WATERVILLE — At a time when schools statewide are using distance learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, students at Thomas College in Waterville have come up with a way to make it more engaging.

School closures statewide began last month, with many announcing a minimum two-week shutdown. But after Pender Makin, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, announced schools should plan to continue remote learning for the remainder of the academic year, many districts decided to remain closed and pursue the alternative distance practice.

In the Computers Across the Curriculum Class at Thomas, 28 future teachers have crafted programs using augmented reality and donated them to local teachers to use in their distance instruction.

Augmented reality is an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology overlaying digital information on an image being viewed through a computer, tablet or other device.

One of the better-known examples of augmented reality is Pokemon Go, a mobile game released in 2016 that uses the GPS in a user’s cellphone to locate, capture and train virtual Pokemon characters that appeared as if they were actually in the player’s real location.

Katie Rybakova, assistant professor of education at Thomas College in Waterville.

Katie Rybakova, an assistant professor of education who has taught at Thomas for four years and specializes in digital literacy, asked local teachers in grades kindergarten through 12 what they needed to make their distance instruction successful.

Freshman, sophomore and junior students in Rybakova’s class were then asked to created an activity by employing the use of augmented reality, a HyperDoc or both.

“The preservice teachers (students) were asked to create a directions list, a clear objective, a short activity and an assessment,” Rybakova said. “The result was an array of projects that ranged from more traditional Q&A to directions as to how to create their own musical instruments.

“(HyperDocs) are kind of a new-age WebQuest, if you will,” she said. “A scavenger hunt-like document that engages students in multiple forms of media, like images, text and video, to engage in one specific topic.”

Students created programs on subjects including the U.S. government, the water cycle and volcanoes, earthquakes and plate tectonics.

To create the programs, Thomas students used a variety of programs, including Google Expeditions, the app specifically made for augmented reality; Google docs; and Google Forms. The students who receive the programs access them through Expeditions on their computers or smartphones.

Shannon Kostovick, an interdisciplinary major at Thomas College in Waterville, works on her augmented reality program on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” for high school students, at her home in Greenwood.

The teachers who received the programs are able to implement them in different ways, according to Rybakova.

“Some will use them as supplements to their curriculum as extended learning opportunities, some will use them as guided activities where the students will engage in the activities and then Zoom with the teacher to discuss,” Rybakova said.

“In some instances, we’ll be sending the activities to local high schools and elementary schools, in particular, with the intent of simply to donate so that the teachers can do what they wish with the activities.

“As we transition to emergency distance learning, I think we all have recognized that differentiating instruction is challenging without that face-to-face time. These activities, hypothetically, would help teachers to provide that scaffolding and that one-on-one engagement by sharing these activities that really function independently for the students.”

Ashlyn Fitzgerald, a freshman majoring in early education, created a presentation for a second-grade class that taught students how to identify the who, what, when, where, why and how in a story.

“With my project,” Fitzgerald said, “they can read about it or watch a video of myself reading a story and the point is for them to create their own stories and use what they learned.”

Fitzgerald also created online flashcards through Quizlet.

Fitzgerald said she hopes her program will help ease the stress on teachers and offer a distraction for the students.

“I hope my project helps some teachers be able to take a step back,” she said. “Also, I hope for the kids, it’s a fun way to distract themselves during this crazy time.”

Christina Bowman, a secondary life science major at Thomas College in Waterville, and her dog, Valentine, work on her augmented reality project on the ecosystem for seventh-graders, at her home in Woolwich.

Rybakova’s class is typically taught in the spring semester and touches on technology, digital literacy and integrating both into the classroom.

It is structured almost as an ‘hors d’oeuvres’ serving of a variety of tech trends but cushioned on the notion that we need to integrate technology purposefully, not because it is the cool thing to do,” Rybakova said.

“We talk about digital literacies, about 21st century literacy, about what it means to be technologically savvy. What does it mean to communicate when it happens online? What does it mean to structure technological activities when the purpose is interdisciplinary instruction and answering authentic questions?”

Rybakova said she originally planned to introduce virtual reality to her students this semester, but after Thomas was forced to shift to distance learning last month, she came up with the idea for the augmented reality project.

Virtual reality, or VR, is a computer-generated simulation of 3D images that can be interacted with in a seemingly realistic way, but requires the use of a headset and controllers.

Rybakova chose to pursue an augmented reality project because of its accessibility to both Thomas students and local K-through-12 students.

“I still wanted them to engage with this tech trend, but continue to do so in an authentic manner,” Rybakova said. “The idea, then, was to have students use augmented reality rather than VR, which usually requires a headset because K-through-12 students at home might only have access to their smartphones, if that.”

Rybakova said she had two goals when she came up with the idea to donate the programs:

• Have preservice teachers work with authentic problems in the real world and help drive solutions for them.

• Help the larger community in a time of dire need.”  

Student programs have been donated to Lawrence Middle School in Maine School Administrative District 49, Messalonskee Middle School in School Regional School Unit 18 and Presque Isle Middle School in Aroostook County.
They have also been sent “cold” — Rybakova’s term for donations made without being requested — to Skowhegan Area High School, George J. Mitchell School in Waterville and other schools via social media.

So far, Rybakova said, the feedback to her students’ work has been positive and appreciative.

“Most of it has been: ‘Awesome!’ ‘This is so exciting!’ ‘This is so cool!'” Rybakova said. “One teacher I spoke with said: ‘This is a way for me to check in with my students. If they aren’t engaged, I don’t know if they are OK.’ That was powerful to me.”

School districts that have decided to remain closed and pursue remote learning include Waterville Public Schools; Maine School Administrative District 11 which serves Gardiner, West Gardiner, Pittston and Randolph; Regional School Unit 82, which serves Moose River and Jackman; RSU 19, which serves Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans; and RSU 2, which serves the Hallowell area.

The Office of Maine Catholic Schools announced last week all nine of its schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year.

MSAD 49, which serves Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield, has announced the district will continue distance learning until the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention announces it is safe to resume in-person instruction.


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