Online platform yields unexpected benefits in DC tech HS

In 2008 McKinley Technology High School in Washington adopted a new vision and an imposing challenge: to become the highest-performing school in the nation within five years, by 2013. An important part of the new vision was a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Academy program, which would be introduced in stages.

Under the new program, teachers focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and project-based learning. To support these instructional practices, the school decided to incorporate an online learning platform. Finding the platform that worked for the McKinley STEM Academy became the job of social studies teacher Gideon Sanders, who had experience with an LMS in another school.

McKinley Technology High School’s Solution

After working extensively with other options, Sanders began piloting the it’s learning Individual Learning Platform in July 2009. Since the company was new to the United States, Sanders also spoke with contacts in Norway, Holland and England to inquire about how their experiences with the platform.

In August 2009, Sanders approved full implementation of the platform for the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. That month, due to Sanders’ interest in STEM and his experience with learning management systems, Principal David R Pinder appointed him as the program and curricula developer for the STEM Academy. In addition to teaching, Sanders is now responsible for developing programs to provide a comprehensive STEM-aligned education.

“The it’s learning platform enriches the learning experience for students and meets them at a technological level that is a part of their everyday lives,” said Sanders. “As a STEM school it is imperative that we integrate technologies into every aspect of learning so that we better prepare our students for college and the workforce.”

Although only ninth graders entering McKinley were transitioned into the STEM Academy during the 2009-10 school year, all of Sanders’ 11th grade U.S. History classes also started using the it’s learning platform at the beginning of the school year.

Sanders uses it’s learning for 90 percent of his instruction. He and other teachers at the school make accommodations for students who do not have access to a home computer by allowing those students to use computers in the library or stay after school. In addition, the platform is also accessible via devices such as Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation or cell phones. "Most, if not all, students have cell phones with Internet access,” said Sanders.

Sanders also used the platform to assign each student an individual blog which they can publish on the Web. “It is extremely important to give students an outlet to express themselves, and to give their opinions validity. This strengthens students’ desire to be part of the learning process,” said Sanders.

The online platform offers a variety of tools to support interdisciplinary projects, promote collaboration and peer review and provide students, teachers and parents ready access to all course materials.

After implementing it’s learning, Sanders has seen school work that is more complete and timely than in previous years. Students have even used the blogs to express opinions about events at the school instead of participating in confrontational protests, as occurred in October 2009, when layoffs of 200 DC teachers stirred student’s emotions.

Juniors Aaron Kitt and D'Angelo Anderson witnessed the protest firsthand. Like many of their peers, they felt upset at having been kept in the dark about the layoffs. But unlike many of their peers who participated in the melee outside school, both Kitt and Anderson decided to share their frustrations and insights in a much different way - through blogging.

Kitt and Anderson believed that blogging about the events allowed them to express their emotions in a clear, structured way. Sanders was proud of his students' use of their social studies tool as a means of clear, nonviolent communication.

Pinder’s and Sanders’ goal is to eventually take all instruction online. They are entertaining the option of implementing a “Virtual High School,” which would offer courses from talented teachers across the country.

“It’d give students an opportunity to take courses that aren’t offered onsite at McKinley, like an AP Criminal Justice course or a Medical Ethics class,” said Sanders. “We could allow students to take that STEM coursework without sacrificing STEM time in class. For example, the criminal justice course would mesh with the school’s offering of forensics in biochemistry class.”