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Education students coaching rural teachers via webcam

UNC School of Education doctoral students are giving back to hundreds of younger students in rural communities — without ever leaving Chapel Hill.

Many students are serving as literacy coaches to partner with rural elementary teachers to help struggling students learn to read using webcams. Researchers and officials with the program, called Targeted Reading Intervention, said it has been both effective and saved the schools money.

The program targets teachers of students in kindergarten through second grade and has been implemented in Hertford, Wayne and Warren counties over the past three years. The teachers involved in the program received a laptop with a webcam, said Lynne Vernon-Feagans, a professor in the School of Education.

Vernon-Feagans said the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education gave the program a $3.5 million grant to conduct a randomized control trial in North Carolina.

Once a week, a teacher connects with a UNC literacy coach in a 20- to 30-minute session in which the coach will observe the teacher instructing a student. The coach, who is usually a doctoral student from the School of Education, then gives feedback to the teacher about his or her methods and gives constructive criticism, Vernon-Feagans said.

“The coach who can be thousands of miles away can see and hear the teacher and give her real time feedback on her instructional practice,” she said.

The teachers then use the advice to work with their students for 15 minutes each day until the students improve their reading skills, she said.

Vanessa Jeter, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said the new technology is most helpful to the teacher. The feedback could be positive affirmation of effective instruction or constructive criticism for how teachers can improve next time.

She also said reading scores for the children have improved after integrating the use of the webcams into the teachers’ instruction sessions.

The webcams also provide needed help for struggling students in a cost-effective way, Vernon-Feagans said — one coach working half-time can assist up to 15 teachers.

“The program is very cost-effective because we prevent reading failure and the need for specialized teachers to help these children,” she said.

Those working with the program said they are excited about the possibilities the webcams can give teachers and students in rural areas.

“Previous research has shown webcam coaching can produce effective results for teachers and children who are learning to read,” said Mary Bratsch-Hines, project director of the program.

“Because using webcam technology is more cost-effective, we think this technology should be made available to rural schools.”

Researchers and officials with the program said they hope to see the project continue and grow to help students develop reading skills.

“I think that we could see it expand across the country in the next decade,” Bratsch-Hines said.

_ Staff writer Kelly Anderson contributed reporting._

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