Back To School: Online Learning in the Classroom
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With new software, better technology, and more prevalent wireless options in schools around the region, the Internet is playing a more vital role in the way teachers teach and students learn. Take Katie Miller, a fourth-grade teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Shelton, CT. Using the program Reading A to Z, Miller’s students choose books they want to read and complete assignments that help with fluency and proficiency. “Research shows that if children are interested in a specific topic, they’re more likely to read about it,” says Miller, who also uses Raz Kids, which lets her students listen to a narrator dictate the book as they read along. Raz Kids has an e-glossary where students can look up words they’re unsure of, and a way for students to record their voices as they read aloud and then listen to make sure they pronounced everything correctly.
Alina Pikula, of the Power Brain Training Center in Bayside, has taught middle school for nearly two decades, and in recent years has used incentive-based online software that helped students achieve their reading levels as they earned points for prizes. “Students benefitted from the program, but it had to be monitored and the students had to be encouraged,” says Pikula, adding that after the program was completed, her students continued to read hard copy books and made reading an important part of their lives.
Chris Claro, a media technology instructor for the Glen Cove school district, uses online multimedia tools to supplement learning for his students, supported by funding from BOCES. Last year, he helped ESL students tell their stories on video using Apple’s iMovie ‘09. The program let these students — many of whom spoke little or no English and didn’t have computers at home — learn in a completely visual way. “The technology allowed them to open up to possibilities they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise,” he explains.
Using the software, Claro taught the students scriptwriting, interview skills, pre-production, and how to locate images online. He required them to add English subtitles to make sure they were using proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and to increase their fluency. “They were able to expand their learning with video, sound, and photos,” says Claro, who notes that not only did he observe increased commitment to the project as it progressed but the ESL teachers noticed a higher level of focus in their students. Final projects were uploaded to BOCES’s website so students could understand the impact of the Internet on their work.
Claro also used Apple’s GarageBand in an English class where students produced 40-second podcasts based on the novel they were reading. The students wrote scripts for mock author and character interviews and reenactments, and learned how to manipulate their voices and use sound effects.
Like the BOCES programs, The Learning About Multimedia Project (LAMP) brings media literacy programs to schools in Brooklyn. By producing projects like public service announcements and commercials, students learn how to become more effective communicators. “When students learn how to express themselves, they are more engaged and feel more empowered to be a part of society because they understand what constructs it,” says DC Vito, the Executive Director. LAMP also ran a program for students using collaborative documents called Wikis to illustrate the idea of objectivity. Working as reporters and editors on a Wiki, students learned how to report the facts and become unbiased storytellers. “The best way to show the fluidity of truth is through this Wiki,” says Vito.
Cheryl Vedoe, CEO of Apex Learning, a leading provider of digital curricula for secondary education, says that many high schools are offering teacher-guided online courses in the classroom for students who are not successful in their school’s existing programs. “There are a growing number of programs that are utilizing non-traditional instructional models in order to individualize instruction and help students to be successful,” she says. Vedoe cited a trend in many high schools of enrolling students in online classes offering options for accelerated learning and content otherwise unavailable at the school.
Log On for Homework
The Internet has changed the way children do homework. With sites like Turnitin.com and school intranet sites, teachers can easily monitor their students’ assignments. Chris Ajemian, CEO of CATES, LLC, a boutique tutoring and test preparation company in Manhattan, works with students who use their school’s intranet site to complete self-graded homework. For example, physics students open modules on the teacher’s site to view animations and then answer questions. The program tells the students if the answer is right or wrong, provides an explanation, and allows the teacher to know if the students have completed the assignment.
According to Ajemian, one of the newest developments in online learning is the virtual classroom. Sites like Moodle.org allow teachers to devise lesson plans, build learning modules, and use interactive teaching programs, as well as post homework reminders for their students. “These tools offer better organization, virtual reinforcement, and collaborative learning,” says Ajemian.
At Iona Grammar School in New Rochelle, middle school teachers post class assignments on www.whatsthehomework.com and also give students the assignments in class. The site is an excellent tool for parents to know what their children are responsible for and can also be helpful when students are absent. “The site’s success depends on teachers keeping it up to date,” says Joe Blanco, Assistant Administrator at the school. Regardless of how easy and convenient the site is, Blanco stresses that it doesn’t take the place of preparation and accountability. “The students are still responsible for bringing their books and supplies home for their homework so they must write down the homework in class as well,” he says.
Email has changed the dynamics of traditional parent-teacher conferences. In Miller’s school, two parent-teacher conferences are required each school year, however Miller says that the emails she receives from parents throughout the week provide an effective alternative way to communicate. “I’m able to give them a quick response rather than trying to find a convenient time for both of us to meet,” she says.
Pikula agrees that email is a great way for parents to get their questions answered quickly, but warns that it shouldn’t be a substitute for in-person conferences. “We want parents to be a part of the process; meetings are a way for teachers to see the interaction between parent and child, which is very important,” she says.
Wendy Kelly, a teacher at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, sends a group email every week to parents with the curriculum for the week as well as updates and reminders. Yet anything more substantial is spoken about in person. “The child is too important for parents and teachers to communicate about the issue via email,” says Kelly. Since Green Meadow stresses verbal communication in all of their programs, 4-6 group face-to-face meetings with parents, in addition to one individual parent-teacher conference, are held each school year.
Critics of cyber learning argue that the use of online educational tools will ultimately result in children lacking skills in critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and social interaction. But educators agree that if these tools are used as supplements, rather than the basis for education, online learning can only enhance the educational experience and help their students succeed.
“Education has traditionally been a one-size-fits-all model, but students learn differently,” says Vedoe. “Online learning has the ability to create more options to better meet the needs of all students.”