DaVinci Academy teacher Matthew Wildeboer takes advantage of the fact that his students have laptops at school, using Canvas, Hall County Schools’ web-based learning program. It allows teachers to make assignments and give students feedback on their work.
“We use Canvas pretty extensively in my class,” Wildeboer said. “I have the students go to a certain unit that I’ve prepared and have them click a link to go to the Canvas stuff. When they have writing assignments, I have them submit them on Canvas. There’s actually a lot of great opportunities on Canvas for providing writing feedback.”
With Canvas, school and teacher websites, and more than 6 million documents in Google Drive last year, the digital age is making a big impact in Hall County Schools — and it’s growing every year, according to Aaron Turpin, assistant superintendent of technology for the district.
Turpin calls the approach “blended learning.”
“As a former principal, I always expected my teachers to use the most appropriate medium to engage and connect with the boys and girls,” Turpin said. “Sometimes that’s digital and sometimes that’s not digital. It’s a blend. Very, very few kids or adults thrive in a fully online environment.”
In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irma in Hall County, the school district implemented its “school from home” in which students work on assignments through Canvas, teacher and school sites or even packets sent home with students. On Sept. 13, the first of the three school from home days, Turpin said the district reported 190,000 page views through Canvas. That day it was also reported that about 20,000 homes in the county were still without power.
But Kevin Bales, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Hall County, said parents also expressed appreciation that some elementary schools sent the packets with work home that required pencil and paper.
“One of things we’ve learned from school from home is you really need a hybrid approach,” Bales said. “I think there’s definitely a benefit when you can access the technology, and the digital learning piece has been helpful. We have started to fine-tune how we use the digital side.”
Even Wildeboer isn’t ready to get rid of pencil and paper just yet.
“With some of the activities, if I want them to annotate a poem we’re reading for English or if we’re doing a particularly deep reading of a specific work, I may want them to have an actual paper copy,” he said. “It may be my own personal preferences, but in some ways having a paper copy comes in handy. But there are a lot of times when you can just eliminate the clutter and cut down on the paper usage by using the electronic resources.”
Eighth-grade students in one of Wildeboer’s English classes said that while they like the digital learning more, they see the benefits of both.
Alex Holman said he likes the fact that he can get immediate grades on some quizzes and that he has an app on his phone where he can check grades in all of his classes. But digital learning has its limits.
“Paper won’t short-circuit or get a virus, and you don’t need to charge it,” Holman said.
Mackenzie Hulsey, another of Wildeboer’s students, said she prefers to take math notes with paper, but added, “Sometimes, it’s just easier online than with paper. It’s easier to lose something with paper than with Google Drive. It saves automatically without even trying to save.”
Another student, Alex Zonnenberg, said the digital sites allow students to turn in assignments day or night.
“Since you’re turning it in digitally, one less of a benefit about paper is you have to turn it in the exact day of,” he said. “You can’t spend a night working on it. But with the technology you can spend the night working on it and then turn it in digitally.
“Paper sometimes has its uses when you can’t bring a computer or don’t want to use one,” he added. “Sometimes it’s the other way where you don’t want to use paper and you want to use the computer, because the computer will make it easier and you can automatically sort everything that you write.”
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the emphasis on technology will continue to grow, but he doesn’t expect digital learning to replace all pencil and paper.
“This whole idea of a paperless society is a misnomer,” he said. “Everybody talks about ‘we’re going to go paperless,’ and I don’t see anybody going paperless.
“I think (digital learning) will continue to grow,” Schofield added. “It will never replace the human interaction that only a teacher can provide. It’s an incredibly powerful management tool, but we know that one of the most important components of effective learning has to do with relationships and the feedback that we get. You won’t see the Hall County School District moving toward technology replacing teachers. They can’t be replaced.”
In the Gainesville City School System, students and teachers don’t use Canvas, but there are ways that digital learning is being used, including online testing for the Georgia Milestones and the use of Google, which offers digital opportunities for teachers and students, according to Keith Palmer, the district’s director of technology.
“With Google apps for education, you can set up certain kinds of tests where it grades it for you, so the kids get instant feedback,” Palmer said. “The teacher can set up tests or worksheets and it automatically knows what students are in what class and every student has an email address. So, from anywhere in the world, they can see their work and they can respond to it.
“If they want to look up something and they want facts, digital is great,” he added. “It’s not like the old days when you had to search through an encyclopedia. You get all your facts right there. It’s certainly good for so many things, testing, things like that.”
While he believes digital learning will continue to grow, Palmer sees some drawbacks.
“You’re still going to have some kids who don’t have internet access at home,” he said.