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Students take virtual leap in learning
Virtual WEB 1
Students in Tracey Abercrombie’s class at Coal Mountain Elementary use a mix of computers, smartphones and tablets as they work on projects with NOBLE, or New Opportunities for Better Learning Environments, a new virtual technology being used in the local school system. - photo by Jim Dean

Sam Hendrixson spent his Thursday morning flying over the Berlin Wall, walking through a museum and exploring a volcano.

It was a NOBLE effort for the Coal Mountain Elementary fifth-grader.

NOBLE, or New Opportunities for Better Learning Environments, is a new virtual technology being rolled out in Forsyth County Schools. It allows students and teachers to create their own world.

Students make avatars for the three-dimensional environment, where they can build, explore and talk with one another.

NOBLE was implemented in late January at Coal Mountain and three other schools — North Forsyth High, Piney Grove Middle and Mashburn Elementary, as well as with the staff of the future Kelly Mill Elementary.

Hendrixson said it took some time to become acclimated to the program.

“Now, I think everybody has a better grasp on this whole concept,” Hendrixson said. “You can come in here, do whatever you want — as long as it’s educational — and actually it’s really more fun than having to do pencil and paper work. And yet we’re still learning the same things.”

Tracey Abercrombie, who has taught at Coal Mountain for 11 years, said she was reluctant at first to embrace the virtual world. The change, however, has been drastic.

“Back in the day, it was a textbook and it was a teacher and it was the teacher delivering the limited knowledge she had in her head and then going and grabbing that textbook. That’s all it was then,” she said.

“Today it’s all right here. Research is at their fingertips. How dare me to limit them to just my little knowledge.”

Abercrombie’s class spent part of Thursday learning about both sides of the Berlin Wall that separated the former East Germany and West Germany.

Students submitted graffiti to be placed on the west side, saw the drab surroundings of the east and helped create a virtual curated museum with historical facts about the wall.

Fifth-graders have also gotten to see a volcano erupt and learn about dams, levies and erosion as they worked to create flood control in the NOBLE world.

“You can re-enact things like battles and you can also build a volcano and see how it’s built and the lava and how it works,” said fifth-grader Austin Seawright.

“And you can build historical buildings and make museums and make links for them so you can go to educational Web sites. It’s easier to learn because it’s better and more fun to do.”

Abercrombie said the platform is “forcing these guys to ask questions, and when a kid begins asking questions, you know that they are learning at a deeper level.”

“The questions these kids are coming up with are amazing. It’s really pushing me as a teacher,” she said.

Jill Hobson, director of instructional technology for the school system, said NOBLE is not a mandate but rather a teaching tool schools can choose to use. Its possibilities are endless.

“Most games, even if they have a lot of choices in them, all the choices are preset,” Hobson said. “When you buy the game, you can only choose what the designers have given you.

“This is a blank slate and there are no pre-set choices other than what the teacher or students may construct. Just like real life, it evolves as real life does.”

Curriculum standards are embedded into the program. Students are learning material through NOBLE as an alternative to the textbook, but Hobson expects the results to show a higher level of learning.

“We can still get the high-achieving results on the [Criterion Referenced Competency Test] and we can give kids a whole other level of skills that are preparing them for live,” she said.

Classrooms can build a museum or a courthouse, use it for a lesson plan and then put the building in their avatar’s pocket for use later on to clear up land.

Once built, the creations can be used by teachers in all classrooms in the system. NOBLE is one world shared by all schools that want to participate. The world is divided into four estates — elementary, middle, high and teachers.

At the high school level, it’s less about designing while they learn and more about critical problem solving.

Students at North High will soon be debating whether to allow a company to do business in their world. The business will bring jobs and economic development, but may also pollute the area’s river.

Students can join the NOBLE club after school to build extra buildings and tools for class.

It takes more than a few clicks to build something. Hendrixson proudly demonstrated how to construct a staircase, using dimensions to make the size of the stairs to scale for his avatar.

All students benefit, Abercrombie, but for some the change is huge.

“There are kids who always stand out, year after year,” she said. “This is a way to show different types of talents, so that kids who never get a chance to stand out can show their talents in everyday life. They are shining in this world.

“This gives another level for different types of personalities to shine. They’re becoming stars in this.”