1 of 2
Edmodo, a web-based application similar to Facebook, is one of the newer teaching tools in Chesterfield County Schools. Photo by Isaac Harrell
2 of 2
James River High School teacher Timothy Couillard Photo by Isaac Harrell
The latest technology is not exactly a new frontier for the tech-savvy school-aged crowd as much as it can be for the adults who teach and supervise them.
While trying to avoid the liabilities of this ever-changing terrain, Chesterfield County Public Schools continue to chart a course for what's known as "blended learning," the merging of technology with traditional teaching methods.
The county's Design for Excellence 2020 plan emphasizes blended learning, among other educational strategies, to boost academic achievement by engaging students in a virtual environment they already know well. It incorporates the stuff of social media, online applications and even smartphones as a toolset for teachers and students alike.
"Blended learning is something that we've been doing for quite a long time, and I think the difference now is that technology is taking an active role in supporting it and making it easier for teachers to do and making digital assets easier for students to access," says Adam Seldow, the director of technology for the Chesterfield school system.
For teachers, it can range from anything from a PowerPoint presentation of a class lesson to logging in to Skype during a Spanish class to talk to someone in Spain. For students, tools such as networking websites, PowerPoint and slideshows offer visual reinforcement of their lessons.
At press time, the Chesterfield County School Board was slated to vote on the Design for Excellence 2020 plan in November, but the technology component already had been initiated at the beginning of the school year. The technology plan was originally approved in January 2010 but was updated to accommodate the new Design for Excellence timeline and goals.
The tech-emphasis of Chesterfield's plan introduces new applications that have become popular in many U.S. school districts — programs such as Edline, Edmodo and Google Apps for Education. These allow students and teachers to communicate in online forums and to stay organized. The programs can be used for tasks such as posting assignments, taking online quizzes and coordinating class discussions. Parents can have access, too.
Donna Baptist, whose children, sixth-grader Jayante Meredith and eighth-grader Shahem Meredith, attend Falling Creek Middle School, says the Edmodo technology helps her to keep tabs on her children's grades and classes.
"They don't give you paper interim reports anymore. … You can see all their test scores and the quizzes — all of it," she says.
Edmodo is a networking website similar to Facebook in which students and teachers can communicate in and out of the classroom. The website offers secure access and is grouped by students taking a particular class.
"Students and teachers can interact with each other," Baptist says. "My sixth-grader takes quizzes on there, too, and it shows him which answers were correct or not. That's great practice for him."
Midlothian Middle School teacher Katherine Wells, who teaches eighth-grade English, began using Edmodo last year, and she especially relies on the features that help her build lesson plans.
"It really speaks to their generation, because it is so user-friendly and they love using the computer to do everything," says Wells.
Timothy Couillard, a teacher of physics and ethics at James River High School, posts his class assignments online; whereas before he would pass out hard-copy worksheets. He says programs such as Edmodo make it easier for students to stay organized and keep track of when assignments are due.
"If there's something that is unclear, they can post a comment about it that the whole class can see, and then I can reply back and instead of answering the same question over and over again, I can answer the question once and everyone can see the answer," Couillard says.
Seldow notes that unsafe websites are blocked on Chesterfield County's network, in accordance with Virginia law, which mandates that schools prevent access to online content that is deemed harmful to juveniles. This includes pornography, social-networking sites and certain non-literary, artistic, political or scientific material.
Darcie Trexler, whose 11-year-old twins, Grady and Luke, attend sixth grade at Midlothian Middle School, says she is comfortable with the school's Internet security as it relates to her children.
"I have tried to use a device outside the school when I'm waiting for them, and it locks you out of things. … I could get on the Internet, but I couldn't go to Facebook. I think there are probably enough safeguards in place," Trexler says.
Ultimately, the teachers are the eyes and ears of the school system, Seldow says. They participate in online training every school year to re-familiarize themselves with the county's technology rules.
"We would like to think that our teachers are astute and aware of everything going on in their classroom, and that's really the first level of protection," he says. "If kids have devices, the teachers are walking around. If you're in a lab, the teachers are looking at the monitors. So teacher vigilance is the number-one safeguard for what is going on, and then the technical barriers are in place."
Smartphones and other Internet-capable devices can also be used to access Edmodo and other educational programs. Currently, Chesterfield County's policy prohibits use of cell phones during the official school day, but there is a policy-review committee that looks into the student code of conduct annually.
Tim Bullis, the director of community relations for Chesterfield County schools, noted the growth of technology in today's classroom.
"As technology continues to evolve and becomes more integrated in the daily curriculum, we will be looking at what changes need to be made," Bullis says.
One reality that the district has addressed already is to provide computer access for students who don't have a computer at home. Chesterfield County has made sure that every school has an allotted number of computers — whether in a classroom, lab or library — to maintain a ratio of five students to one computer, Seldow says. Online learning tools are accessible from any computer as well, for students who use the public library or another facility. The district also ensures that students have a reasonable amount of time to complete web-based assignments, usually in about one to two weeks, Seldow says, and that teachers provide enough unstructured time for students to access technology.
Looking to the future when no student is without the necessary tools, the county also has an initiative to select a mobile device that students can use in the classroom and for homework. If approved, Seldow says,
the goal is to distribute the devices by September 2014. Students in grades 3 to 12 would be assigned the device for the school year and would be allowed to take it home. Students in grades K-2 would have classroom devices only.
In order to select this device, there is a proposed pilot program that will take place in 18 classes throughout the district that will use six different mobile devices in order to determine which one will be the best learning tool, the most compatible with Chesterfield's network and the most cost-efficient.
The increase in classroom technology has opened new possibilities for students, but it also can mean more work for teachers. Couillard notes that there is somewhat more time and effort involved with programs such as Edmodo.
"There is a significant investment of time," he says. "I think it's easier for some teachers to adapt than others, but I think the investment online is worth it. Instead of putting the homework on the board, I put the homework on Edmodo. You're swapping out one way of doing things for another. … I think in the long run it ends up being for the best."
Despite the long-range goals of the Design for Excellence program, the school district's number of Edmodo users has grown significantly this school year. More than 5,800 county schools employees — including all Chesterfield teachers and some administrators — are registered to use Edmodo. Meanwhile, more than 48,000 students, — almost two-thirds of the student population — are registered. At the end of the previous school year, those numbers were roughly 1,600 teachers and 8,000 students.
"What that says to us is that even though we gave teachers two years to become acclimated with blended learning and implementing it at their own pace, a lot of people are really getting into it early and a lot of people are experimenting and that's exactly what we wanted to happen," Seldow says.