Learning beyond the bell

“Almost every parent is familiar with the’nothing’ response to the question: ‘What did you learn in schooltoday?’ Now a parent can say, ‘I saw on your classroom web site thatyou are learning about shapes and the project you made. It lookedgreat! Tell me more about it!’ A web site changes the conversation athome.” –Maurice Draggon, first-grade teacher, Sadler Elementary School

Should school districts allow their teachers to have their own blogsand podcasts hosted on the district’s web site? It’s a question thatmany school systems, both large and small, have grappled with.

On the one hand, these digital-age communications tools can extendstudent learning beyond the school bell, while keeping parents engagedin their child’s education as never before. On the other hand, manyschool district leaders naturally are concerned that these tools couldopen their districts to potential legal liabilities if not carefullymonitored.

Florida’s Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) has come up with asolution that satisfies both sides of the debate–empowering teachersto create their own web pages, blogs, and podcasts, while guardingagainst the misuse of such tools.

All OCPS teachers are encouraged to create their own web page, but onlyafter going through special training, signing an Acceptable Use Policy(AUP), and passing an end-of-training exam with a 100-percent score,says George Perreault, director of educational technology for thedistrict. The program has been so well received that about a third ofthe district’s 12,000 teachers already have taken the training.

Before the program started, teachers who wanted to create their own websites often had to ask their school’s instructional technologyspecialist for help. But “it was too hard to have to go through thisperson every time they wanted to update their site,” says Perreault. “Iwanted teachers to be able to be autonomous–but there had to besafeguards in place.”

During the training, which lasts a full day, teachers learn how tobuild their own web pages, how to create links, and how to post itemsusing HTML coding. Teachers also learn what is, and is not, appropriateto post on their personal or class web site.

For example, teacher web sites may not contain advertisements, andteachers need parents’ consent before they post students’ photos or usetheir last names. Teachers also can’t use their web sites for personalgain and cannot use them as a soapbox.

“This is not the forum for personal views or causes,” Perreault explains.

Ed-tech service provider Tech4Learning created the training program forOCPS according to the district’s specifications, and the company nowoffers this training commercially to other districts. OCPS firstoffered the training to teachers through a face-to-face format, but itproved to be so popular that the district eventually created an onlineversion hosted by Angel Learning.

Teachers who pass the end-of-training exam and “sign” an electronic website agreement form are given a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) accountfor hosting their personal web site. Once they pass the online exam,the system “automatically generates an eMail message to a staff memberto create an FTP directory for them,” Perreault says.

Before offering the training, district officials vetted their teacherAUP and web site agreement form through the OCPS legal team.

“I’ve sort of taken the approach that teachers are professionals, andI’m going to set the expectations–but it’s also very clear when wetalk to them that I alone am the gauge for what’s appropriate and whatis not,” Perreault says. If he finds a posting that is inappropriate,he sends an eMail to the teacher explaining that this is outside theguidelines of acceptable practices–but “I haven’t had to turn anybodyoff,” he adds.

OCPS uses mostly Hewlett-Packard servers throughout the district, butit hosts the teacher web pages and manages teachers’ FTP accounts on anApple XServe server.

The district also offers a way for teachers to create their own blogsand podcasts on their web sites. Parents and students can sign up forReally Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to have new blog posts deliveredto their eMail in-boxes automatically, and they can click on an iTunesbutton to have new podcasts delivered automatically to their iTunesaccount.

“The nice thing is, the Apple server syndicates these on the fly,” Perreault says.

Teachers are using their web sites, blogs, and podcasts to connect withstudents and their parents in a variety of ways. One chemistry teacher,for instance, creates podcasts to help students with their dailyhomework. Parents and students can listen to the podcast together asthey work through each assignment. Other teachers use them to help kidsreview for tests, or to spark students’ imagination outside of class.

Maurice Draggon, a first-grade teacher at Sadler Elementary School, hastaken advantage of the district’s training to create a site on which heposts his own videos to help students learn phonics.

“My classroom is composed entirely of students who speak English as asecond language,” Draggon explains. “Letters do not make the same soundin every language, and often parents worry they will teach their childthe wrong letter sound when they are reading with them at home. Theycan visit my web site, select the letter they are unsure of, and hearthe sound right away. This empowers parents to practice reading withtheir children without worrying about teaching them the wrong sound.Parents are therefore pulled into the learning experience in ameaningful way, without language being a barrier.”

Draggon also posts students’ writing samples and other projects for parents to see.

“Almost every parent is familiar with the ‘nothing’ response to thequestion: ‘What did you learn in school today?'” he says. “Now a parentcan say, ‘I saw on your classroom web site that you are learning aboutshapes and the project you made. It looked great! Tell me more aboutit!’

“A web site changes the conversation at home and strengthens the connection between the school and the home,” he concludes.


Maurice Draggon’s web site

Dennis Pierce

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