NEW PORT RICHEY — The words taped to each laptop in River Ridge High's computer lab left no room for misunderstanding: "No e-mail, chat, blogs, journals or games."
Yet there sat two dozen teens chatting and blogging with one other, their teacher offering guidance when anyone had technical troubles.
For students in this class, those rules don't apply.
"I think it's cool," freshman Jenny Kratzer said as she tapped out messages to her classmates — in German. "You can talk to everybody, even if they're not in your class. You can send them messages and discuss topics. … You can talk to other people and they can help you out."
German teacher Andrea Newbolds reveled in the opportunity to have her students use the technology they use outside school to practice using the language they're learning in school.
"I think they're more open to use the language," Newbolds explained. "I think it gives them a comfort zone, and then they use it more."
Teachers are tapping into the world of social networking for educational purposes through an online system called Moodle. Initially designed to allow universities and colleges to create virtual courses, Moodle has spread to the K-12 schools eager to let their students share files, notes, wikis, podcasts and more in a single Web-based environment.
Several things make it appealing to educators.
Unlike an open site such as MySpace, Moodle is password protected and teacher monitored, making it safer for students to share their views. It allows teachers to give more personal and specific feedback to individual students, and both teachers and students can read and respond from anywhere they have Internet access. It gives an outlet to students who prefer to write than to speak in class.
It's also free.
"In this budget time, free is attractive to us," said Wendy Spriggs, director of instructional technology for Pasco County schools. "But free does not mean low-quality with Moodle."
In fact, instructional trainer Richard MacLemale said, Moodle is far superior to the technology efforts that many Pasco schools have made to create protected online environments for students and teachers. Five schools — River Ridge High, River Ridge Middle, John Long Middle, Richey Elementary and Sand Pine Elementary — are piloting the program this year, with plans to expand the effort to every school within three years.
"We're just at the very beginning stages," Spriggs said. "But already the excitement is growing very quickly."
Count Richey Elementary fifth-grade teacher Kathy Mahoney on the excited list.
Mahoney met a teacher from an international school in Bangkok through Moodle, and now the two teachers have their classes corresponding with one another through the system. Teleconferencing and live chatting doesn't work well for them, as the schools are in time zones about 12 hours apart.
But by sharing a protected online site, the students can "talk" to one another about their lives, culture and societies. On Friday, the children were posting reports about their daily schedules, along with questions about how their friends around the world live.
"We're blogging with people in Bangkok," fifth-grader Rianna Foster said as she entered her time line. "I like typing and I like communicating with people. School is much funner with computers because you get to get out of work for something you enjoy."
Mahoney said she can sense the interest level in her class rise when she announces they'll be Moodling. They're quiet, on task, engaged.
"We fit right in to the high-tech world," she said. "At the beginning, when I was presented with the idea of this, I was scared. Now it's like I cannot live without it."
Outside the classroom, the school district is using Moodle to allow teachers and administrators to share lesson plans, training modules and other ideas. Longer term plans call for having teachers create online courses for their students. The Pinellas school district, which has used Moodle more extensively, is helping Pasco move forward with it.
Richey assistant principal Lee-Anne Yerkey said the effort should help students improve their technology, communication and writing skills while also integrating with the curriculum — all in a way that makes school more interesting for kids.
"We are competing with video games, television, Wii," Yerkey said. "They are playing them at home, so why not play here and learn at the same time?"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.