Digital classrooms gain traction

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Program points to future of education

By Tom Wilmoth

    A group of eighth graders from Bedford County’s three middle schools have been living “in the clouds” this school year—but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been learning.
    In fact, the consensus seems to be that digital learning is the future for the students of tomorrow and that tomorrow is closer than we think.
    “I love it,” stated Bedford Middle School eighth grade math teacher Dorothy Roach. “I wish all my kids had computers (for school).”
    Roach is one of a number of BMS teachers thrown into the digital classroom this year as part of a pilot program designed to have students learn, study and explore their subjects utilizing laptops provided by the school system. The laptops have taken the place of textbooks and digital files have taken the place of notebook paper.
    As a teacher, Roach said the digital learning  experience  has  forced  her  to “think more outside of the box” in developing her lessons.
    And the digital learning experience could be expanding. As part of its budget discussions this year, the Bedford County School Board will consider whether to participate in a state program which could provide tablet computers for ninth grade students at county high schools. That program, if the county moves ahead with it, would provide those tablets to the incoming freshmen for four straight years, allowing them to have the devices throughout their high school career.

Digital learning
    Roach and several other BMS teachers are teaching 20 students via the digital platform. Forest Middle and Staunton River Middle also have similar programs running at their school this year.
    “I’ve used technology for years with my students” Roach said. But nothing to this degree. She insists the laptop and other digital devices are simply tools for the teacher and students to use. “They don’t take the place of instruction, but they do support the instruction,” she said.
    By utilizing a smart board, Roach said each student with the laptop can work on the problem at the same time, rather than one student working at the board at a time. And the digital testing allows for immediate feedback and allows her to recognize early on any problem areas the students are having with a subject.
    The laptops also allow for more individualized instruction. “They no longer have to work as an entire class (on one problem),” she said, noting that students have the ability to work at their own pace. In essence, each student works under his or her own individualized learning plan.
    And while the laptop is the primary source of work, students still sometimes put pencil to paper for some of their work.
    Roach said teachers participating in the pilot program have shared with one another about what is working and what isn’t. And she’s also taking her digital lessons and trying to incorporate as much as she can into the other traditional classes. All the while Roach said she is building up a storage bank of resources to use now and in the future.
     A normal class day for a student in her digital math class would begin with review, move into direct instruction from her and then finish with individualized student practice of whatever concept is being taught for that day. “The students are definitely receiving a lot more individual attention this way,” she said. “That’s going to be one of the (program’s) strong suits down the road.”

Are there problems?
    For Roach, one of the biggest issues is making sure students have access to electrical plug-ins. By the time the students reach her class, the laptop batteries are starting to fade.
    Another issue has been that students came to the program with differing computer skills.
    And there have been some problems with laptops being broken when taken home in their backpacks. But the biggest issue, should the school system seek a full-scale dive into digital learning, is that access to broadband Internet service is not universal across the county.

The future
    While this year’s pilot program focused on higher achieving students, Roach is anxious to move the digital classroom into the hands of students who fall into other categories. She believes putting a digital device in their hands might be just what those students need to motivate them to learn. “This is the way our kids learn today,” Roach said.
    And that doesn’t look like it’s going to change anytime soon.