February 23, 2011
Back in September, when Nancy Amling first opened the doors to her new technology-themed high school in Chelsea, parents asked her what supplies they should buy. “I told them, ‘You don’t need supplies! We have laptops,’” Amling said.
Over the next few weeks, she and her staff learned that paper and pens have their place. But aside from the notebooks students carry around, almost nothing is traditional about Amling’s school.
Located in the basement of the Bayard Rustin Education Complex, the Hudson High School of Learning Technologies is part of the city’s massive investment in technology and online learning, known as the iZone pilot. The pilot is funded with a combination of Race to the Top money, private donations, and city tax dollars.
Hudson High School is a “blended” school, which means its teachers combine face-to-face instruction with online courses and homework assignments. Each student has a laptop and every teacher has a webpage where they can upload assignments for students to access later.
When I visited last week, students in a math class were progressing through a series of online word problems and drawing out graphs of the problems by hand. In a science class, groups of students were creating PowerPoint presentations about famous bacteria, such as the ones responsible for the bubonic plague, while the teacher floated from group-to-group.
Amling said one of the most surprising discoveries was finding how widely students’ Internet-savviness ranged. Of the 109 students in her freshman class, some showed up knowing how to design a web page, use Google Documents, and send emails with attachments. Others weren’t sure how to save a file to their laptop’s desktop.
“There is that expression: digital natives. But just because somebody knows how to send a text and get an email, doesn’t mean they know how to be digital learners,” Amling said.
Hudson High School is also textbook-less, a fact that has earned it considerable media attention. Instead of textbooks, students taking an Algebra class are enrolled in an online Algebra course. Through programs offered by Aventa and Compass, two companies that provide much of the city’s current online courseware, students can progress through a series of lessons at their own pace. The programs aren’t perfect, Amling said, and she hopes to eventually have her own teachers write online courses.
“What we find is the digital content is in its early stages right now,” Amling said. “Somebody once gave me the example of when they took radio shows and read them aloud on TV — in some way that’s what digital content looks like right now.”
Students mainly progress through the online courses at home, where the majority of them have Internet access. For the ones that have Internet but no laptops, the school has been able to give them take-home laptops that were donated. Amling said that some students’ parents had cable TV, but no Internet, and she’d been able to convince them to drop HBO in favor of getting their children online.
For all her enthusiasm about her school’s blended learning model, Amling said that if she had more money, she’d hire more teachers.
“Education is a combination of using the technology to support instruction, but it’s in the collaborative relationships where students are learning,” she said. “Because if that’s not where the important piece is, then why even have a school?”