Texas district connects students, teachers and lessons

Like everything in Texas, the education-technology goals at Atlanta ISD are big. And thanks to a couple of grants, the district is making them a reality. Two Vision 2020 grants helped to make grades 7 through 12 1 to1 MacBook-equipped; now, armed with a Connections grant, the district is bringing in more technology, more professional development, and more tools—all to establish itself as a model for the use of digital content, interactive media, and educational technology in support of student learning.

While interactive whiteboards and Macbooks provides the hardware, Lightspeed Systems' My Big Campus helps them use it, opening up collaboration and communication among students and teachers.

“My Big Campus is a perfect fit into our Connections grant, because it provides a user-friendly resource to enhance classroom instruction,” explains Chrissie Allen, Technology Integration Specialist and Connections Grant project director for the district. “It allows 24/7 access to class assignments, discussions, resources, announcements, and calendars.”

For IT: Management, Reporting, Security
My Big Campus acts as an extension of the classroom—taking discussions, assignments, and curriculum to a safe online environment. Because the site is part of a web filter (Lightspeed Web Access Manager), it allows administrators to assign users permissions and policies—and then provides monitoring and reporting.

From an IT perspective, this is key. Balancing access to online resources with CIPA compliance, user safety, and network security are challenges that every IT director faces when turning to Web 2.0 collaborative platforms.

“As an IT director, I like the way My Big Campus provides a merger between the filtering side of Lightspeed and access to YouTube videos and other Internet sources," said Ben Rice, Technology Director for Atlanta ISD." It gives me the features I need, but also gives teachers safe access to information that enhances learning.”

A feature of the filter, Web Zones, helps allows teachers to expand or restrict standard policies for a particular class, time, computer, or lab. So, a teacher could block My Big Campus access when she needs to keep the class focused on something else. Or she could open up access to usually-blocked sites for research on a specific topic.

Unlimited private file storage with automatic virus scanning gives IT a secure alternative to contaminated thumb drives continually coming onto the network. Users can upload, access, and share files—making it easy to work on assignments whether at home or at school. And IT doesn’t have to worry about hardware limitations or viruses.

For Teachers and Students: Assignments, Discussions, Messaging
The teachers who use My Big Campus in their classes note that it opens up opportunities.

Dave Allen, a high school science teacher, sparks conversations and debates on My Big Campus that might not happen in the classroom. “We read about a current event or controversial topic and then have a discussion on My Big Campus. The kids always contribute more than if they are to speak out in class,” Allen said.

Bethany Wright, a first-year Spanish teacher, uses My Big Campus to make lesson notes, give students warm-up exercises, and assign homework for her Spanish and Special Education students. “My lesson notes are available to them right on My Big Campus, which helps them on homework assignments and test reviews,” she explained.

Increased communication and organization are what multimedia teacher Caren Rumsey most appreciates with My Big Campus. “I think it is very important to communicate with students in a way that they respond – electronically,” Caren noted. “Students who are hesitant to ask questions in class don’t mind sending me a message with their question.”

The Atlanta ISD staff has seen other benefits as well. Teachers who are out for the day can leave instructions and assignments for the class, so students know what’s expected of them and substitutes simply have to deal with classroom management. Kids in in-school suspension or at home sick can log into My Big Campus during class-time to join the discussion, or check on homework assignments they may have missed.

Not only are teachers appreciative of the benefits, but students also. Atlanta ISD students commented on how easy it is to stay in touch with teachers and to get to know their classmates. Some liked the discussion boards, where they could ask classmates for help with understanding issues. One student commented that "it opens you up to actually participate and think about the topic that is being studied.” Another student offered, “...to see the widespread views my classmates have helps me open my mind and think outside of the box for a change.”

Conclusion: Safety Matters
Safety is always a concern when kids go online to communicate. My Big Campus reports alert administrators to suspicious messages or files, but the system also relies on the community: peer flagging allows users to flag messages or other content that they find inappropriate.

“The ability for students to be able to flag comments they feel are inappropriate is a great tool. We also have ‘Big Campus Bob’ flagging for language and content," said Allen."We have been able to stop several fights before they happened, and get help for some students who wrote about hurting themselves. It gives the administration another resource in their toolbox.”