On Sept. 24, 1999, a Wilson Daily Times story detailed Wilson County Schools’ efforts to expand internet access.
At the time, only the school libraries and a limited number of computer clusters had access to the World Wide Web.
With analog modem technology, the rate of data transmission was 56 kilobits per second, which was less than the amount of text on a single newspaper page.
Today, using Greenlight Community Broadband, the rate is 1 gigabit per second.
Such speed allows for a whole range of uses in education, from access to webinars to use of virtual reality goggles, real-time testing results and interactive online lessons.
The possibilities are endless.
Michelle Edwards, technology coordinator for Wilson County Schools, remembers 20 years ago when the internet expanded throughout Wilson County.
“That opened up resources that we didn’t have access to before,” Edwards said. “It opened up opportunities for teachers to be more data-driven and really be able to look at the needs of the students based on the data because data was easier to collect. So that let us differentiate more in our classes and offer more individualized instruction to those who were in need.”
There have been a lot of changes in 20 years.
“We’re more connected,” Edwards said. “It is easier to collaborate across the globe, not just here in the community, and finding community partners to come in, but to be able to collaborate across the globe with people from other countries or other states or other communities nearby, and that opens up more resources again for us to learn from each other.”
TECH IN THE CLASSROOM
As a Hunt High School science teacher, Edwards’ son, Will Edwards, has been able to integrate technology in innovative ways.
“A lot of research suggests that the attention span of our students is not as great as we want, so we shouldn’t be lecturing for an hour and a half in a 90-minute block. But taking 10- to 20-minute chunks of that time and having an old-style lecture like we used to do is completely OK,” Will Edwards said. “But within that, those students also need to take time to be able to utilize that piece and explore with the technology, collaborate with that technology and have time on their own in which they can decipher and learn and bridge connections and apply that little bit of material that was taught between that 10- to 20-minute chunk.”
Science offers a multitude of resources for Edwards to incorporate.
“If I am teaching something about the human body, about DNA, that’s not something that they can physically just see, but I can have them do an interactive tutorial in which they actually get in and act as a scientist and manipulate that DNA right from their computers,” Edwards said. “They can do genetic modifications through online genetic labs, and they can actually see the impact of how the environment changes our genetics and the role that that might play and how we go about our future or whatever they may want in medicine or how we protect our environment.”
Internet access has shaped the way Edwards teaches.
“Having access in school is awesome, but having that access outside of school allows for me as a teacher to approach learning a little but differently,” Edwards said. “Not every kid has that access like I would like for them to have, but in Wilson County, we are leaders as far as that goes in trying to get the internet widespread.”
Edwards uses a “flipped classroom approach,” where learning and information-gathering happens at home.
“The actual exploring hands-on portion happens within the classroom,” Edwards said. “What it does is it allows us to have a little bit more time to dig deeper into that subject material, while the kids can go home and explore and do the research aspect and do the studying aspect that they need and get the information they need, so when they come into class they are already prepared, and they have that groundwork or that foundation laid for the lesson that day.”
Internet access helps with group projects by eliminating the struggle over coordinating rides with parents and meeting around teen work schedules.
“Now, with the internet, we can all work on a project at one time from the comforts of our home,” Edwards said.
Every assignment students receive from Edwards is submitted online.
“I get it right on my phone when it submits,” Edwards said. “I can be at home and they submit some work and I can open it up, look at it and grade it.”
The internet allows for real-time feedback on results.
“Right now, when I give a test, I have a Proctor Dashboard that I pull up. If I can see that 90% of the class is missing No. 3, I will stop right there. Let’s go back and look at No. 3. What bit of information are we not understanding? Is it a vocabulary word? Is there something there that maybe we didn’t cover? We can assess and go back to it, and then they get another opportunity to be able to adjust their answers and learn from that, and that’s something that you couldn’t do before.”
The internet assists similarly with projects.
“I will make them share their document that they are collecting their research on, and as they are going through, I can look and see what they are putting in, and that allows me to go to each group with specific questions ahead of time,” Edwards said. “‘What do you think about this?’ ‘Are you sure about that source?’ ‘Is this something that is credible?’ You can clear up misconceptions quickly, whereas you couldn’t before.”
It is also common for both teachers and students to take internet-based courses for credit and for professional development. Since the Career and College Promise online courses for high school students started in the 2013-14 school year, the number of enrollments in Wilson County has risen from 50 to 773.
INTERNET ACCESS AT HOME
“The technology certainly has been one of the biggest changes that I think of from when I was teaching in the classroom to today,” said Cheryl Wilson, associate superintendent of Wilson County Schools.
Wilson said it’s possible for there to be a resource gap between families concerning internet access. Internet is not required for assignments, but access can benefit those who have it.
Wilson said she can imagine if students are asked to produce a report, the student without internet access at home has a higher hurdle than the student with access.
“It may not be a part of the homework assignment, but it will certainly help them over that hurdle when they are doing the homework assignment and they don’t understand,” Wilson said. “The internet can be very helpful to that student who knows how to search for that, whereas the student over here who doesn’t have that as a resource may feel defeated or frustrated, and they don’t have those resources to help them.”
Wilson said internet access may not be a requirement to do the homework, but it could help students complete work faster or it could help them if there is a hurdle.
“A lot of things are internet-based, so I think it is important, but it you don’t necessarily have to have the internet to be successful once you get away from the building,” said Marquis Spell, principal at Springfield Middle School and Wilson County Schools Principal of the Year. “We are still supposed to able to supply the kids’ needs whether they have the internet or not at home.”
Wilson County Schools is participating in Sprint’s 1Million Project, which is widening access to the internet by creating mobile hot spots so students can access the internet at home.
How We Teach
In a four-part series, reporter Drew C. Wilson explores some of the new ways Wilson County Schools students are learning. Today’s story is the final installment. To read the complete series, visit WilsonTimes.com and search for “How We Teach.”