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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Guided Homework Help Goes Online

The New York Public Library's homework program pioneers ways to connect students with teachers after class is dismissed.
By Jennifer Hillner
Credit: Jude Buffman

Homework help is just a few clicks away, thanks to the New York Public Library's (NYPL) interactive Dial-A-Teacher Whiteboard. Four nights a week, the online program connects students and teachers in real time through a secure digital whiteboard, where they can chat about assignments and draw their responses on the shared board.

It's the first program of its kind in the United States, and here's how it works.

1. A student logs on to the free, online Dial-A-Teacher service by providing some basic background information and is connected with a certified teacher logged on to the Web site.

2. The student types her question and uses a mouse or a stylus to draw her math problem on the screen, or she imports documents, such as a scanned page of homework, to the whiteboard.

3. The teacher instantly sees the problem and provides feedback by typing a suggestion, adding to the drawing, or pointing the student to other Web sites where she can go for more practice. Students can also call Dial-A-Teacher's hotline, at (212) 777-3380, and talk directly with the teacher.

Since the pilot program's inception this past September, almost a dozen teachers on the roster have been participating in up to ten or so whiteboard sessions Monday through Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (EST). The typical wait time is anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes, and both whiteboard sessions and phone calls can last up to 15 minutes. (Expansion of the service, initially funded by the Wallace Foundation and HSBC in the Community, depends on grants and available hardware.)

The Dial-A-Teacher Whiteboard was engineered specifically to help New York City youth in grades K–12, but it's open to anyone. Other cities throughout the country also offer hotline help. (Learn more about these programs.)

Despite the availability of the library help desk, kids don't necessarily look to libraries for homework help. With that in mind, the New York City Public Libraries' Homework NYC initiative (Dial-A-Teacher Whiteboard is just one component of this program) hopes to get the word out by meeting students on their own turf.

The solution? Reminders in the form of widgets -- small files visible as application boxes on a customizable site like Facebook -- that, when clicked, open the Dial-A-Teacher Whiteboard within the original window. The goal is for students to place custom-built NYPL widgets on the Web sites they visit most often. This way, they can easily search library content or get homework help with a simple click.

"With a widget, kids can look up information without ever leaving their home," says Andrew Wilson, a digital producer at NYPL. Once a student adds the libraries' List Building widget to his Facebook page, for example, he can show his friends what books he is reading or post a book report. Teachers can post reading lists or assign students to comment on classmates' reports in an open forum.

Bringing this model to your hometown should be easy: The NYPL plans to go live with an open source widget Web site for educators in 2010. The site will integrate the library's resource lists, databases, and homework widgets and will feature videos that demonstrate how teachers can use them as a lesson-plan tool. Through shared technology, help with homework can be made easier -- and, dare we say it, cool.

Jennifer Hillner is a writer in New Hampshire who specializes in technology.

For more resources, go to "Library Homework-Help Resources Are Available Nationwide."

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