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TN: Technology motivates students to learn in new ways


Bedford County teachers practice using a digital camcorder during the annual summer technology conference.

Summary: This partly urban, partly rural Tennessee school district uses technology in a strategic and focused manner to enhance student learning. Professional development is the key that helps teachers use technology effectively in the classroom and in lesson planning. Online assessments provide students with immediate feedback to help help them master skills quickly and effectively. Whether its virtual classes to meet a student's particular needs, online courses for credit recovery, technology to help English Language Learners catch up to their peers, or data-driven learning plans, it's clear that this district's 7,300 students reap the benefit of innovative learning technology.

In Bedford County, using technology is about reaching out to 7,300 students (fifty percent of whom are economically disadvantaged) who are housed in eleven schools. It’s about providing motivation and helping all students to learn regardless of language spoken or learning style. It’s about helping teachers understand the available technology and making the best use of it in the classroom, for assessment purposes, and for learning plans. It’s about reaching out to parents and other community members.

What does this look like in practice? While all high school seniors feel pressure to graduate and prepare for a new life, one senior in particular had another life challenge to face. She had to prepare for her mother’s impending death from cancer. Although her mother wanted more than anything to see her daughter graduate, her daughter was struggling with geometry. The district’s online learning program came to the rescue, allowing this student to quickly retake geometry in summer school and make her mother proud.

District characteristics
Name: Bedford County
State: TN
Type: Urban/Rural
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 7,277
Students per teacher: 16.3

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 50.1%
English language learners: 10.9%
Students with disabilities: 13.6%
White: 76.5%
Black: 9%
Hispanic: 13.3%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 1%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.2%
Other: n.a.
Source: State of Tennessee Bedford County Report Card 2006

For this teenager and others in Bedford County, technology is not so much about tracking numbers as it is about virtual classes that provide an alternative to the regular classroom as teens meet life’s challenges. Some of these students find online learning more motivating, said Joan Gray, director of technology for the Bedford County Department of Education.

Not-so-social promotion

Another student who has benefited from online learning weighs more than three hundred pounds and had difficulty relating to peers and teachers in the regular classroom, Gray said. He has embraced online learning and now is back on track. “He’s been extremely successful and even helps other students taking the courses,” she noted.

The credit recovery through online courses assists students who might otherwise fall by the wayside, said Amy Martin, vice chair of Bedford County’s Board of Education. “I believe in saving every kid that you can possibly save,” she said. However, online learning does not work well for all students. “Some people don’t have the self-motivation,” Gray cautioned.

Bedford County is one of eight Tennessee districts pilot testing online courses through the e4TN program, which provided a three-year grant of $100,000 in funding the first year and $50,000 last year. Funding for year three is yet to be determined. One group benefiting is English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students, who can take extra courses online to catch up to their peers, said Betsy Norris, e4TN site coordinator for the district.

Bedford County’s technology program, with a current budget of $650,000, encompasses much more than online courses, though, including computerized assessments, data-driven learning plans, mobile computer labs, and electronic whiteboards.

Filling in the gaps

For students with extra needs, technology can help fill in learning gaps, by exposing students to background information and providing opportunities for individual practice. For example, in an ESL classroom, the teacher might use an LCD projector to teach vocabulary terms coming up in a future lesson in the regular classroom. Students then can get individual practice with those terms in the computer lab.

This type of preteaching, which is “sort of like a preview to a movie,” has also been helpful for students in Title I programs, said Connie Boutwell, supervisor of federal programs for the district. If students have had an introduction to the vocabulary, she said, “when they hear it for the first time in the regular classroom they’re not lost.”

Meeting varied needs

Boutwell encourages teachers to use technology proactively to meet the particular needs of their students. About half of the district’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged, and 30.1 percent qualify for free or reduced-price; 10.9 percent have limited English proficiency; and 13.6 percent have disabilities.

