High school classes increasingly blend in technology in western Pennsylvania schools

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PITTSBURGH — As homeroom ended Thursday morning, students in Shaler Area High School's Academy program sat down for math lessons at their laptop computers, watching video lectures or taking quizzes for one of four or five math courses.

Teacher Nicole Kutzner watched on her laptop as sophomore Logan Pegher took a geometry quiz, seeing which questions took more time and stepping over to help.

"If I need help, she helps us," said ninth-grader Charlotte Zimmerman of Shaler, who was watching a video lecture at the desk next to Logan. "It helps a lot. Last year, I failed, and this year I'm getting mostly 'B's and 'A's."

The Academy, which blends one-on-one instruction with online lessons tailored to each student, is helping the district with students who otherwise would be at risk of dropping out of a regular class. With the laptops, students at different grade levels and taking different courses work independently, then can break into groups or talk to teachers about their work.

Shaler's approach is one of several versions of "blended classrooms" that Pittsburgh area schools are adopting, in which online lectures and course work are mixed with classroom time to provide more flexibility and opportunity than traditional classes.

Shaler, Upper St. Clair and North Hills School District were recognized by the Blended Schools Network last year for the ways they've used a blended classroom approach.

Blended learning describes any approach that uses technology and online lessons to expand the brick-and-mortar classroom, said Jed Friedrichson, Blended Schools Network CEO.

Friedrichson founded Blended Schools as a nonprofit in Pennsylvania 12 years ago, but sold it to a holding company that moved the headquarters to Austin and made it a for-profit company last year. The company provides class materials and professional courses to develop a blended approach, along with software platforms for delivering the lessons.

The 15 to 20 students at the Shaler Area Academy might have had issues with attendance, anxiety in large social settings, or issues at home that make it harder for them to concentrate in a traditional classroom, said high school Assistant Principal JoAnne Townsend. Usually, they would have been candidates for after-school learning programs, but those were cut three years ago.

"We get them re-engaged in school by creating a family environment," Townsend said, adding that the flexibility benefits children.

Most of the instruction takes place inside the classroom where teachers are available. Program coordinator Dave DiPasquale said some students are allowed to take home laptops or use home computers to complete coursework; that could expand when the district starts issuing iPads to every ninth-grader starting next September.

North Hills School District has used blended learning tools since 2008, said Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent for Curriculum, Assessment and Special Programs.

The students they serve with online classes tend not to be in school every day, like dancers and competitive gymnasts, who often travel or practice; or homeschooled students whose parents aren't comfortable teaching advanced courses. Those students will take online classes, then go in once or twice a week to work with teachers.

Three sections of eighth-grade social studies and two sections of high school biology follow a "flipped" approach, in which students watch lectures and learn the basics online at home. Then, during class time, they solve problems and complete assignments, Taylor said.

At Upper St. Clair, a program to assign every student a district-leased, take-home iPad is expanding blended learning, Boyce Middle School math teacher Matt Henderson said.

His fifth-graders were part of the iPad pilot program that started three years ago, and he worked with the district and Blended Schools to develop a curriculum in which students can learn the day's math lesson independently online or in person with him, then must demonstrate mastery with a five-question "quick quiz."

This way, students who grasp the concepts quickly can move ahead and those who need help can work with him in a small group or one-on-one.

Joe Kush, a professor and head of Duquesne University's doctoral program in instructional technology, said blended classrooms can be adapted for each subject, student or teacher.

"If you leave technology out of it, a good teacher recognized that there are times for a lecture, times for small-group instruction, times for a video and times to bring in a guest speaker," Kush said. "Adding technology just increases what's in your toolbox."


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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

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