Teaching software reaches more kids

Technology goes the distance for students

October 28, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

A spiral wraps around a graph, curlicues seemingly drawing themselves on the computer screen in front of Chesapeake High School senior Matt Phipps.

The computer is broadcasting the work of teacher Josh Dorsey, who is drawing a helix 14 miles away at South River High School. He is also laying the foundation for a calculus 3 lesson on calculating the movement of objects through multiple dimensions (think of a satellite hurtling through space).

"In calculus, a lot of the concepts are abstract, so it's hard to explain," said Matt, 17. "[Dorsey] doesn't drone. He cracks jokes ... develops a personal relationship, even though he's not standing right in front of us."

It's intellectually hefty stuff, but Dorsey's students aren't just gifted students. They're the highly gifted - the ones working three and four years ahead of most of their classmates.

What's more unusual than their academic ability is their access to this Web broadcast class in high school.

What Dorsey says and writes from the South River classroom is broadcast in real-time to six schools and heard by 11 students because of a new distance-learning software.

The Anne Arundel school district adopted the program to offer highly gifted students access to math courses they wouldn't otherwise be able to take until college.

Unlike the more common versions of distance learning, which relies on taped classes that students can access whenever they want, this software allows students to be engaged in a class being held at another location.

Students can hear and talk to the teacher through headphones and microphones hooked into the computers. The students have electronic tablets, so if the teacher asks them to draw a graph, their work is displayed through the software to the entire class.

"It's fun. Sometimes we joke around with [Dorsey], draw smiley faces next to graphs, or a frowny face to show we had a tough time with something," said Matt, who is three years ahead of most high school seniors in math.

Two years ago, students like Matt had two options to take advanced math: spend part of the school day at a community college - with its associated transportation and scheduling headaches - or wait until after high school.

Now, he gets the challenge in math without ever leaving his own school.

"Two years ago, we wouldn't have even offered this course to high school students," said Joy Donlin, coordinator of secondary mathematics for the district. "After [Advanced Placement] calculus, their learning stopped. There was no opportunity for more. That's completely changed now."

The distance-learning software, called Bridgit, is also beamed into four middle schools to teach Algebra 2 to five eighth-graders. At three other middle schools, teachers offer the advanced classes in person.

Until the district piloted the distance-learning program last year, three math teachers traveled across the district to teach one or two advanced math students at each middle school, wasting time and money, Donlin said.

The distance-learning software, which cost $37,428, has cut the number of positions needed in half. It has allowed one full-time math teacher to broadcast his Algebra 2 class from one school to students in four middle schools.

"Equity is about access," Donlin said. "We had some middle schools that had a large enough group of Algebra 2 students to justify having a class there, while other schools just had one or two students. It's not fair for those one or two students not to get anything just because there aren't more of them. With distance learning, we increase access. Everybody gets an opportunity, no matter how many students there are."

The district spent $330,000 two years ago to pay for six traveling teachers to offer advanced classes in middle schools.

Since then, the use of the software has reduced the cost to $193,000, said Val Emrich, the school system's instructional technology manager.

Although the district has only been able to use distance learning to offer advanced math, Emrich said there's talk of using the software to offer foreign language courses.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell wants to offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes in Chinese to prepare students for jobs in diplomatic service, national security or business.

Maxwell's push last March for Chinese classes spurred discussions of offering the course through distance learning, Emrich said.

"There's just been talk about it, but it hasn't led anywhere yet," she said.

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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