Richmond-area schools have long pioneered tech trends, from Henrico County's laptops for middle- and high-school students to the production of podcasts, movies and blogs in other school systems. These high-tech lessons can appeal to students with different learning styles, who may not respond to traditional lectures and textbooks, educators say.
The latest sign of this trend statewide? A new program announced by Gov. Tim Kaine in April, Virginia on iTunes U, is now available to all school systems, featuring free educational audio, video and PDF files that can be downloaded for use on computers and MP3 players. (Some schools in the commonwealth are actually purchasing iPods for students so they can take the lessons home with them, according to the state Department of Education.)
The content includes everything from an eight-minute clip on the history of the James River to a series of videos hosted by Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis, who shows artistic-minded kids how to draw his famous creation. Other examples include Virginia Currents episodes, short films about Civil War history and foreign countries, and PDFs of learning guides for pre-K students and their parents.
And although anyone can submit content, rules are provided to help determine what is and isn't appropriate. "They have to follow the guidelines," emphasizes Tammy McGraw, director of educational technology for the state DoE, adding that all content gets reviewed before going online.
Henrico already has a foot in the door, having started its own iTunes U program two years ago with similar content. "We were one of the first K-12 schools to have an account to experiment with," explains staff development instructor Debbie Roethke. "It is a little different from the DoE's site and is password-protected." Even though Henrico's iTunes program is specific to the county, instructors will also contribute content to the state's version.
An important aspect of the iTunes U program is that parents can take part in their children's education, says McGraw, who notes that much of the content facilitates parental involvement. "We are thinking about teachers and students as well as the broader community."
Not every school system has plugged into the initiative, but multimedia learning is still common across the state.
Richmond Public Schools uses the document-management platform SharePoint, which can host wikis, blogs and podcasts, giving teachers "the capability to further integrate technology into the instructional process," says William Waller, coordinator of technology services for the school system. Students are apt to take an interest in these new ways of teaching because they are "digital natives," he adds.
Henrico has long been considered one of the leading school systems in the state for technological advancement; its laptop program enters its ninth year this month, with teachers taking advantage of the computers in their lesson plans.
Chesterfield County's use of technology isn't quite as all-encompassing as Henrico's, but it fosters a closer relationship among teachers, students and parents, administrators say. School Web sites and teachers' personal pages give students (and their parents) access to grades and assignments, says Terry Franson, an ESL specialist. Also, foreign-language students employ Rosetta Stone, an online language-instruction program. "Students can go at their own pace, but teachers can also monitor it to make sure students are achieving goals," Franson notes.
Smaller systems, such as Charles City County, have high-tech options at their fingertips as well. Kari Mitchell, a second-grade teacher at Charles City Elementary, uses interactive games that align with Standards of Learning lesson schedules, plus Unitedstreaming, a suite of educational programs and even podcasts from classrooms in other states or countries. Teachers in Charles City also use Web sites to post homework assignments and facilitate contact with parents.
"Technology makes this enjoyable for the students," says Mitchell. "I think there are endless possibilities when you provide students with various ways to learn."
Mitchell adds that the iTunes U program would be a positive addition in the county's three schools. "It is another great hands-on technology feature for students to get enrichment or remediation for the Virginia SOLs," she explains.
High-tech education can carry its own challenges, educators acknowledge. A few students have gotten caught using Henrico's laptops to download pornographic content, and in 2006, the system had to replace half of the batteries in the Dell laptops it provides to high schoolers a couple of weeks before the start of school because of a recall.
But Roethke notes that the school system is taking measures to ensure good decisions among its students: "In middle school, no child gets a computer until the parents are trained with Internet safety. High schools offer training sessions before back to school for parents as well." Students must also sign an acceptable-use policy stating they will follow the guidelines set forth.
"There are risks for everything, but we have been very proactive here in Virginia," McGraw says. "We are well-known nationally in the work we have done on Internet safety, and we have to work hard to make sure parents, students and teachers understand the benefits of doing this online. Our first concern is to make sure kids are safe."
That national reputation has piqued interest in the iTunes program. McGraw has been in contact with the city of Chicago and Florida's education department about it. "I think what we have done really well is created this guide on what is appropriate to post because we are looking at content quality," she says. "All states who are interested in doing this are looking at Virginia as a model for it."