By Jennifer Neville, Of The Catholic Virginian

The teachers at Peninsula Catholic High School (PCHS) in Newport News were conducting classes, but all of the desks were empty.

Instead, nearly 100 percent of the students were in attendance that day. That’s because students and faculty were participating in the school’s first monthly Digital Learning Day.

This is when teachers conduct their classes in front of a computer while students learn remotely.

The school is stepping up its technology this year. This month PCHS opened a distance learning center that is expected to change the way some classes, meetings and professional development courses are held.

Teachers are becoming more technologically savvy thanks to computer training that will make them Google certified.

They will become more proficient in using Google tools and applications allowing them to more creatively and effectively enrich their curricula and hone students’ thinking and collaboration skills, explained Principal Jenny Franklin.

These are not the only ways the school, which has 254 students in eighth through 12th grade, has embraced technology. Four years ago the school began equipping each pupil with a Chromebook, similar to a laptop computer. Just about any task that required paper and pen is now completed on the individual computers, according to English teacher Michael Pilola.

For example, the students take notes and write papers using their Chromebooks. They use them for projects such as making movies, creating artwork and creating websites.

Some text books are on the computers. The devices ease group work by allowing students to work together from their own homes.Three years ago, in response to a mandate from the Virginia Department of Education that all students take at least one online course before graduating, PCHS began requiring students to take the online course My Digital Life.

In 2014 PCHS started remote digital learning as an alternative to canceling school due to inclement weather.

It will continue to do so, and on such days faculty will teach from home.

“Our students are inheriting a world workplace that is infused with technology. It is all around them and they use it every day,” Mrs. Franklin said.

“We are preparing our students to use these current technologies in such a way that it enriches their educational experience at Peninsula Catholic and enhances their ability to be active learners who can think critically, collaborate, and create.

“Upon graduation, our students will possess an advanced level of confidence with technology, and this will allow them to skillfully explore the digital world they encounter today and in the future.”

Teachers may use a webcam or may choose to use only audio when teaching remotely, and students may communicate either vocally or in chat boxes.

Teaching techniques can be as varied as they are in a traditional classroom. During the first digital learning day this year, an economics teacher lectured on federal assistance programs like Social Security and Medicare and then assigned the students to do research on the internet.

The students used a chat box to share the information they had found.

In a theater class, the teacher talked the students through a relaxation process and vocal exercises before having each one recite a monologue they had created.

The other students then critiqued each performer via audio responses.

Students in a science class worked with partners to make a slideshow, and students in a physical education class recorded themselves doing some type of physical activity at home for 15 minutes.

Students interviewed after the Digital Learning Day in September said the process went smoothly. Tenth-grader Abigail LeVan said that although she sees technology as “intimidating,” she was pleased with the day.

She said learning from home was less distracting, but she prefers the traditional classroom because she enjoys “being around classmates and teachers and having people to talk to.”

Sydney Kaloustian, another 10th grader, said “The best thing about it was how it was interactive and at the same time very educational and fun.” Uses for the distance learning center are still being examined. It will enable teachers to partner with educators in the area and across the globe to give students a broader perspective on a subject.

Students in distance learning centers at PCHS and another area Catholic school or even a school in another country can learn together about a particular book or social issue and then share and defend their individual viewpoints.

Using their Chromebooks, PCHS pupils may be able to work with foreign students on group projects.

Students may also be able to take college and high school courses not offered at PCHS, and PCHS teachers may be able to teach classes to students who don’t attend the school, Mrs. Franklin explained.

As more schools build distance learning centers, administrators and faculty who normally travel to another city for meetings and professional development classes will be able to remain in their own schools, she said.