Baltimore, MD, United States
Having 174 public schools in a single system can seem hard to handle, even more so when there is a worldwide transition into digital and blended learning. 174 is the number of schools, centers, and programs in the Baltimore County Public Schools system, and together they educate over 111,000 students. It’s a challenge to understand that each of those students has specific needs and specific interests, and that each has a different goal in terms of building his or her education and future.
Jim Fazzino is the Supervisor of E-Learning in Baltimore County Public Schools, and works with any BCPS middle or high school interested in allowing its students to access E-Learning. BCPS defines the E-Learning program as distance, blended learning. Students accessing E-Learning may (or may not) attend a traditional school for some classes and spend a different part of their day attending digital classes or virtual seminars on a variety of topics or subjects.
Just as writing on stone was the predecessor of paper, the telephone was the predecessor of E-Learning for Baltimore County. There used to be a model in Baltimore County where students would phone into a conference call with the teacher and have conversations about assignments and listen to a class. This was happening about five years ago, when people started thinking differently about meeting the needs of each student.
E-Learning in Baltimore County Public Schools works to provide innovative solutions to scheduling challenges.
There are some students who want to take an advanced-placement class that is not offered at their school, so the need exists to create class options during and outside traditional school hours. Jim Fazzino works with schools and other central office leaders to identify student course needs and develop solutions. Some students want to take additional math courses when they get to high school, so E-Learning runs additional math classes from mid- March until August to support middle school students’ goals.
Some students may have personal or health reasons for not being able to attend a traditional school, and have the option of E-Learning classes. Others simply want to graduate earlier, and use E-Learning to increase their number of credits. BCPS uses a co-enrolment process, which enables students to attend traditional schools and take eLearning courses. To this end, a central office for E-Learning was created.
Jim says that teachers see the value in providing students non-stop access to education. Although the day can’t be longer than 24 hours, the fact is that learning never ends. With this model, students are able to meet and interact with teachers and classmates during regularly scheduled live webinars, access digital content at any time of the day or night, message teachers throughout the day, and submit work when they are confident that they are ready. Teachers are able to customize learning based on students’ needs, and often allow students flexibility in how they want to explore material or demonstrate mastery.
Jim has 13 full-time E-Learning teachers on staff, and demand is so high that another dozen teachers from traditional schools teach E-Learning classes as an extra-pay duty in the afternoons or weekends. Some retired teachers with vast experience in education also wanted to get in on the movement, and teach a couple of digital classes per year. In all, there are about 35 different classes delivered through E-Learning, and many of them have multiple sections.
Blackboard Open LMS is one of the platforms they use to host content and facilitate coursework, and they have been using it since 2011. Jim explains that Blackboard Open LMS allowed them to negotiate as a team how best to structure digital content and discover best practices in delivering content to students. He says it represented a great learning opportunity for them, as an E-learning office, to have serious conversations and determine some best practices in blended learning.
Education and opportunity are definitely the backbone of E-Learning, but along with them comes a responsibility to allow all students to have the same tools. If a student doesn’t have a device or internet access to attend E-Learning classes, BCPS will loan him or her one and provide the necessary resources to make it happen. And this doesn’t stop at students. BCPS also gives teachers in the county professional development to support the use of blended learning practices. E-Learning is one of the many programs BCPS embraces in its STAT initiative—a system wide digital conversion where students and teachers in traditional schools are moving toward blended learning in student-centered environments. Jim adds, “BCPS E-Learning services about 1,000 students a year, and it’s great to be part of the BCPS Team where we are all working together to increase achievement for our 111,127 students. We are constantly learning from our partners in the classrooms, and sharing our digital teaching experiences with them.”
This is a constantly evolving program, and the beauty of it is that education will never stop, neither after high school nor after college. The implementation of E-Learning is just one more step that Baltimore County Public Schools has taken to improve opportunities for student success.
* Jim Fazzino is the E-Learning supervisor for Baltimore County Public Schools.
* Photos by: AFP Yuri Gripas.