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Web-based program brings lesson planning into the 21st century

OnCourse System’s online lesson planner helps educators collaborate and meet state standards

Like districts across the country, Hamilton County School District in northern Florida has moved rapidly to apply twenty-first century technology to teaching and learning. But until three years ago, and despite the growing use of classroom technology in the rural district, one key instructional function—the writing of lesson plans—was still being done the old fashioned way: with pen and paper.

“We were purchasing blank lesson plan books for many of our teachers,” recalled Rex Mitchell, the district’s assistant superintendent for instruction. “Some teachers were typing their plans on their computers, but no one else had access to those files unless the teacher printed them.”

In an era of increasing expectations for student progress, administrative accountability and instructional collaboration, supervisors in the 1,850-student district were increasingly frustrated that teacher lesson plans couldn’t be reviewed or shared easily, Mitchell recalled.

“As a principal, I always had to go room by room to check lesson plans,” he said. “It was very difficult to stay timely, to track standards or leave remarks, or to maintain documentation from year to year when you’re working with handwritten plans.”

"It wasn't really an added expense, which was very important for us."

For a modern-day solution, Hamilton County School District turned to OnCourse Systems, a New Jersey company that provides a variety of web-based tools for school districts, including an online lesson planner. The company’s other products include a discipline management system, a grade book, a data analysis tool and a student information system.

With the OnCourse lesson plan program, teachers write and store their lessons online using a format that ensures all lesson plans are consistent and complete. Teachers have access to their lessons from any Internet-connected computer, and administrators can review and annotate any teacher’s lesson plans from their office or home computers.

“If a parent comes to my office I can instantly see what’s being taught in their child’s class that very day,” Mitchell said.

The OnCourse program also automates routine aspects of lesson plan preparation, and it even includes learning standards for every state, making it easy for teachers to align their lessons with their own state’s curriculum standards.

One additional feature that was particularly important to administrators in Hamilton County, Mitchell said, was the ability for teachers to share lesson plans. “Teachers who teach the same class can see each other’s lesson plans and cut and paste elements form a colleague’s plan into their own,” he said. “It really fosters collaboration.”

Another valuable feature of the OnCourse system, Mitchell said, is that teachers can easily post the homework, long-term assignments and class events from their lesson plans onto a web page that can be accessed by students and parents.

Mitchell said that teachers in the district embraced the OnCourse lesson plan program quickly because it is so easy to use. “Because teachers saw that it reduced the time it took to do their lesson plans, and actually improved the process, we’ve gotten over 90 percent of them using it,” he explained. “I never hear that the program is too difficult or doesn’t work.”

The OnCourse program is also used extensively by the principals at the district’s five schools. “They can do much more than just make sure a teacher has the lesson plans,” Mitchell explained. “They can really look at the strategies that are being implemented by their teachers. When they do their walk-throughs, they know what to expect when they enter the classrooms.”

Perhaps most importantly, Mitchell said, the annual price of the program was equivalent to what the district had been paying for traditional lesson plan books. “It wasn’t really an added expense, which was very important for us,” he stated. “It has just been a very cost-effective, useful program that our people are using on a regular basis.”

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