ATLANTA — The Internet age came a step closer to education in Georgia this month as the state put online its catalog of 135 digital courses and 20,000 instruction resources.
Students, parents and teachers now have a listing of all the courses available in Georgia. They may be offered in one of eight district Internet-based charter schools that require full-time enrollment or in the Georgia Virtual School, which has a cafeteria approach allowing individual courses to supplement enrollment in a traditional school, home school or other charter schools.
Courses on the Georgia Virtual School are free to anyone, even college students brushing up on skills they might have glossed over in high school, but there is a fee for anyone wanting academic credit.
The state Department of Education also unveiled this month its one-stop listing of online resources. Parents and students can use them as free aids to improve understanding of individual concepts – perfect as a refresher or a supplement to traditional classroom instruction.
Teachers can use them in class as part of their lesson plan or assign them as homework, remedial instruction or extra credit.
“Our job is to fill the gaps in K-12 brick-and-mortar schools,” said Bob Swiggum, the department’s chief information officer.
Even though its debut came in the last weeks of the school year, 2,500 teachers were on the site days after it went live getting help for students who had flunked the standardized test they need for promotion to the next grade.
“That’s the whole idea,” he said.
Swiggum had a handful of local school districts piloting the material for six months and then fine-tuning the Web sites before the rollout.
Some of the resources were produced by the department’s nine developers who are all classified as highly qualified teachers in the subjects for which they developed materials. But most of the resources were developed by others and reviewed to ensure they match state curriculum standards. The teachers’ version of the modules list the specific topics students must master according to the state standards.
The next version will include modules developed in local districts that until now were only available to teachers in that school system.
At the teachers’ request, Swiggum also included a bulletin-board feature similar to the Pinterest social media site so they can easily share ideas with one another. If they discover a particularly innovative colleague in another part of the state, they can get notified with every new idea posted.
Many observers say Swiggum is helping to put Georgia on the cutting edge of digital education.
“Bringing these resources together for schools and families should be a useful tool as more and more learning moves online,” said Joan Lord, vice president for education policies with the Southern Regional Education Board.
In her organization’s work with the 16 Southern states, Lord sees others also rapidly moving toward increased online learning.
Last year, Georgia legislators said they changed to law to require every school system to offer online courses to each student because they believe it’s vital in equipping the state’s work force.
“The best thing we can do for our students today is prepare them for the virtual world, because that’s what they’ll be in,” said Swiggum, who came to the department after a career in large, private computer companies.
Although his background is technology, part of his job is to oversee a team that trains teachers in how to use it. That’s more than just familiarization with the computer commands. It also includes showing them how to incorporate the digital materials into their lesson plans, which is a novel concept for all but the youngest teachers.
In what’s known as a blended model, teachers assign online instructional modules as homework that include comprehension tests. The next day, the teacher serves as a coach to enhance students’ understanding, and the test results show her which pupils need the most attention, according to Kelly McCutchen, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a business-oriented think tank.
“That will allow the teachers to leverage their ability, and eventually we’ll be able to personalize the education for every student,” he said. “… Georgia will be one of the top two or three states in moving in this direction.”
He envisions the day when a teacher with superior lecturing skills might earn a hefty bonus by having thousands of students from across the state signed up. Students would have access to the state’s best teachers no matter where they lived, and the bonuses could entice experts to leave other professions.
“If you have Coach Smith teaching social studies, and he’s not very effective, this will give schools some other options,” McCutchen said.
Because children learn different ways, he said it would be the role of the in-school teachers to counsel students toward individually appropriate instruction modes, whether they are lectures, video demonstrations, practical applications or whatever fits their learning style.
Making technology available to every student is harder than assembling some links to online resources. For instance, not all students have computers or Internet connections at home.
McCutchen says they can watch the instructional videos on their smartphones or go to the school’s computer lab to do their homework.
In rural parts of the state, even the schools don’t have enough bandwidth, according to Matt Jones, a teacher at Toombs County High School and co-founder of the school-support group EmpowerED Georgia.
“We have fast Internet, but we don’t have the capacity for a large number of students to take advantage of that,” he said.
The connection is so slow that a faculty meeting to watch a streaming video from Swiggum had to be postponed until a DVD could be shipped from Atlanta instead.
The General Assembly added $7 million to upgrade the connection speeds at rural districts, but observers say it’s nowhere near enough.
“I think a lot of times, the Department of Education looks around Atlanta and thinks a lot of schools have all those resources,” Jones said.
McCutchen predicted that businesses would be willing to step in with financial contributions or technical support.
But Jones also worries about the quality of the online instruction. Some say it is little more than audio clips of a teacher reading an online textbook followed by questions that are completed in a word-processing application.
And he is concerned that without close supervision, students will click through the instructional segments without paying attention and then look up the test answers on Google or Yahoo.
“I’ve seen some good online courses and some pretty bad online courses,” he said.
That’s where Swiggum says experience is paying off in Georgia.
“This is not like a theory. This is a real practice, and we know that it works,” he said, noting that 25,000 enrolled in the Georgia Virtual School prove it.
An application every district will soon have access to will allow teachers to monitor what the students do and how well they master the material. It can record how long they are at the keyboard and whether they are straying to other Web sites.
That application, a learner management system, is very sophisticated and has to be integrated with the local district’s record-keeping database. Most of it has already been available to districts for two years, but he said unlike the business world where a decision from the home office quickly institutes a change throughout a company, public education acts slower.
“It moves at the rate of the local districts adopting it,” he said. “... The nudging comes from the teachers themselves as they go out and see it.”