Staff Photo: John Bohn Landon Osborne, left, and Cael Cernich, second from left, study electricity and circuits in an eighth-grade physical science class taught by Robert Duncan at Bay Creek Middle School in Grayson. The class uses online textbooks as part of an eCLASS program. Bay Creek Middle School is one of a hand full of of schools in Gwinnett County using eCLASS.
SUWANEE -- On a level that many of their elders may never come to know, young people today are attuned to the digital world.
Growing up, they grasped the concept of the Internet and navigated the World Wide Web with an ease that their parents could only watch with wonder.
Seats in the classroom are filled with generations of plugged-in pupils, said Sarah Skinner, an assistant principal in training with Gwinnett County Public Schools. "Students are wired all the time."
Tried and true teaching methods that use textbooks, notebook paper, pencils and chalkboards remain an effective method for delivering a lesson, but it's these very tools "that clip the kids' wires as they walk in the door."
A new digital curriculum and instruction initiative by Gwinnett County Public Schools aims to "meet these students in their world," Skinner said. "With eCLASS, we're on the cusp of what's to come for schools around the country. It's exciting."
Skinner spoke Tuesday after visiting with a science class at Bay Creek Middle School, one of six local facilities test-driving the online computer-based curriculum, which will be expanded in August to include 33 pilot schools in the Archer, Berkmar, Duluth, North Gwinnett and Shiloh clusters.
Students in Robert Duncan's science class have gotten a sneak peek this year at the online, computer-based curriculum that will one day be in all district classrooms.
Duncan said that eCLASS--Content, Learning, Assessment and Support System -- fixes a "disconnect with students and textbooks. Some of them, you give them a textbook, and you can see it on their faces."
Jack Jehle, a 14-year-old student in Duncan's class, said he likes eCLASS "a lot better than textbooks."
"There are so many different ways to learn something," said Jehle on Wednesday as he demonstrated a lab exercise on his classroom computer. "It's a lot more hands on."
He and his classmates recently worked on an exercise that lets students build an electric circuit by dragging various images across the computer screen and putting them in the correct place, in the correct order.
Getting feedback from the digital exercises is one of the perks, Jehle said. "It will tell you if you're doing it right or wrong," he said. Other teaching tools include video clips, interactive quizzes and educational gaming.
Tricia Kennedy, eCLASS director for the district, said she has heard "from a number of teachers that because the resources are interactive it's easier for students to understand the concepts. They have simulations, animations and so forth that they might not usually have access to."
Kennedy said that, in time, the district plans to evaluate students to test the program's success.
"It will take three to five years to be able to track that student data," Kennedy said.
But after using it for only one year, student Haleigh Wertanen, 14, has no trouble touting the program's effectiveness.
"It's a lot easier," Wertanen said. "They have games and videos, and it lets you actually do stuff. It gives you visuals. Instead of just reading words, you use activities that give you practice for the tests. It's more fun, and it keeps you tuned in."
The Bay Creek Middle student shares many of the same opinions on eCLASS as her principal.
"They're very comfortable with it," Dana Pugh said. "It puts them at ease."
In addition, Pugh said, it helps teachers keep track of how their tech-savvy students are doing.
From any computer, teachers will be able to see their class roster in a dashboard-style format. They can also scroll down to see individual student results from the page and get suggestions for addressing a student's academic weaknesses.
The school system will also expand portal access for employees and parents. The initial phase of the eCLASS rollout will focus on teaching and learning at the classroom and school levels. Improvements to the portals will come in a later phase.
The program is a multi-year initiative. The pilot begins in August for the schools in the five designated clusters, giving them access to initial modules in curriculum and instruction for language arts, math, science, social studies, elementary visual arts and Spanish.
All schools in the district will pilot an online gradebook module for eCLASS beginning in August.
The overall initiative is being funded primarily through the most recent iteration of the education special purpose local option sales tax, which voters approved by 61 percent in November 2011. After development, the cost for maintaining the program is scheduled to be included in the district's budget.
While much of the coursework used in eCLASS will be performed on district-bought computers, students could soon be encouraged to bring their own technology like tablets and smartphones into the classroom. The initiative includes a system-wide expansion of Wi-fi capabilities to accommodate the devices.
Skinner said such technology improvements will mean greater success for generations of "wired" students.
"It's new and it's different, but it's cool," Skinner said. "And most importantly, the kids think it's cool."