Massachusetts: Virtual Education Space Provides Valuable Tools for Springfield Public Schools

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Excitement and interest were in evidence during the October 1999 Massachusetts Department of Education's Virtual Education Space (VES) presentation about a set of services and interconnected online tools that were being designed for use by educators, students and parents to improve standards-based curriculum, instruction, assessment and student achievement. The two administrators from the Springfield Public Schools who had been invited to participate in the working group for this cutting-edge venture- Robert Hamel, assistant to the superintendent, and I - were extremely energized about the potential that this innovative concept was showcasing.

As the project grew and moved forward, Paula Moran, a Springfield Public Schools teacher assigned to the position of district technology integration specialist, joined the burgeoning group as a VES cluster leader and became Springfield's VES liaison, trainer, account manager and resident expert. After the official VES rollout, Springfield began to register and train representatives from its 48 schools. Before long, teachers from across the district were utilizing the VES calendar, virtual hard drive, discussion forums and instructional resources, including practice questions for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

The district users began to recognize VES as a tool for communication, collaboration and curriculum/technology integration. The innovative world of VES targeted a distinct way to keep educators connected and "in-the-know," organized, efficient, and effective.

Keeping Educators Connected and 'In-the-Know'

Teachers and administrators in the Springfield Public Schools log in to VES to see just-in-time announcements regarding curriculum resources, conferences, training and other resources, which can be posted by the Massachusetts Department of Education, special interest groups, individual schools and the district. Each user is able to categorize and select which announcements need to be viewed and acted upon.Discussion forums provide the opportunity for busy administrators and teachers to engage in asynchronous discussions whenever time is available. Having the capability to engage in threaded discussions anytime and anywhere offers users a distinctively timely and robust mode of communication.

The calendar function of VES is another tool that has proven useful to Springfield educators. For example, one instructional technology specialist uses the calendar to schedule embedded professional development with her colleagues. She allows teachers in the building to access her calendar and, from their classrooms or their homes, they schedule time with her. This makes the embedded professional development scheduling process much more efficient, allowing the teachers more time for instructional use. In addition, the calendar is used to post classroom assignments and events, as well as allows parents to view the calendar through a related URL.

Keeping Educators Organized, Efficient

The Virtual Hard Drive (VHD) is one of the first dynamic VES tools introduced to educators. Teachers and administrators in Springfield use this virtual tool to store and access files from wherever they have access to the Internet. Carrying floppy disks and/or other storage media between home and school, or when traveling, is no longer necessary. As a tool to support presentations and workshops, the VHD is indispensable. It provides itinerant resource teachers with easy access to multiple files instantaneously from any computer with Internet access - a much more efficient and much less problematic process. In addition, through the use of shared folders, the VHD is used to share files between colleagues - with curriculum resources, Department of Education documents and e-books only a few of the resources readily available through the Virtual Hard Drive.

Keeping Educators Effective

Searching for instructional resources is facilitated through links to "MarcoPolo" and the recently released "Teaching and Learning Resources" databases. Teachers use these tools to search for standards-based, curriculum-aligned lesson plans as well as professional development materials. Both resources point the teachers to multiple sites that are useful for lesson planning and implementation. A wide variety of clearly cataloged sites provides multiple interactive lessons that engage students in rigorous and compelling ways.

Another resource that promises to be invaluable for the district is the TSAT (Technology Self-Assessment Tool), which was rolled out earlier this year. Springfield has started to use the tool to assess technology skill levels and analyze the data to assess the professional development needs of the teachers and administrators in the district. District and school administrators, as well as teachers who participate in technology workshops, have all taken the TSAT. When educators log on, they are presented with a list of skills that are related to three areas:

  1. Technology Operations and Concepts;
  2. Ethics and Safety; and
  3. Teaching and Learning with Technology.

Users check off the skills that they feel they have mastered and are instantly told where their current skill level lies: Early Technology, Developing Technology, Proficient or Advanced. Educators may take the assessment as many times as they wish, always being kept aware of their current skill level and needs. Personal results are private, but aggregate results are accessible to the VES administrators. This increases the comfort level of educators, ensuring them that personal results are known only to the logged-in user.

The Students

Students in grades 9-11 were given access to the Princeton MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) Review through VES during a two-year pilot launch. Teachers were able to assign support lessons based on assessments that the students participated in when they first logged on to VES.

Future Plans

This summer, about 90 foreign language teachers from across the district will participate in VES training. They will be trained in the use of all aspects of VES and anticipate using it to communicate regularly with each other, as well as with the director of foreign languages.

Discussion forms will also be set up for affinity groups (i.e., grade levels, language being taught, etc.) as well as the entire cadre of teachers. In addition, all of the teachers will take the TSAT so that future professional development can be designed based upon their specific technology needs.

As the number of VES users increases in the district, both the VHD and the discussion forums will continue to provide valuable support for the work that needs to be done to educate our students in the most supportive manner possible. As a resource, VES will continue to offer a repository of standards-based curriculum that promotes high student achievement. Today's future with VES looks even more exciting than in 1999, as it has become a reliable tool for all educators in Massachusetts. It is clear that comfort with technology is a necessary step toward integration. VES provides valuable tools for Springfield educators as their comfort with technology grows and as they integrate the technology throughout all of curriculum and instruction.

Online Resources

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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