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Technology takes center stage in pilot program

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Like it or not, change is coming.

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    The students of today are growing up in the digital age; the educational system is now attempting to catch up—or at least not be left behind.
    Bedford County Public Schools will put its toe into the digital ocean this week to explore those changes.
    A pilot program this year in all three county middle schools will serve as that test. A group of students from each school—20 to 25 per school—will receive digital textbooks this year rather than hardbound books. They will perform their assignments “in the cloud” rather than on white notebook paper. They will spend more time looking at Web pages than white boards.
    It’s the future—and the future is now.
    School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch said the pilot program helps the school division make decisions on future commitments to technology. “Technology is a part of all of our students’ lives,” he said. “We just want to make sure school doesn’t become a place they have to power all of that down. ...We want to teach them responsibility and effective uses of the technology.”
    And it’s not going away.
    “This is the future of education,” Dr. Schuch said. “The sooner we are able to embrace that, the better we will be able to do it effectively.”
    The pilot program will involve eighth graders at Forest Middle School, Bedford Middle School and Staunton River Middle School. Each of the students participating will receive either a Google Chrome notebook or a small Dell or HP laptop. They will be using the digital devices for their English, math, science and history classes. Some students will also be using the digital textbooks for Spanish.
    Teachers began training for the new learning experience last week.
    “This is us just putting our toe in the water,” stated Dr. Mac Duis, the school division’s director of instruction.
    Each student will be given one of the digital notebooks to use for the school year. The devices range in price from $250 to $500. The Google Chrome notebooks cost the least, but they require students to have access to the Internet in order to do their work. Only FMS students will be receiving those.
    The laptops being utilized at the other two schools allow students to download information to the device, which means they can do work at home without having to necessarily be connected to the Internet.
    The ultimate goal is to allow learning to be customized for each individual student, based upon their abilities and needs.
    Duis said some school divisions embraced the digital learning experience with big initiatives. But by piloting this program, he said BCPS will be able to determine the best way to implement it in the future, and avoid some problems.
    Bedford Middle School teacher Megan Bond said she wants to be a part of the program “so I can better teach my students and reach them where they are.”
    And where they are is smack dab in the middle of the digital age.
    “This will force me to be a better teacher,” Bond said. “It’s their world and we need to teach them in their world. … You would be hard pressed to find a child (who doesn’t have) a hand-held device.”
    Bond, and the other teachers participating, will also try to learn to use the technology—and learning tools that technology provides—with their traditional classes as well. “I have so much to learn,” Bond said. “There’s so much out there.”
    Teachers will use Schoology as a content management system for their classes. Schoology is an innovative learning management system (LMS) and social network that makes it easy to create and share academic content. Ultimately, it allows for learning 24/7. The program allows teachers to post assignments, communicate with students and hold chats. It serves as a platform for students to retrieve data for their classes.
    According to Caroline Wray, the school system’s supervisor for Blended Learning, the digital devices are a tool “to be able to reach every student” allowing for better student achievement.
    “The key,” Wray said, “is to first be successful on a small scale.”
    That will allow the school system to determine what device is best to use and to develop some “best practices” for using them.
    “We’re just trying to get ahead of the curve,” Wray said.
    Or at least catch up. Wray noted that colleges and industries are already utilizing technology at a high level.
    By utilizing this technology, Wray said it changes the way a teacher interacts with students. “You’re no longer the smartest person in the room,” she said.
    Ed Hoisington, director of technology for BCPS, said students in the pilot program will learn the same information as other students, “they’ll just be getting it in a different way.”
    He said the school system has to make sure it is meeting the needs of the students. The students of today, he said, where born into a world where technology has always been present. That’s different from the world those teaching and leading the school division grew up in. “We’re having to embrace it differently (than those who grew up with it),” he said. “We have to prepare the students the best we can.”
    Hoisington said education is moving towards personalized learning. “I think this is going to change how we educate students,” he said. “It will free up teachers to work on an individual level with students.”