How Is ‘Back to School’ Changing?

By Brett Frazier, senior vice president, Blackboard Inc.

This past month as millions of young people traded in their baseball bats for backpacks, teachers, parents, students – and Blackboard staff – experienced the familiar rituals of Back to School.  That got me thinking: technology changes a lot – how we create content, collaborate with our peers and find information.  Do today’s tech-savvy students experience a different Back to School transition than past generations?
Young people who grew up with smartphones and laptops—what we at Blackboard call active learners—didn’t store away their gadgets for the summer. They’re continuing to use the Internet and the fun, educational apps on the market to explore the world and exercise their minds, regardless of whether school is in or out of session.
Traditionally, one of the most exciting parts of going back to school has been the social aspect—meeting new classmates, reconnecting with old friends and sharing summer adventures. But technology is changing this part of Back to School too. With social media, students are keeping friends updated on their activities instantly, even during the summer months. Students are also using social media and learning management systems (LMSs) like Blackboard Learn to connect with new classmates before they ever meet them in person, lessening the anxiety of starting fall classes in a new school or district.
Apprehension about academics is another part of the Back to School ritual. Starting new classes—and meeting new teachers—can be simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking. Now, LMSs are easing the transition by making it possible to interact with teachers and classmates, and browse syllabi and course reading materials, long before the first bell rings.
Over the summer months, active learners stay connected and learn through applications, social platforms and eBooks.  Teachers integrate these resources into lesson planning as they prepare curricula for the new school year. By doing so they’re bridging the gap between the way students live and the way they learn.  Many schools are taking summer learning a step further with robust online programs and year round technology.  Here are two examples of Blackboard clients changing what Back to School means for their students.
Rising and current high school students at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) can use the Internet for more than social media and educational apps and games over the summer – students can complete classes for original credit, for credit recovery or to improve a grade.  For FCPS, it’s a cost effective option that solves a critical need.  When budget pressures forced Fairfax to close some summer school options, their online school stayed open.
And as Fairfax administrators make clear to students: these virtual courses are rigorous, academically challenging and require a substantial commitment on the part of the student. But while the time commitment is similar to face-to-face, the courses are different.  And that’s a good thing.  FCPS online summer school courses are written specifically for the Internet, using advanced features and functionality available only online like multimedia components, animated tutorials and interactive exercises. Moreover, they are designed to provide for robust conversations between the teacher and students.  I’ve heard from many teachers that students are more likely to speak up in an online environment – it’s a medium that’s more familiar to students and eases their comfort with asking questions and giving an opinion.  So for at-risk students in summer school, online communication is a clear benefit.
FCPS also offers online English language instruction over the summer, online.  FCPS took advantage of federal support for online language training to fund their English as a Second Language (ESOL) program. The program includes interactive reading and writing instruction, a three hour a day program, including one synchronous hour a day, for three weeks in July, for middle and high school students, free of charge.
Piedmont City School District in Alabama adopted a 1-to-1 program, providing students with laptop computers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even better, this program allows active learners to retain the devices over the summer, extending the learning experience but not the need for class hours. They also adopted online resource sharing using Blackboard Learn to keep pace with their roughly 1,100 active learners. Students can now pull digital content for projects online in an environment that’s familiar and where they commonly seek out answers. Moreover, they have access to top quality content all year round. Piedmont’s next priority is to ensure each student’s home is equipped with wireless Internet access so learners can attend full courses over the summer.
Technology is changing education in so many ways. We shouldn’t be surprised that students and teachers are experiencing a different kind of transition back to the classroom than generations past. Just as technology has changed what it means to be a student in the 21st century, technology is changing how students adjust to the classroom after two months of summer vacation. I think this is a trend that is here to stay.
Photo courtesy of BigStock.

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