NEWINGTON - The school district is piloting its very first online class, in hopes of broadening students’ learning opportunities, meeting state education requirements and expanding public knowledge of a fairly new subject.
It’s called Digital Citizenship, and it involves making responsible choices while conducting oneself on a mobile phone or computer, which are so entrenched in our modern world.
The tale of how this pilot course came to Newington High School begins with the state Department of Education upping the required credit load of high school graduates from 20 to 25, effective beginning with the Class of 2023.
Newington Public Schools’ Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kristen Freeman started looking for creative ways to present coursework that allowed students the freedom to explore a topic of interest on their own and simultaneously earn school credits.
“Because there are only so many hours in a day, kids are really limited with the courses they can explore,” Freeman pointed out. “We thought if there was a way for them to take a course online it would give them a little more freedom in their schedules.”
Freeman reached out to educational technology experts at Newington’s two middle schools to help create the course: Donald Vallera, who teaches at John Wallace and Lori Baylock-Tomkiewicz, from Martin Kellogg. The pair frequently collaborate on curriculum and supportive tech integration at the staff level.
They started with Google Sites as a platform and CommonSenseMedia.org as a resource.
“We slowly built the curriculum online, matching it to the necessary standards, and then tested it out from the online learner perspective,” Baylock-Tomkiewicz explained.
The self-directed system allows students to work at their own pace, often a barrier to traditional classroom instruction.
“We put together a website that has everything a student would need to be successful,” Vallera said.
NHS guidance counselors helped identify 12 sophomores to pilot the self-directed online curriculum, composed of six units which they must complete by March 31.
After that, Freeman will assess how it went and make any necessary modifications.
“So far so good,” she said. “I want to make sure this course is easy to navigate for students so we can make it fully available to freshmen and sophomores, along with incoming freshmen by the end of this school year.”
Although the framework is now in place for future opportunities, this course does not mark the beginning of a digital school model.
“I firmly believe there is no substitute for schools and classroom teachers,” Freeman explained. “We value in-person learning and we value our schools as communities. It is my hope this one course will provide insight on ways we might be able to supplement classroom learning with online classes or identify particular coursework that is more suitable to online learning. We want to make sure we move forward critically and thoughtfully with the best interests of students in mind.”
Vallera and Baylock-Tomkiewicz have been trying to teach their students the value of being good digital citizens, but there hasn’t been focused curriculum in NPS until now.
“We’re hoping to show students that it’s important to be successful digital citizens,” Vallera said. “We call students digital natives because they were brought up with it. Their parents are digital immigrants because they were never taught the appropriate ways to use digital media and they don’t necessarily have the information they need to be good digital role models. We want kids to collaborate, communicate and be creative to get all of the 21st century skills they need to have before they graduate,” Vallera added.
Baylock-Tomkiewicz pointed out that kids now more than ever, need guidance on being smarter consumers and producers of online media.
“I hope that it opens students’’ minds and eyes to the importance of maintaining a safe, ethical and meaningful digital life,” she said. “I am hoping this is a segue to more conversations about digital citizenship, and more classes focusing on it in Newington.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at email@example.com.