The district fell short of its No Child Left Behind adequate yearly progress goals in 2006 for graduation rates and the percentage of Black students scoring proficient or advanced in reading, language arts, and writing. Those areas are back on track in 2007 reporting, Gray said.

Norris noted that the online classes have helped the graduation rate, which rose from 80.8 percent in 2005 to 88.3 percent in 2006, just shy of the district’s 90 percent target. She credits the hard work of Gray and other staff members. “Teachers have to embrace online learning for it to truly be effective, and they have done that because of good leadership,” Norris said.

Martin agrees that Gray’s leadership and the district’s technology innovations are helping struggling students. Some students find traditional teaching boring, she said. “If we’re not reaching them in the old standard ways, then we’ve got to adapt and refocus to reach them. Every kid cannot be taught the same way.”

To assist students at risk of academic failure, Bedford County schools use LeapFrog SchoolHouse products in first through fifth grades to provide assessments and calculate individual learning plans. The assignments promote phonemic awareness that these students may lack because they didn’t attend preschool or were not exposed to sing-song activities or reading aloud in their early years, Boutwell said. The students are motivated by these activities, she said, “because it’s very colorful, active, and grade-appropriate. ESL learners also use Desire2Learn software to visualize concepts shown on the screen, hear the words, and record their voices for teacher feedback, Norris noted.

Students today are immersed in technology and find the instant feedback of software programs or Internet searches more motivating than pencil and paper work, Boutwell said, noting, “It seems to be the way they respond best.”

Room for improvement

The district also is piloting the Tennessee Formative Assessment Program (TFAP), funded by the state. Students in third through eighth grade take the assessments online, and then TFAP provides instant grading and formative recommendations to help students master particular skills.

To conduct the assessments, easy access to computers is vital. Each school has at least one mobile computer lab, consisting of 24 laptop computers linked to a wireless network. When a teacher brings the lab into the classroom, each student can work on a computer with Internet access. “It’s the most economical way to go one-on-one [one computer per student] when you can’t afford one-on-one,” Gray said.

Another factor that makes the labs desirable is the school system’s growth--200 to 250 students a year--and the desire to use classrooms for teachers and students rather than computers. “With these mobile labs,” she noted, “any room can become a computer lab.”

Preparing teachers

Bringing technology to the classroom is only part of the battle, however. Teachers need to have the understanding, the comfort level, and the enthusiasm to integrate the hardware and software into their lessons. For example, all of Bedford County’s K–8 teachers have been trained to use Riverdeep software to present lessons in class and post those lessons to share with others. “If you don’t train teachers to use it, and they don’t have lesson plans that incorporate it, then they don’t use it,” Gray said, and then “it doesn’t do any good.”

About twice a year, Gray offers incentives for teachers to take 20 hours of technology integration training and produce a project to share with colleagues. They are rewarded with classroom technology--perhaps a computer, an LCD projector, or a digital camera--which makes the program popular. The district also holds a one-day technology conference in the summer.

All in all, Bedford County’s approach to technology focuses on maximizing potential--of the technology, of the teachers, and of the students. To the parents whose hopes are renewed that they’ll see their kids graduate, that’s a potent formula for success.

Lessons learned

Joan Gray and her colleagues in the Bedford County Department of Education have found that teachers can use technology to improve student learning under these conditions:

  • Training for teachers on integrating technology into classroom lessons.
  • Presentations and feedback using a variety of media for differentiated instruction.
  • Formative assessments.
  • Individualized learning plans for at-risk students based on assessments.
  • Preteaching for English language learners and economically disadvantaged students.
  • Individual practice in the lab for English language learners.
  • Online learning for credit recovery.


Joan Gray, Director of Technology and Secondary Instruction Supervisor
931-684-3284, ext. 243

This story was written by Terrey Hatcher Quindlen. Quindlen, a freelance writer living in Hampstead, North Carolina, has been writing about education issues for six years.

Posted: September 18, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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