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Schools Going Online

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
September 2007 Issue
August 11, 2007


Schools Going Online

Maybe you remember “forgetting” to give a report card to your parents or you might have tried to change a minus to a plus. In a few short years, paper report cards are likely to be as unknown to students as rotary phones.

Colleges have already moved grades and course schedules online. The College of the Sequoias posts grades and transcripts online, where a student can view and print his or her records at any time. The CSU and UC systems also allow students to check their progress online.

Some school districts are putting records and schedules online, too. These systems allow parents to check current class work, attendance, and overall grades. Imagine the ability to see what your son our daughter is doing and compare that to the “old days” before computerized grades. You can’t change a grade or lose a report card if it is online for your parents to see.

While most Central Valley schools aren’t posting assignments and grades, you can get a lot of information about what is expected of your child. The Internet definitely makes it easier to be an involved parent. One of the easiest things to do is ask teachers if they mind exchanging e-mail addresses. My uncle told me that he asked some of his son’s middle school teachers if it would be okay to ask about grades each month — and more often during big projects. The teachers were thrilled.

Most teachers want involved parents, within reason. Asking to exchange monthly e-mails is not only reasonable, but helps the teacher. If a students knows that a parent is contacting the school regularly, he or she is much more likely to be a positive member of the classroom.

I teach college, but I have still had parents of 18-year-old students ask for copies of my syllabus. I cannot give an adult’s grades to a parent, but I can say, “This week we will be working on video presentations.” It’s amazing how powerful an informed parent is.

When I use BlackBoard to record grades, the Web-based teaching tool at Fresno State and many other universities, I know that some students won’t have easy access at all times. I admit this isn’t ideal, but I also realize that the time I can spend helping one student online is offset by the time I can spend helping other students in my office. Even though parents cannot access the system, I find students do share their online work with their families.

Every grade I give appears in a “spreadsheet” window, along with class averages on assignments so a student knows if his or her work is comparable to that of others. Assignment requirements are also online, with grading checklists, so a student cannot say that expectations weren’t clear. I can require students to go online because the universities where I have taught have computer labs open to all students. Nothing should come as a surprise to my students, thanks to the Web.

Just as I post my syllabus online, Visalia Unified and other school districts have posted class information on the Web. High school courses are outlined, in detail, on the VUSD site (http://visalia.k12.ca.us/curriculum/outlines/). For general information relating to all grade levels and instructional goals, the state and district “curriculum map” is online (http://visalia.k12.ca.us/curriculum/).

Now, just to make sure students really dislike this column, I want to encourage parents to visit another great resource: the California “Recommended Literature” Web site (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/ll/). Nothing seems to improve writing skills more than reading, but it is hard for a parent to know what books are age and ability appropriate for a student. The California Department of Education provides summaries of more than 2700 books, including information on reading and comprehension difficulty.

Teachers need parents to support reading lists and homework assignments. Students will try to tell parents that a book or an assignment is “too hard” for a variety of reasons. However, an informed parent can honestly respond, “Thousands of other students read this book each year.” Having a Web site support you is a great thing. No longer can a student suggest his or her teacher is particularly tough or even “mean” for assigning Of Mice and Men or Lord of the Flies.

While exploring the VUSD Web site and the pages for specific schools, I did have some problems. These might be because of my browser or the larger screen I use. I also had some problems with one California DOE site. I suggest using the FireFox Web browser for the best online experience.

In some ways, this points to a challenge facing our local schools. Central Valley schools have limited resources to meet those challenges, but I believe a move to more online services would appeal to many parents and teachers. True, not every parent will have access to the Internet, and people have suggested this isn’t fair to all students and parents, but we need to adopt technologies for the future.

I do want to discourage teachers from trying to implement online technologies outside their school-sanctioned systems. Last year, I stumbled upon courses being hosted via Yahoo Groups and even one course on Blogger. This exposes student discussions and teacher comments to the entire Internet community. I know I would never want comments from a course posted for anyone to see.

Instead, teachers interested in technology should join with parents to help our local districts develop reasonable and cost-effective Web applications. Maybe we start with simple “feedback” and “contact” e-mail forms for schools. Eventually, full-featured systems could be employed when parent demand justifies the expense.

I encourage parents and educators to learn to about PowerSchool, BlackBoard, and other systems our schools might consider. Any system licensed by a school district should meet the needs of parents and teachers first; administrative tasks can be supplemented by almost any of the major Web tools for schools. If parents don’t use a system, the system isn’t worth any amount of money.

When report cards finally become a memory, I won’t be the least bit nostalgic. Online records will give parents and teachers new lines of communication. As long as the parent-teacher conference isn’t conducted via a chat program or Web camera, I think the future holds a lot of promise for educators.

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