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Albemarle County Ed Tech Team Focuses on Student Learning

The county's public schools have developed a growing ed tech team that collaborates with teachers in designing multi-age classrooms and introducing new technologies that strengthen learning and trust.

A student-run radio station. Virtual reality experiences. Multi-age classrooms in redesigned spaces. These are just a few of the projects that members of the nine-person ed tech team at Albemarle County Public Schools have collaborated on with teachers as they seek to help students learn.

And some of their inspiration comes from Ireland. Irishman John Heffernan joined the team last year and went with Albemarle Superintendent Pam Moran on a tour of Ireland's schools to see how they run multi-age classrooms. Over the past year, Albemarle County has been creating multi-age classrooms in elementary schools including Agnor-Hurt, Red Hill and Yancey to help personalize learning for each student. This year, they're adding multi-age classrooms to Woodbrook Elementary School in tandem with remodeling the learning spaces and later building a new wing to accommodate more students.

The ed tech team has advised on building construction and remodeling, open space design, comfortable furniture, device storage and other technology considerations for these classrooms, as well as supporting teachers as they start this journey. In Agnor-Hurt, the classroom served 120 kindergarten through 5th-grade students with a team of teachers. Woodbrook will have smaller groups of students with 36 to 40 kids paired with two teachers who will stay together at least two years, possibly three.

"The thing that I'm super excited about is the children won't have to switch and learn a new teacher the following year," Nita Collier said.

Along with the multi-age classrooms, the district is investing in virtual reality experiences. They're using Google Cardboard headsets as a gateway to immersing students in other places, and they're looking at the HTC Vive headsets for use later on. They're also using 360-degree cameras to capture places from all angles and letting students in on the fun. 

Students at Burley Middle School took the camera to Charlottesville (Albermarle's county seat) historic landmarks, and Adam Seipel helped the students and teacher capture the experience for others who couldn't be there. These types of experiences grab students' attention in ways that regular pictures in a textbook just can't.

While some students are creating their own virtual reality experiences, others are running their own radio station. A group of teachers, administrators and ed tech team members came together to figure out how to make the radio station happen, and eventually, they'd like to put a pole on the mountain to broadcast a signal for the community to listen in. The students host radio programs that they put on YouTube including sports, games and talk shows, and they've spent days on air debating about whether a wrap is a sandwich. 

"These kids started out just with an idea of things they want to talk about, and it's really popular because they're having normal conversations about high school," Bert Jacoby said. 

Building trust with teachers and students has been key to the ed tech team's success as they collaborate in schools throughout the district. Once they have that trust, they can step into a teacher's classroom and just start working with kids. One of the ways they build trust is by giving both students and teachers administrator privileges on their computers.

But throughout the process, the focus stays on the main goal: supporting student learning.

"All the initiatives, the programs, the strategies that we deploy are really focused on very specific student-centered outcomes," said team leader Jamie Foreman.