from Educators' eZine
Some people find the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) inspiring and some find it controversial. Although education policy plays an important role, most of the teachers I know are less concerned about policy and more concerned with making a difference in students' lives, keeping every child learning, doing his or her best, and moving ahead. Policies are policies, but students are people. Anything we can do to help them succeed is what motivates us each day and each school year.
Three Cheers for Education Technology
Over the past decade or so, education technologies have done a great deal to help teachers help students. At the William Penn School District (Pennsylvania) Cyber Academy, we use a number of education technologies to serve K-12 students whose circumstances make blended learning an attractive alternative to the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom.
Offering technology-enhanced education with the help of the nonprofit consortium Blended Schools and combining the benefits of online and face-to-face instruction, the William Penn School District (WPSD) Cyber Academy has exceeded administrators' expectations and delighted both faculty and family users. Cyber Academy was founded in August 2005 and now offers more than 120 different courses taught by state certified instructors from WPSD and partner institutions through Blended Schools.
When our Instructional Technology people first held informational meetings, only a few parents showed up. But the number grew by a factor of five in just a few weeks. This idea of blended instruction caught on very quickly for us.
Cyber Academy uses the Blackboard course management system along with Wimba Classroom and Wimba Voice to provide audio, video, application sharing, content display, and vitally important elements of interaction that transcend text-based courses. These solutions are vital to students who learn best by hearing or by receiving information via multiple means concurrently. Wimba also supports student engagement by facilitating vocal instruction, collaboration, coaching, and assessment.
The major educational benefit comes in the form of meeting the needs of students who, for varied reasons, are learning outside the traditional classroom. While some families simply favor home schooling, others are responding to a number of medical, social, and relational factors that make education technology a life-changing alternative for a growing number of district families.
One student told us how much he likes being offered different ways to learn. He thinks of himself as an "audio guy," someone who learns better when he can hear the teacher's verbal explanations. Learning success also reinforces his confidence as a student. For these kinds of young people, the Wimba Voice tools we added carry a huge benefit.
My fellow Cyber Academy instructors have seen the benefits as well. One teacher told me she feels like a better and better-rounded instructor because she watched her students grades improve and their confidence increase along with their class participation. She also liked how our synchronous learning features helped ensure consistent rigor across courses and confirm students' mastery of subject matter.
The challenges that accompany solutions like those used by WPSD include funding and technical expertise. This is especially true in our Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where the public schools are administered by local, mostly small, school boards. For the schools in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, funding for technology is less of a challenge given the scope of their systems. But for most of the state, enrollments and revenues are much lower. Thankfully, a nonprofit organization formed by educators is helping to forge coalitions and make technology-enabled learning more broadly available.
Blended Schools has brought together the resources of more than 130 Pennsylvania schools to help them deliver the benefits of education technology to their families.
Public school districts across Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, serve an average of about 2,000 K-12 students. While the big-city systems and the county-wide school systems in neighboring states can individually support online and blended education programs, Blended Schools is helping smaller school districts keep pace.
In return, they get to witness the difference technology is making broadly across our state, making big differences in the lives of the students served. Blended Schools has examined and assembled the best tools to create turnkey technical solutions so we, the schools, can stay focused on helping students succeed.
It's About the Students
The focus on students is making the difference. Cyber Academy administrators find the system highly motivational for students, and praise its inclusive qualities. Regardless of the reasons the traditional classroom doesn't adequately serve every child, the academy has been able to engage students who might otherwise be left behind. Our administrators are emphatic that technology-enhanced education helps a diverse set of students better prepare for life after high school, whether it involves college or work. We're looking closely at how we're preparing our students for both work and higher education experiences, and this technology is a great way to do those things.
What's really exciting about Cyber Academy is how, with the help of Blended Learning, we've been able to re-create through technology much of the person-to-person interaction that makes the classroom such a vibrant place for learning. Whether it's Wimba Voice that enables online students to actually hear their teachers and interact with other students, or the other products that translate classroom interaction through the desktop, the results are the same; we're able to reach more kids and keep them engaged in learning. That's what the makers of these technologies are enabling.
Wimba tells us that our success illustrates the excitement of their work in K-12: that watching students get more engaged in learning—seeing people's lives touched—is both gratifying and inspiring. I heartily agree.
Any policy or technology or anything else that helps a student achieve more is a huge benefit in my view. Ask any teacher and you'll probably hear a similar response.