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Pennsylvania Schools See Benefits After Shifting to Teacher-Created Online Curriculum

Now students spend more time solving problems instead of writing down lecture notes thanks to mobile devices and digital curriculum.

by Katherine Schaeffer, Beaver County Times, Pa. / June 16, 2016

(TNS) — For students at Central Valley middle and high schools, accessing classroom lessons rarely involves opening a book. Instead, they power up glowing iPad screens and swipe and tap their way through math problems, the day's reading or interactive content.

In high school math teacher Joe Sowinski's classes, technology has changed class structure. Students tackle lessons at their own pace as they work in groups to focus on concepts they find most challenging.

"I spend less time waiting for students to copy notes and more time helping students work problems," Sowinski said.

Central Valley School District administrators envisioned such a shift when they decided to begin swapping paper textbooks for iPads in the 2012-13 school year. The district provides a personal iPad for every teacher, middle and high school student, and teachers' lessons include a mix of purchased and free online resources.

The district is in the midst of navigating another drastic shift: rolling out custom, teacher-curated curriculum designed with free, openly licensed material, district technology director Ed Eimiller said. Teachers in each department have been developing their own custom Google-based websites over the span of a year with help from high school teacher John Hineman, who is overseeing the project.

The English language arts department debuted its curriculum in the 2015-16 school year, and the math, science and social studies departments will introduce curricula during each consecutive school year.

Central Valley is one of several Beaver County school districts finding ways to supplement or completely replace paper textbooks with online materials such as eBooks, downloadable apps and openly licensed educational resources.

Openly licensed educational resources are free online learning materials that can be used for teaching, learning and assessing students' knowledge. Teachers can modify and redistribute the materials without violating copyright laws.

Pushes like the U.S. Department of Education's #GoOpen initiative have spurred school districts across the country to incorporate quality open resources into their curricula, but initiatives like Central Valley's are fairly rare among elementary and secondary institutions, University of Pittsburgh librarian and open educational resource advocate Paul Bond said.

The Pennsylvania Legislature is joining the U.S. Department of Education in efforts to provide schools with quality online material. House Bill 1915, which would establish a clearinghouse of federally approved online courses for students in grades 6 to 12, garnered unanimous support in the House Education Committee on Monday. The bill will phase in clearinghouse courses over two phases, with the first phase beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

"I think Beaver County is ahead of the curve in that they are actively having discussions about open educational resources," Bond said. "Between state boards of education, local school boards, school districts and school buildings, there is a maze of political negotiations that needs to be navigated to make widespread change, so the pace is ponderous."

Powering up

One-to-one technology initiatives in districts such as Beaver Area, Central Valley and South Side Area allow teachers to cut down on the amount of time spent taking notes and disseminating information and more time cementing students' understanding.

In Beaver, giving each student an iPad helps teachers "(flip) the classroom," a concept where students are introduced to new concepts outside class with a teacher-assigned video or audio clip, Assistant Superintendent Carrie Rowe said. With some of the learning done outside the classroom, class time becomes an opportunity for students to ask questions and further understanding.

"What technology is doing is taking away that idea that we teach to the middle," Rowe said, adding that this lends itself especially well to subjects such as foreign language, for which students in one class may be at different mastery levels. "We don't have to do that anymore. The technology can allow us to meet the needs of all groups."

Central Valley's initiative for online resources allow teachers to customize lessons not only for each class, but for individual students. Classroom websites can even vary from teacher to teacher, and with multiple assignments, examples and videos available for every lesson, teachers can mix and match.

Building curriculum from online resources allows the district to create lessons unique to Central Valley while operating within the national Common Core framework, Eimiller said. Using online resources also gives teachers the ability to tweak their class materials each year, or even class period to class period if necessary, he said.

South Side's one-to-one initiative spans the district, with iPads for kindergarten through fifth grade and laptops for grades 6 to 12. With engaging digital subscription services such as IXL, teachers can "drill" classes on tricky topics and receive instant reports about each student's understanding.

"We utilize 1:1 devices as a significant tool to access and leverage learning resources for the entire student body on a different level," Adams said.

Beaver purchases the online math textbooks for middle and high school math classes, which are formatted similarly to the physical book but allow students to access online quizzes and how-to videos. In English class, the district purchases novels. Unlike a paper book, which students aren't allowed to mark with a pen or highlighter, they're able to annotate the digital files with annotation app Notability.

"There's that interactive piece that's missing from a regular textbook," Rowe said.

Powering down

Educators say replacing traditional materials with online resources isn't without its challenges.

With thousands of online materials available for classroom use, vetting content takes time. Developing customized curriculums in Central Valley takes about a year, with teachers assembling their resources and learning the technology for one 40-minute class period every day, Hineman said.

Besides checking overall quality, what suits each educator's teaching style can vary, and each teacher's website is unique, he said.

Choosing which apps and subscriptions best enhance instruction has been the biggest challenge for South Side's technology department, as well, Adams said. The district's technology department has found that rating materials using the SAMR model — an acronym for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition — to determine how a particular technology might influence learning, she said.

In some cases, going completely digital isn't possible. Beaver purchases online versions of some textbooks, but keeps hard copies available for special-education students who might struggle to read from a screen, Rowe said.

Central Valley's teachers have discovered that some subjects lend themselves better to online resources than others, Hineman said. While there is a wealth of math and science materials available, the English language arts curriculum is an amalgam of open education resource and purchased materials. Quality grammar materials and classic literature are easy to find for free, but copyright laws prevent access to newer books.

The administrators say they're on the same page that one-to-one initiatives aren't about teaching children to use technology — many of them are already digital natives — it's about encouraging them to take agency over the resources to enhance their learning and ensuring every student has the same tools.

Teachers are the most valuable resource in the classroom, and that won't change with new technology. What will change is teachers' ability to empower students to solve problems critically and creatively.

"Now it's about making meaning of the information we have," Rowe said. "Because a kid can get this information immediately, we can look at the nuances associated with it."

©2016 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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