Online and on-the-ball

Lead article for Special Section, Fayette Woman, August 2008

When I was in school in the 80s and early 90s, “technology” meant using a calculator instead of doing long division by hand, and personal computers were just barely coming into existence (remember the Commodore 64? the Apple IIe?).

However, having spent the better part of the last decade both as a graduate student and as a teacher of college students, I’ve seen the rise of technology and education from both sides of the teacher’s desk. For the most part, technology has opened up the learning experience in ways our generation never dreamed of back in 1986. It’s exciting, yet we—students, parents, and teachers—must understand it well in order to use it wisely.

Online search engines: When it comes to computers and education, this is the go-to option for help on a research project. Need to find out the difference between stalactites and stalagmites for a science project? Typing in a few keywords into the search bar of Google.com or other search engines (search.yahoo.com, ask.com, msn.com), and chances are you’ll find more information than you know what to do with.

The downside: Since pretty much anyone can post pretty much anything on the internet, you need to make sure your information is coming from a credible source. Also, some teachers are still resistant to the term paper or project that is based only on internet research. One reason is the possibility that students will use unreliable sources; another, the necessity of students learning the art of research. Just as the advent of the hand-held calculator didn’t eliminate the need for students to learn long division by hand, so do students need to know how to walk into a library, look up books (yes, real books) in the library catalog, and flip through indexes to find what they need.

Online libraries: It’s become the standard for schools to offer access to online libraries. Databases, e-journals, e-books, research websites, and the library catalogs of other schools are a few mouse-clicks away for most students. In many cases, online resources such as Galenet (biographies, literary criticism, articles), Galileo (Georgia’s virtual library), JStor, and a host of other online newspapers and journals help students in whatever field they’re researching.

The downside: Very little to report here. Credibility isn’t as much of an issue, since these are usually copies of books and articles that already exist in print and have therefore met the standards of a publishing company. Students will almost always need a password, since schools typically have to pay for subscriptions to online libraries. It’s worth it, though—you get to search quickly, and the actual article or even the pages of a book will appear on your screen. You’ll often be able to use the “search” function on your computer to find a keyword in the document, and perhaps even print off articles for your use, if legally permitted.

Teacher websites: Some teachers are beginning to use their websites to help keep the lines of communication open between themselves, students and parents. Teachers can use a web-based calendar to post the due dates of homework assignments, provide links to resources on the web, provide copies of handouts, and make announcements or reminders. Jamie Lovett, an English teacher at McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, uses the links on her website as part of her teaching, directing her students to look at online transcripts of interviews with authors. “I like for my students to hear the authors’ voices if possible. It gives us a completely different level of appreciation for an author’s work.”

The downside: Not all teachers have websites, and some of those who do may not maintain their websites. This could be problematic; for example, a teacher may change a project’s due date, announce the change in class, then forget to change it on the online calendar, leading to students’ and parents’ confusion. It’s important to remember that teacher websites are not true replacements for students paying attention in class to announcements and homework assignments.

Mygradebook.com: Ah, the blessing and bane of Fayette County’s middle and high school students. It’s the online password-protected service that allows teachers to enter students’ grades; in turn, students and parents log on to view the grades. Students may be able to find out how well they did on a test, quiz or assignment before it’s actually returned to them in class. Teachers can list class policies, class announcements, and assignment descriptions. Teachers can also use its calendar feature for homework and events, or its e-mail feature to contact students or their parents.

The downside: Ask any parent who’s familiar with mygradebook.com, and chances are you’ll get the same comment. “It’s only truly helpful to students and parents if the teacher keeps it up-to-date,” says Suzanna Carillo, whose daughter Rachel is entering the ninth grade at Whitewater High School.  If the teacher is entering grades only once a month, for example, Mygradebook.com could show that your student’s “A” goes (literally) overnight to a “C”. The key here is that you should not rely exclusively on Mygradebook to track your child’s progress. Keep the lines of communication open with your child and his/her teacher.

Other uses: What’s mentioned above is only the tip of the iceberg. Fayette’s schools are using computer programs to help students study for the CRCT, assess reading comprehension through Accelerated Reader (AR) tests, and detect plagiarism through internet services such as turnitin.com. The list goes on and on, and is sure to get longer as educators find new ways to bring internet technology into the learning experience.

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Websites

This is a compilation of a just a few of the many educational websites available. For a more extensive listing, take a look at Homeschool.com’s “Top 100 Educational Websites of 2008” (homeschool.com/articles/top100-2008).

Teachtci.com: The website for the Teachers’ Curriculum Institute. Click on “Online Programs” and check out Social Studies Alive!, History alive!, Government Alive!, Geography Alive!, and Econ Alive!

Brainpop.com: Very kid-friendly animated website that encourages learning in a wide range of areas—science, social studies, English, math, arts & music, health, and technology.

Funbrain.com: Games, puzzles, web books and movies that all encourage learning. Parents can search for activities based on grade level. Who could ask for more?

Edheads.com: A teacher friend of mine recommended this website to me, so I loaded it up for my 8-year old Anika, glancing at it quickly before letting her go to it. A while later, she came out of the computer room. “I just did a hip replacement,” she announced to me. “A what?” I asked. “A hip replacement. And a knee replacement. And a hip resurfacing.” Virtual surgery– very cool.

Tryscience.org: Features virtual adventures, experiments, field trips and more. You can also view the webcams of science centers, such as the “Dinosaur Mysteries” exshibit at the Maryland Science Center and the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum.

Mathplayground.com: Includes math games, word problems, logic puzzles and math videos. In addition to a bunch of fun math games, there’s a virtual Simon memory game, a virtual Rubik’s Cube, and a virtual Hi-Q game.