Second grade teacher and mother Stephanie Cochrane with her son Xander in their Chesterfield County home. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Chesterfield County Public Schools have recently been recognized as one of the nation’s frontrunners in the use of technology in education.
The U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen program is an initiative to use openly licensed educational resources in the classroom. Chesterfield schools have a national reputation as a pioneer in the use of these programs, and is one of six school districts nationwide to be named a #GoOpen Ambassador District, to mentor other school systems in implementing the program.
The initiative encourages schools to use openly licensed content instead of traditional educational resources such as textbooks and worksheets. Open-source material is versatile and cost-effective.
“…It’s media-rich, interactive, web-based instructional resources that can be accessed anywhere, anytime by students or teachers,” says Ernie Longworth, assistant director of technology for Chesterfield County Public Schools.
“As a #GoOpen Ambassador District, we are serving as a point of contact for other districts around the nation that want to leverage open educational resources,” Longworth says. The district was selected for the honor in October.
Chesterfield schools have embraced technology. Chromebooks were provided last school year to middle school students, and this school year to high schoolers. About 32,400 devices have been distributed. A plan is in the works to expand the program to include elementary age students, says Longworth.
Chesterfield takes a blended approach to learning, interweaving high tech with traditional educational tools.
“Long before we give [students] devices, we spent a lot of time developing our blended learning strategy,” he said. “I think that sets us apart in terms of how we approach this, relative to many districts that oftentimes lead with the devices … then try to figure out what teachers and students are going to do with them.”
Longworth says the open-license resources and web-based platforms provide students and teachers with immediate feedback. Teachers are made aware of what areas students are struggling with. It also enables students to tailor the learning experience to what works best for them, whether that’s reading, watching video, working through a simulation, or an interactive experience.
“Student engagement is a large part of it,” Longworth says.
Also, open-licensed educational resources are free to students and teachers, as opposed to textbooks, which are traditionally expensive. The online materials are sponsored by government agencies, nonprofit organizations or grant funding, Longworth says.
Some of the open-sourced materials used in Chesterfield include CK-12 Foundation, Khan Academy, iCivics, PowerMyLearning and SAS Curriculum Pathways. Google apps including Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Presentation are also used and are free, as opposed to programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
The school system utilizes an online dashboard that teachers and students can access. Within the dashboard are web-based educational applications.
“The resources are all appropriate and prescreened,” according to Stephanie Cochrane, a second-grade teacher at Woolridge Elementary school in Chesterfield and the mother of a second-grader in Chesterfield schools.
About three years ago, Chesterfield’s technology program was revamped, Cochrane says. Each student has a secured dashboard with different apps.
Google Apps for instance are used for assignments such as composing and editing a poem or story, Cochrane says. Students can present their research on Google Slides and Google Presentation. The apps allow the students to share information and collaborate.
“There is more communication through Google Docs and Google Apps, so there are more ways we can collaborate, and there is a lot more competency,” Cochrane says. Students “are able to present their information in different ways, too, as opposed to paper and pencil methods that were used 10 years ago, now they’re able to present digitally, which is cool.”
While some technology is taking the place of pen and pencil, other technology is taking the place of reading materials. The e-alternatives to textbooks are flexible and timely, Longworth says.
He notes that with CK-12’s FlexBook platform for example, you can mix-and-match content for a personalized experience, drawing from your own material, published resources and multimedia content.
“Open educational resources are ever updated, they are modular, portable; if you like an exercise or assignment or a video, you can use that for instruction versus having to take it out of an entire textbook,” Longworth says.
Longworth says expanding the learning options empowers students. “They have many teachers now, not just one teacher in front of the room,” he says. “They can learn from experts in the field, they can learn from people around the world, they can learn in a modality that meets their learning style that is going to put students more in the driver's seat of their own learning.”
Cochrane agrees: “Now school is 24/7, the kids have devices and smartphones in their hands nonstop,” she says. “This way school’s not just 9 to 4; they’re constantly exposed to curriculum and different educational topics, which helps.”
Cochrane notes that most of her son’s homework involves online work, with teachers using PowerMyLearning and other websites. With PowerMyLearning, instructors can choose educational content ranging from activities to traditional reading material.
She says tech tools such as smartphones and touchscreens are more engaging and user-friendly for children than wielding a pencil on a paper worksheet.
“You can see the benefits from all of these different open sources, the kids that are using them regularly are showing academic gain … so I think it’s a great thing,” Cochrane says. “I’ve seen a lot of improvement, kids learn things faster … you can present things so much quicker and more efficiently now, I just think it’s a good thing. The kids are benefitting for sure.”
Longworth agrees: “I think it’s an exciting time to be in education, and I think that our students are going to benefit from this.”
Chesterfield County Public Schools have been a leader in implementing e-learning activities in its schools. Here’s a sampling.
• Anytime, anywhere learning by providing Chromebooks to more than 32,000 middle and high school students, the largest rollout of its kind in the nation
• Only buys workbooks and textbooks when the printed material is required for credit or certification
• Single sign-on dashboard created for ease of access for teachers and students
Learn more: Chesterfield County Public Schools #GoOpen tech.ed.gov/open-education/go-open-districts/
Source: Chesterfield County Public Schools