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Chester County Press

Teachers praise learning management system in U-CF schools

01/13/2015 11:06AM ● By J. Chambless

The way students learn is changing, and two of the teachers who have been at the forefront of new technology in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District shared their impressions at a meeting on Jan. 12.

The Curriculum and Educational Technology Committee heard from Unionville High School teachers Trevor Tredway and Jodi Byrne about their experiences as two of 20 teachers who have been integrating the Canvas learning management system (LMS) in their classwork since last summer as part of a pilot program. Canvas is one of many systems used nationwide, but both teachers said they have grown to love the many features it offers.

John Nolen, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, explained that, "The teacher is the critical component with this system. At the end of the day, it's the teacher who sets up these resources. The LMS just provides a digital framework to organize the information."

In the past, some teachers have embraced online learning as part of their courses, while others have relied on varying degrees of online resources. What the district-wide LMS will do is standardize what students can expect from one course to the next at the elementary and high-school levels. Using their own devices, or using tablets supplied by the teachers, students can log in to the LMS and see an entire course laid out for them.

Tredway explained how he set up each of the math courses he teaches, showing how each one is divided into chapters with links to notes, online explanatory videos, online practice tests and more. "Students can take a practice test, for instance," Tredway said, "get their scores right away and see the correct answers when they're done. The teacher can track the time it takes students to complete a test, or how many times they may take it. A teacher can also set up a timed test. All the LMS material can be projected in the classroom, so students do not need to bring a device every day."

One big advantage to the system is that students can access video tutorials at home, and play them as many times as they need. They can review class notes provided by the teacher, or print the notes and bring them to class if they wish. Tredway showed a link to a sketch pad program that allows students and teachers to draw their own geometric figures and manipulate them.

The math textbook company, Pearson, provides its own online content and integrates into other learning management systems and online resources, even allowing teachers to film themselves teaching a particular point. Making sure that all necessary notes are complete and available means that no students will miss a critical bit of information.

"Everything is in one place," Tredway said. "Every student has the complete information. That's the great advantage of this."

Byrne, an English teacher, showed how she has organized one of her courses, Americal Literature Survey. "In a world of movies and the internet and online games, to see things makes a huge difference to students," she said. "When I started the LMS, it was a little intimidating for them, but they have really adapted, and they prefer it now."

Byrne keeps her entire course in the LMS, with links to notes, quizzes, chapter content and a limitless array of options, including places for students to message each other about class material. Students can complete an assignment and then submit it directly to the teacher online for grading and comments.

"I've had students say they don't even need a notebook anymore, because everything is right here," Byrne said.

For tests, students are given an access code only at the beginning of the test. They then log in and complete the test. The LMS scrambles the order of the questions to each device, Byrne said, so students sitting next to each other cannot glance over and copy the correct answers from their neighbor.

"My classroom looks different," with students working on their devices, Byrne said, "but it's not like we're just typing and nobody's talking to each other. Today, for instance, we took our devices and looked at the questions, but they were all discussing their answers. It's very interactive, and it's increasing opportunities for interaction."

Students who might be reticent about speaking up in class can enter their thoughts online, Byrne said, and that opens doors for discussion either online or during class time.

Another benefit is that, once a class is entered into the LMS, it is stored for other teachers who may teach the course in coming years. They can add their own links or rearrange the material, but there's an immediate blueprint for each course.

"This course will have another teacher next year," Byrne said, "but she already has this living syllabus at her fingertips."

Entering the course material is time-consuming at first, the teachers agreed, but once it is finished, the course runs very smoothly.

School board member Kathleen Do said, "For this to work, we'll need this dedication from every teacher. Some teachers will have to be dragged into this," she said, "but to be successful, it will require the buy-in of pretty much all our teachers and principals."

Nolen agreed, saying, "Our teachers have seen how efficient this is. But if this is going to stick and move forward, it's because it is good for our kids."

The pilot program for the LMS is structured to last three to four years. In March, the school board will be asked for their vote on whether to move forward with expanding the LMS program. "The feedback has been very positive from the 20 teachers who have been part of this pilot program," Nolen said.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail [email protected].