Leveraging E-Content at Charles County Public Schools

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As any new teacher finds out, putting together lesson plans when you're first starting out is an immense amount of work. A pilot program at Charles County Public Schools, located in Maryland just south of Washington, DC, reduces that time hugely by allowing teachers to easily share their course curriculums online.

Perhaps as a result, the district has seen student test scores rise. Across Charles County, student test scores in Algebra 1 rose 27 percent in the 2005-2006 academic year, the first year the technology was introduced. Biology teachers recorded a 14 percent increase.

The district is trying out entirely online curriculums in its algebra, government and biology classes so far, using software that allows teachers to put their entire curriculums on the computer. The program also saves experienced teachers time, allowing them to share lesson plans and content with others, and create more engaging classroom presentations.

The pilot program, which was developed with teacher participation at Charles County Public Schools, uses electronic textbooks and content stored in a digital repository from VitalSource called Bookshelf.

According to Jennifer Branum, a Charles County math teacher who teaches Algebra 1 to eighth graders and has worked closely on the project, "this has really made a huge difference." Branum attributed the jump in test scores to the additional instruction time she now has available to work with students.

The Digital Curriculum
All curriculum content in the district, including lesson plans, textbooks, state and local guidelines, additional resources from textbook publishers, and answer keys for teachers, can be downloaded into the digital curriculum. Worksheets, handouts, quizzes, tests, and other information teachers use during class is included; during class, all of that content is just a click away. Charles County teachers don't have to use the online content if they prefer their own lesson plans, or they can mix and match as they choose.

The contents of Bookshelf are in a copyrighted, interactive VitalBooks format that allows highlighting and bookmarking; teachers can make notes or add and change lesson plan content as they choose. VitalBooks uses an Internet connection when it's available, or it can be used offline. VitalSource also negotiates access to textbooks online from leading publishing houses. VitalSource also indexes all content and includes advanced search features.

Branum, who was part of an original task force at Charles County Public Schools that worked with VitalSource to develop curriculum on the Bookshelf platform, is using the online content in a variety of ways. Those include quick "warm-up" exercises in Bookshelf that she projects on the classroom whiteboard through an LCD projector as students enter class each day. She also displays worksheets, class work, and games used for review, including a version of "Jeopardy," all stored in Bookshelf and easily accessible.

Rather than passing out and collecting worksheets, Branum displays content on the classroom screen and works through problems in class with students. "It really streamlines everything.... It's amazing how much additional class time I have."

As an example, a Local, State and National Government teacher preparing to teach a typical content unit now has access, through Bookshelf, to The Declaration of Independence, a document analysis worksheet, C-Span in the Classroom, and more.

The project got its start two years ago, when Branum, who is head of the math department, was working with a team of teachers to create a digital format for the mathematics curriculum.

Despite its convenience, Branum said, the online content doesn't replace textbooks--something textbook companies were concerned about. With the Bookshelf content, "we enhance using the textbooks, [we don't] replace them."

Time Savings, Collaboration
A big benefit of VitalSource is a reduction in the time Branum spends planning lessons. "I've gone from having to carry home a huge stack of binders… to just carrying my laptop."

Branum, who has taught for six years, said that online lesson plans could be a lifesaver for a new teacher. "I had to create everything from scratch.... You'd beg, borrow and steal. 'How do you teach this?' 'May I please have a copy of that?' There's so much learning involved in your first year."

A newer version of Bookshelf features social networking technology that allows faculty to share best practices, lesson plans, and even tests with new teachers in a chat room area.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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