Classroom Technology

Summer Educators ‘Mix Up’ Learning with Technology

By Ian Quillen — June 14, 2011 4 min read
Teacher Karyn Hall celebrates after a student completes a lesson in the computer lab at Hillcrest Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tenn., during a summer learning session that uses computers to help students retain more of what they learned. Summer educators across the country are seeing the use of technology as a promising strategy for keeping students engaged in learning and sharpening academic skills.

Educators are rethinking how best to use the summer to help students improve academic proficiency rather than lose a grip on it—especially students who struggle academically or lack access to educational resources during the break.

And teachers are finding technology, if harnessed correctly, can play a crucial role.

Schools may offer a fully virtual program targeting one or two subjects, for example, or a broader summer academy that incorporates bits and pieces of technology to blend summer school with summer camp. Regardless of the format, some educators find that technology gives them the opportunity to make instruction more flexible and personalized than it is during a school year bound by curricula and state testing requirements—and they’re zestfully embracing it.

And they hope the digital software and tools available to their students, along with extra positive attention, will pay off for students in the fall.

“The teachers are real cheerleaders. I’m sure this is not something that [students are] used to getting a lot of,” said Debi D. Crabtree, the coordinator of the Hamilton County Virtual School in Tennessee, which is in its second year operating a summer program for 225 of the district’s elementary and middle school students deemed most at risk of academic failure.

Anchored to brick-and-mortar computer labs in nine schools, the program in the 42,000-student Hamilton County district may not exactly reflect the unstructured, “anytime, anywhere” learning culture that virtual education’s most ardent advocates often highlight. But it does make learning more personalized by using technology to identify and address students’ specific academic weaknesses.

The program serves 25 nominated students at each participating school over four weeks. (It ran for six weeks in its inaugural year.) The program is funded through federal Title I grants under the No Child Left Behind law.

Some experts, such as those at the Baltimore-based National Summer Learning Association, or NSLA, contend the structure of a planned day with face-to-face instructors is critical to summer learning, even in technology endeavors, and especially for less advantaged students.

Value of Structure

Technology advocates often point to studies that show students from all socioeconomic backgrounds have been more able to access the Internet via public libraries or cellphones in recent years. But the NSLA’s research finds students from less-affluent backgrounds, when in an unstructured environment, typically read fewer words and engage with less challenging online material than do more economically better-off students, even if they have the same access to technology.

“When it comes to incomes and access, technology definitely benefits higher-income students more,” said Hillary Stroud, the NSLA’s director of strategic initiatives. “It’s a matter of getting that research in front of [educators].”

Ms. Crabtree said Hamilton County Virtual School students also gain a more personalized learning experience because the school receives content from Austin, Texas-based Compass Learning in the form of a content repository rather than a preformatted course. Teachers essentially create customized courses for each student, with less pressure to clear academic benchmarks within a set time, she said.

Other programs serving students who lack access to summer opportunities or struggled during the school year use a similar model to integrate virtual instruction into brick-and-mortar settings.

For example, Summer Advantage USA, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit group that will run five-week summer programs this year in 12 districts in Indiana and in the 409,000-student Chicago public schools, will use an adaptive mathematics program from TenMarks, a Newton, Mass.-based developer of instructional technology, during the programs’ three hours of morning math and literacy.

Like the Hamilton County school, Summer Advantage uses the Title I grant funding it secures to operate the programs on campus; it will reach about 5,000 students. Districts pay for facility and transportation expenses.

Summer Advantage’s program includes technology-based learning in the morning and physical education, music, and art in the afternoon. Fridays are usually for field trips or guest speakers.

“It’s critical to mix up the instruction,” said Earl M. Phalen, Summer Advantage’s founder, noting that technology use is key to doing that. “A lot of our scholars, they’re just not doing well [in school]. And you don’t want to do something for another five weeks that you have been doing all year,” he added.

Partnerships Needed

Community partnerships can also help create more-flexible, tech-centric learning opportunities.

For example, at the 400-student Loma Verde Elementary School in Novato, Calif., 60 students identified for math remediation will work with TenMarks’ standard 12-week summer program remotely, thanks in part to community donations of laptops and other technology.

The school will open its computer labs for 90 minutes a day in the last few weeks of the break, said Tehniat Cheema, a 4th grade teacher at the school.

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based Grockit, an educational social network, is giving 1,000 scholarships to its online summer academy to the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Magic Johnson Foundation, which has 18 community centers in 15 urban communities and one in rural South Carolina. Students in grades 8-12 will use the academy’s online tools to learn, basically, whatever they want.

“Some people really want a structured environment,” said Farbood Nivi, Grockit’s founder and chief executive officer. “We kind of made it so you can choose your own adventure.”

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Summer Educators ‘Mix Up’ Instruction With Technology


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