemental to their curriculum. Technology can help teachers become better presenters and communicators. It is the teacher who makes the subject interesting."

Inspiration Software's tools include lesson plans and demos that are developed by former educators who now work for the company. Materials include the new Inspiration in the Classroom: Curriculum-based Activity Plans, a book that includes classroom activity plans for use across the curriculum and access to more than 30 templates to help students get started. There is also Kidspiration in the Classroom, which includes 32 lesson plans that encourage learning, thinking, and creating.

Most recently, the company launched a community site, www.inspiredlearningcommunity.com, where teachers can share experiences and ideas.





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