eBackpack: making smart parts a whole teaching system

Students in Kayla Harris' fourth-grade language arts class at Moss Hill Elementary listen to stories she's recorded for their iPads and made accessible to them through eBackpack, LCPS's innovative classroom workflow system.

Students in Kayla Harris’ fourth-grade language arts class at Moss Hill Elementary listen to stories she’s recorded for their iPads and made accessible to them through eBackpack, LCPS’s innovative classroom workflow system.

When Kayla Harris began teaching elementary school — which actually was just a year ago — she gave her students spelling tests in much the same way she had taken them back in the day. She called out the words and the students took a crack at writing them down. If for some reason she had to give a different spelling test to a smaller group of students, she herded them off to the side and repeated the process.

Sound familiar? Probably. That’s the way spelling tests have been given since spelling tests were invented.

Not this year, not in LCPS’s elementary schools.

Students in Harris’ fourth-grade class at Moss Hill Elementary School get ready for a spelling test by taking out their headphones and powering up their iPads. They open the document that is that day’s test, touch an icon that cues their teacher’s recorded voice and write their answers on the digital document.

“I have recorded my voice for all the spelling words,” Harris explained. “Students who have (special needs) accommodations only have to worry about the first 10, while the rest of the class has 20. They write their answers and shoot it to me.”

Her students “shoot” Harris their completed tests via eBackpack, a classroom workflow system that has become a key component of LCPS’s digital learning initiative, not just for classroom use, but also as a vital bridge between teacher and parents. (Harris and Alex Rice, one of her students, demonstrated eBackpack for members of the Lenoir County Board of Education in February https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1QFCpLwNLs)

Though in use less than half the current school year by tech-savvy teachers like Harris and for a shorter duration by teachers facing a steeper learning curve, eBackpack already allows for the fullest expression of the digital classroom and offers advantages both obvious, like reducing paper use, and surprising, like increasing communications between teachers and parents.

“The kids love eBackpack,” Harris said. “They love being able to go in and record their voice, to add drawings, to comment to me and know I can see it immediately when they submit it. We still do stuff on paper, but they love eBackpack. It’s getting them interested in what they’re learning in a new way. Anything they do differently that’s out of their routine just interests them.”

It’s not much of an overstatement to say that iLCPS, the digital learning project that put iPads in the hands of 4,300 elementary students in LCPS last fall, would be a collection of parts — albeit, very smart parts — without a management system like eBackpack. By moving documents between teacher and students, by automatically recording test grades, by giving parents an electronic window on classroom work and grades, by keeping student work in the digital realm as much as a teacher wants, by allowing teachers to communicate to a single student or an entire classroom in writing or in spoken word, eBackpack is the glue that turns thousands of digital tablets into a teacher-driven learning system.

The real beauty of the system isn’t in what it does, but in what it allows teachers to do. It opens the door to individualized learning, that goal to which all good teachers aspire but few reach simply because there’s only one of them per classroom.

“It’s been nice having this tool with students who have accommodations,” Harris said. “It puts me in a place of being able to be in multiple places at once. They are in control of their learning and that’s so nice. They like being in control of their learning.”

Harris often uses her iPad to record herself reading stories. The class can all listen to the same story or different stories, depending on the lesson and students’ abilities.

“The first time I read a story, I read it to them all together and record it,” Harris said. “We have a discussion about it and then they can go back later and listen to it as many times as I want them to. I don’t have to go back and continue to read it to them. I can have a small group working while they’re listening to the story.”

The same principle applies to other situations with students who have Individualized Learning Plans that require teachers to, for example, read test questions to them, rather than students’ reading themselves.

“Used to, I would read one question over here and read another question over there and read another question there, and it gets overwhelming,” she said. “Now they just stick their headphones in the iPad and they listen to every question read aloud by me and they can go back and rewind, they can fast-forward, they do it at their own pace.”

Lest you think that teaching with iPads is impersonal, that the devices function as intermediaries and that teachers in tech-oriented classrooms like Harris’ communicate less directly with students than those in traditional classrooms, consider the time Harris spends creating individual lessons for delivery via eBackpack, the time she spends explaining how students should undertake a particular assignment on their iPads and the process she’s instituted for double-checking students’ test work with them, particular for end-of-unit assessments.

“With the actual tests, I’m the one who’s typed in the questions. I know what they’re being tested on and know exactly what they’re seeing,” she said. “At the end, they go back through and double check their answers before they submit it. They submit it standing in front of me. It automatically grades it for them and it goes automatically into my grade book. I see their score, they go back and look at the questions they missed and then, if they have questions, I go back and talk with them about it.

“I may say, ‘Ok, you’re not getting this. Let me do a small group with you while the others are up there listening to a different story.'”

Consider also the vast improvement eBackpack, because it’s accessible anywhere there’s Internet, has brought to communications between teacher and parents. Not only is it personal, but oftentimes it’s also immediate.

“Parents get an email alert as soon as I grade something,” Harris said. “Sometimes I’ll get an email from a parents who doesn’t understand something — why the student has missed this question — and that’s been nice because I keep my iPhone with me and I like to be available if they have questions. I might get an email at 9 o’clock at night and I can shoot an answer right back to them. For parents, I think that feedback is helpful. You’re not waiting for days to set up an appointment to see the teacher. If there’s a problem, we can solve it right then.”

Harris is very comfortable in the digital world. Though she’s taught for five years — three years in high school before switching to elementary — she’s still young enough to have grown up with technology. “It’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember,” she said. “We always had a computer in my home.”
Still, after four months in this digital learning program, she’s a lot more typical of LCPS’s elementary teachers than you might think.

The narrowing gap between those teachers who grew up with computers and those who may remember when the family’s first TV set arrived at the house can be attributed to LCPS’s philosophy of making teachers, not the iPads, the central element of digital learning. Key to that approach has been an on-going program of professional development, led by the district’s Digital Learning Curriculum Specialist, the nine Digital Learning Specialists and the digital learning team at each elementary school.

From the outset, making teachers comfortable on and proficient with eBackpack was been an emphasis of the training, usually done during weekly sessions at each school known as Tech Tuesday. “A lot of people (at Moss Hill) use eBackpack. Tech Tuesdays have focused on that,” said Harris, who is a member of the schools digital learning team. “People are coming to me all the time with questions. It feels good to be able to teach my peers.”