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Students And Teachers Need Support To Embrace Technology

Tennessee Watson

Senate File 35 - the Virtual Education Bill - would help improve virtual learning in Wyoming schools, especially in rural areas where hiring teachers in specialized fields can be hard. Districts across the state are already experimenting with online courses, but the Department of Education wants to bring this opportunity to all students. In Rock Springs, Black Butte High School has been blazing ahead.

Sharon Seaton teaches up to 10 different science classes simultaneously. That means from advanced math, to mixing paint for a diorama, to troubleshooting computer problems, she’s constantly fielding questions.

A student named Renee approached Ms. Seaton to clarify an assignment in her online biology class.  

“What’s the duck chicken?” she asked.  

Seaton explained that she wanted Renee to show how many DNA sequences ducks and chickens have in common in comparison to humans and monkeys. Renee immediately understood, but I didn't so I followed Renee back to her desk to figure out what this duck chicken business was all about.

“I think it’s the chicken and the duck that have more differences. They might have more similarities physical appearances but...”

Renee explained how the lesson helped her use genetic data to challenge surface assumptions. 

She failed the traditional biology class at Rock Springs High School. But here at Black Butte, an alternative high school, she is thriving in Ms. Seaton’s online science classes.

“I like online learning because it’s more of an independent thing. We just go on the class site and sign in,” she explained. “Here’s the stuff we have to fill out and make sure we have done. We have specific due dates. It’s not bad.”

Principal Mike Maloney gathered his teachers together for some cookies in the break room to celebrate the announcement from the state that the school’s graduation rate went up by 20%.

It’s a change he attributed in part to the increase in online learning opportunities.  

“You get kids that can suddenly start to study things that they are more interested in. So kids have voice and choice.” Maloney said, “I just think it’s that self-paced aspect and an individual approach to learning.”

Each student borrows a laptop from Ms. Seaton at the start of the class. They log into Moodle. That’s an online learning platform, and it’s one of many used by teachers across the state. The Virtual Education Bill provides financial support to create a unified system. That would make it possible for teachers across the state to share the online courses they create.   

The idea of students following their passions at their own pace is not as simple as getting kids on computers. 

I watched Seaton work with a student to help her understand what happens to molecules when matter goes from solid to liquid to gas with an online simulation. Instead of traditional lectures, students follow links to videos, online activities and articles.

It’s clear effective virtual learning requires support and well trained teachers. Seaton has been a teacher for 22 years, and she’s been incorporating online learning into her curriculum since 2001. And it still took her 6 or 7 months to prepare the first ten online classes at Black Butte.

The plan is to have 15 classes available next year and 20 by 2018. She said she surveyed kids to know what new courses to design.  

“Botany will come online next year. I had a kid into bugs so I created an entomology class. We have kids who are interested in genetics, geology, marine science, herpetology,” and she continued to list of courses. She’ll even be collaborating with the school’s English teacher to create an online creative writing course. 

Even though the school caters to the interests of the students, that doesn’t mean they all love online learning. 

I headed downstairs to Jeannie Coulson’s classroom where six students are sitting at laptops. No hands on activities are happening today. The lessons and assessments are all right there on the screen. And 9th grader Bre is not a fan.

“I don’t really understand how to do anything with a computer because I don’t have one. I am the normal pencil paper kind of person. I don’t like new stuff.”

And Ms. Coulson agreed that the transition to online learning can be hard. 

“Last semester I had more F's than I’ve in my 15 years of teaching.” But Coulson said now that she knows the programs things are going a lot smoother.

And that’s another goal of the Virtual Education bill that Ms. Seaton said is critical. 

“We need the professional development to teach teachers how to leverage the technology. And second thing is you have to have a real big understanding of the standards.”  

When I asked students about what should be included in a statewide plan, one kid told me he wanted to make sure there was a balance between computer time and face-to-face learning.

Ms. Seaton told me she values time away from the computer too. That’s why she has students doing labs. And for her, she wants to use face-to-face time to do something more transformative than just deliver content.

“The kids don’t need me. I am obsolete. They can Google everything they need to know. But to be able to take that information and apply it, work collaboratively, problem solve. That to me now is my job.”

Ms. Seaton’s classroom represents what’s possible. She’d like to see districts have the support they need to make virtual education an option for every kid in Wyoming.

You can read the proposed bill here.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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