Case Study: Palm Beach County Schools Embrace Online Teaching Tool

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Always on the prowl for technology tools that will help its educators do their jobs, deliver more materials to their fingertips, and create a safe learning environment for students, Palm Beach County School District recently rolled out an online teaching tool that's helping teachers collaborate with each other and, ultimately, with their students.

Powered by My Portfolio, the K-12 "safe search" tool, netTrekker d.i. allows educators to create, organize and share content for standards-based instruction with fellow teachers within the district, which comprises 168,342 students in 184 schools. Jonathan Decker, technology program specialist, said the district has had a "safe surfing" training program in place for teachers and that the new acquisition dovetails well with those existing efforts.

Created by Cincinnati-based Thinkronize Inc., netTrekker d.i. is a K-12 educational search tool that transforms digital content into custom-designed resources for educators and students. Unlike search engines, the solution provides access to more than 300,000 digital resources that have been evaluated by a team of expert educators for quality and for academic appropriateness, organized by grade and readability level and aligned with state standards.

My Portfolio is used by both individual teachers and district curriculum staff to create project-based learning activities and units for standards-based instruction. Educators are using the solution's customized features to scaffold, save, and share digital content, including resources found in netTrekker d.i. and from third parties. They can add content to their portfolios--templates, timeline and famous person search results, and images--and then, like a digital file cabinet, create folders for organization.

Purchased with funding from the district's educational technology department, netTrekker d.i. was one of several online teacher tools that were on Decker's radar screen for several years. "We'd seen it presented at various trade shows, and it was always of interest to us," said Decker. "When the vendor started including new refinement toolbars and the ability to share resources between users, it seemed like the right time to make the investment."

Introduced to teachers at the district's annual technology conference in March 2008, the solution is accessible by all schools and includes home access. "It provides a valuable service to a large number of users," said Decker, who worked with Thinkronize to ensure that the system provided "one click" access from school. "This has been very helpful in creating very high usage quickly. We anticipate continued growth of usage for the foreseeable future."

Through the system, the district is able to provide a variety of safe searching tools to both students and teachers. "We've begun training our teachers on a number of ways to collect, share and even add to their instruction using a number of the tools built into their teacher accounts," explained Decker.

At a district level, Decker and his team has gathered groups of "content experts," who have begun to create and catalog collections of netTrekker d.i. resources that are aligned with state standards and courses. "We're providing these collections to all of our teachers both through the shared folders in netTrekker and by directly embedding the links to the collections in online lesson plans," he said, adding that this provides "just in time" access to a large number of digital resources.

"Our teachers then build on these collections to create and collaborate around their own portfolios at the school level," said Decker, "and share many of these resources with their students through their course specific Web presence."

Joel Petersen, vice president of strategic relations for Thinkronize, said the netTrekker d.i. implementation presented a few challenges, including the fact that the vendor was working with the district's existing Web portal. "They had already invested millions of dollars in the program, and needed a solution that was flexible enough to work within that portal," said Petersen. Another obstacle during implementation was the sheer number of teachers in the state's fifth-largest school district.

"Anytime you have a large district trying to disseminate information to different areas, it presents challenges," said Petersen. To solve the problem, the vendor worked with the district to develop a number of training sessions and events designed to introduce the solution to its teachers. "Getting the word out--and making sure that word filtered down to every teacher within the district--is never an easy task," said Petersen.

Decker concurred, and said his aim was to make the implementation process as simple as possible for the vast number of students and teachers that would be using it. On a smaller scale, he said that sharing information resources through the school's existing, internal firewall has also presented challenges that were "fairly simple to work through."

With school budgets in Florida slashed due to economic conditions, Decker said the district has no immediate plans to add more technology tools in 2009, although it will continue to maximize the capabilities of its existing infrastructure. "We'll be on status quo for a while," he said, "but we still have avenues to explore with netTrekker d.i., such as the use of individual student logins and other capabilities that we're not taking advantage of yet."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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