Sixth-grade social studies teacher Will Hildebrand from Duluth Middle School will continue to use technology in the classroom this year with the teaching style of eClass. eClass is an expansion of the “bring your own device” program. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
eClass at Duluth Middle School
Sixth-grade social studies teacher Will Hildebrand from Duluth Middle School will continue to use technology in the classroom this year with the teaching style of eClass. eClass is an expansion of the "bring your own device" program.
DULUTH — Nine years have passed since Hunter Marshburn graduated from Collins Hill High School. In terms of technology, that’s more than a lifetime many several devices.
As a student, Marshburn said he visited a computer lab maybe once a month, and Microsoft PowerPoint was used sparingly. As an eighth grade social studies teacher at Duluth Middle now, Marshburn’s students will be in a computer lab nearly every day, a contrast he calls impressive, and something the district continues to push as the new school year begins on Wednesday.
“I know how much I used computers, PowerPoint, Microsoft Word in college and how important it is in the business world, no matter what your career or major is,” Marshburn said. “You’ve seen a big push, especially in GCPS using the technological tools that are going to be necessary for them to succeed of whatever the next level is.”
This is the third year of a five-year eCLASS initiative for Gwinnett County Public Schools, and the district has highlighted 33 schools in five pilot clusters: Archer, Berkmar, Duluth, North Gwinnett and Shiloh.
Among the changes this year are new curriculum and instruction tools for language arts, math, science, social studies, elementary visual arts and Spanish I. Teachers also have an online community where they can share ideas and techniques, access an online gradebook and collect data around an evaluation system.
There’s also an expansion of the “Bring Your Own Device” program, where students can log in with an identification number and use cell phones, tablets, laptops and e-readers as part of the learning process.
The idea is to increase student achievement and engagement, and make digital content a fully developed part of the classroom, said Tricia Kennedy, GCPS’ executive director of eCLASS transformation.
The first teacher at Duluth Middle to use the BYOD program was Will Hilderbrand, who teaches gifted students in sixth grade social studies. Wilderbrand has won more than $1,000 the last two years in technology grants from the Duluth Cluster Foundation to purchase devices like iPad minis and iPods.
While Hilderbrand said there isn’t concrete data that supports the theory that technology translates to higher test scores or grades in general, anecdotally he added that all 97 of his students scored in the “exceeds standards” category of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, and more than 20 made perfect scores.
“I absolutely attribute that to technology,” Hilderbrand said. “I probably used BYOD activities two or three times a week last year. Something as simple as research, to more complex, like a group assignment. I’ve got to believe this has something to do with it.”
On one assignment last year, Hilderbrand posted an editorial cartoon about the 1962 Cuban Embargo, and assigned the students to write in an online message board their opinion about the cartoon, then respond to two classmates’ opinions.
“A lot of colleges are already doing this,” said the sixth grade teacher. “You’re taking something that’s college oriented, and implementing it with 11- and 12-year-olds. They’re writing what they firmly believe about this cartoon. They weren’t writing, ‘Oh, I agree with you.’ They’re writing, ‘I disagree, here are the reasons why.”
In another assignment, Hilderbrand and his students use the software app called “World Wiki” where they can compare Brazil’s economics, for example, with another country.
“You can still do this with an atlas, you can still do this by jumping online,” he said, “but all the information is consolidated right here.”
One challenge for teachers, Hilderbrand said, is keeping up with the latest software apps, although more than once a student offered a legitimate app or software program to perform an assignment.
The clearest challenge Hilderbrand sees to the BYOD part of the inititative is what he calls a “digital divide,” where some students can afford a tablet and a printer at home, while others cannot. Because of that, he gives several days before an assignment is due to allow time for the student to print, or even write, an essay.
“Even in my gifted class, which tends to be kids that are much more affluent, higher social economic status, not every kid has this at home, not every kid has a computer at home,” he said.
Last year, several parents recognized how integrated technology was in the classroom, and bought their children devices at Christmas, he said.
Teachers like Marshburn said technology allows them to reach students who may learn in different styles.
Karla Dickerson, a Central Gwinnett High chemistry teacher, said she plans to utilize interactive notebooks, which allows students to take notes with text and other visual elements.
“It’s a quick way to assess whether the students are understanding or not,” Dickerson said. “We can walk by and see the picture and say, ‘Ok, they understand the whole picture, or they don’t have all the connections.’” So it’s a diagram that we can see whether they’re understanding the material or not.”
The types of teachers who grasp technology and are more likely to integrate it in their classroom aren’t necessarily along a line of age and experience, Kennedy said.
“It’s along the line of the continum of humanity,” she said. “Some folks are just a little more comfortable digging in and diving in with technology.”
As the eCLASS program grows, Kennedy said the subject areas to provide digital content will expand to areas such as music and health, physical education, business education and computer science. And as it grows, it will continue to extend the classroom beyond the school day and the school building.
“You’re trying to promote lifelong learning,” Hilderbrand said. “You’re not just learning from 9 o’clock to 4 o’clock, and that’s it.”
While it’s unknown when the district may start the process, laptops will one day be phased out, along with textbooks, and students will use tablets loaded with subject material.
“It’s going to be cheaper in the long run,” Hilderbrand said. “Having everything loaded there, and you’ve simplified things for the kids, and they don’t have to carry around a giant book bag with five books in it. You have a two pound device and that’s it.”