In Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS), technology and the internet are helping to transform learning–a practice that, at least in most school systems, traditionally stops and starts with the school bell–into a round-the-clock enterprise.

At the heart of this district-wide transformation is a custom-built, online portal system from educational service provider Blackboard Inc., through which FCPS students can take classes and communicate with their teachers from anywhere, anytime, as long as they have access to an internet-connected computer.

Assistant Superintendent and Chief Information Officer Maribeth Luftglass says the custom-built portal serves as a sort of “virtual gateway” to a wide array of educational services–allowing parents to swap messages with instructors, giving stakeholders the ability to monitor test scores and class assignments, and enabling students to enroll in online courses, among other uses.

First piloted by the district in the fall of 2001, the “24-7 Learning” system has grown from a three-school pet project to a district-wide resource now used by an estimated 80,000 students, with 18,000 different classes now online.

One of the system’s most popular applications, the FCPS Online Campus, lets students take FCPS-approved classes entirely via the internet. Much like the courses taught in traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms, each online course made available through the 24-7 Learning portal meets certain educational needs, including alignment with state Standards of Learning assessments and other district guidelines.

Though students who enroll in these online courses typically only meet with their instructors in person once or twice during the semester, they chat online with them several times a week and are responsible for handing in work and assignments on time via the computer.

To address concerns among parents who fret that these courses might simply be “watered-down” versions of what’s being taught in traditional classrooms, FCPS requires parents and their children to attend a face-to-face orientation with the online instructor, during which the teacher goes over the ground rules for the class and tries to alleviate any concerns about the legitimacy of the course or its merits.

While these types of alternative classes typically are used to help struggling students meet certain course requirements, officials say they also are being used increasingly to help sick or bed-ridden students keep up with their classmates and to provide an outlet for exceptionally gifted students who are ready to move beyond what is being offered in the classroom.

Before the online web portal came along, Carson Middle School eighth-grader Alex Godofsky had to get on a bus and travel to a neighboring high school to take Algebra 2 courses. Now, Godofsky says, he takes the courses from Carson’s library via an online class offered through the portal.

“At either the beginning of the day, or at the end of the day, they would bus me to Oakton and I would take Algebra 2 there,” he said in a video presentation about the program. “Taking it online is a much nicer alternative than having to get up earlier, or get home way later.”

Teachers also are tapping into the online portal system to strengthen their existing lessons. Elementary school teacher Jeff Wilkinson uses the system in his sixth-grade classroom.

“It’s helped to ensure that all students have their homework at all times and are able to stay connected with the classroom even at home,” Wilkinson said.

And the courses aren’t just for the benefit of students. Teachers, too, are encouraged to log onto the system to complete professional development and other online training programs intended to help them better integrate technology into the classroom.

Parents also rely heavily on the technology to keep informed about what’s going on inside the schools. The online portal allows them to keep up with their child’s schoolwork by remotely monitoring their overall performance and behavior during the school day.

By typing in their child’s personal student identification number and a password provided by the district, every parent or guardian with access to the internet can log onto the system to check homework assignments, see course descriptions, and communicate with teachers, among other benefits.

Well aware that parent communication and involvement is essential to helping students meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, several of the district’s more tech-savvy administrators have begun using the system to produce and distribute community newsletters, informing parents of important events and aiming to give them some appreciation for the work that is being done in school each day.

Oak View Elementary School Principal Debbie Lane keeps parents informed by way of an online newsletter produced and beamed directly to parents’ desktops, or handheld computers, via the district’s online portal system.

“We’ve received a lot of support from the community,” said Lane of her monthly newsletter, which includes her own personal reflections as well as reminders and announcements from the local PTA and other affiliated groups. “[Parents] are very excited about it.”

Lane currently is in talks with the district’s office of community relations to provide education-related headlines that parents can read as part of the new automated system, so they can keep up with the goings-on not just in their own local schools, but throughout the entire community.

Test results and student metrics are another prominent feature of the multi-faceted portal system.

Through a partnership with test-prep developer The Princeton Review, the district offers a variety of paper-based assessments, which teachers can deliver to students to determine where they are in relation to district and federal requirements.

After the tests are completed, the results are sent off to The Princeton Review, where they are compiled and made available online within five working days through the portal for educators to evaluate while making instructional changes.

Teachers can use the program to see which students need enrichment and which ones need remediation, said Terri Newman, school-based technology specialist for Oak View Elementary. The idea is to be able to look and see quickly what the trouble spots were on specific test questions.

“It’s quick. It allows you to look at individual skills, like what are the skills that our kids are definitely lacking in, [so we can] really hit that when we come to that part of the curriculum … It really can drive your instruction,” she said.

“It’s a really useful tool,” added Lane. “You can drill down to the individual student and see how [he or she] did.” -CM

LINK: FCPS 24-7 Learning