The move to digital can be overwhelming, but the rights steps lead to success
In fact, according to ed-tech experts and school leaders, technology decisions and purchases should come later, after those crucial steps.
A number of influential educators, stakeholders, and policymakers gathered for Discovery Education’s second annual Future@Now  forum, which this year focused on steps and policies necessary to support and enable the nation’s transition to digital classrooms.
Transformational change, speakers and attendees agreed, requires strategic planning.
“We have to build awareness for ‘why,'” said Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools and a 2014 eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards winner, as he discussed his district’s steps in planning for its digital transition.
(Next page: Educators’ digital transition tips)
“We define students graduating globally competitive as students who have access to a digital learning environment,” Dance said. This means a one-to-one deployment, infrastructure upgrade, curriculum overhaul, and more—but most importantly, and first, comes planning, Dance said.
BCPS outlined its strategic approach in Blueprint 2.0 , a five-year plan to identify goals and outcomes for all district students and staff. It focuses on four key areas: academics, safety and security, communication, and organizational effectiveness.
District leaders compiled a list of eight different conversion areas to thoroughly plan for the digital conversion from all angles. Those eight areas include the curriculum conversion, instructional conversion, assessment conversion, organizational conversion, infrastructure conversion, policy conversion, budget conversion, and communications conversion.
Planning and securing buy-in from stakeholders helps district leaders and educators navigate through what can be an almost infinite number of concerns, Dance said.
BCPS has one of the most aging infrastructures in Maryland, but Dance said by the end of the 2014-2015 school year, all schools will be wireless. “If the infrastructure isn’t there, this is not going to work,” he said. “If our teachers and administrators go to access something and it doesn’t work the first time, they’ll revert back to what they always did.”
The district has selected 10 pilot schools to lead its digital transition, and those schools will become laboratory schools as the process expands throughout the entire district.
“We have to build a culture where risk-taking is viewed as a plus,” Dance said. “Young people have only one time in school, and because of that, we have to get it right.”
Part of the digital transition in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) centers on blended learning, and an important step in implementing this policy was trusting and encouraging teachers, said DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
“Technology enables our students to thrive in today’s digital age,” she said. “Knowing how to navigate today’s technological world is a key college and workplace skill.”
The district outlined three focus areas as it embarked on making blended learning a reality in classrooms:
- Encourage innovation and organic growth: Trust teachers to make the decisions that are best for their students. Supporting teachers means allowing them to take chances and try something new.
- Establish a blended learning feeder system: Ensure that students have technology access in all grades so that they are equipped with technology skills and exposed to it for real-world skills.
- Make blended learning easy and comfortable for teachers to integrate into their practice: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all blended learning formula. Making blended learning approachable and making teachers comfortable with it exposes them to powerful technology that can transform practice.
As the district laid out its plan and three focus areas, DCPS leaders made sure everyone knew why they put the emphasis on blended learning.
“Technology can never replace an excellent teacher,” Henderson said. “It can motivate students who may have had trouble…it empowers teachers and it caters to different levels in one classrooms through differentiation.”
Instant data available as a result of the blended learning implementation enables teachers to deliver instruction in completely new ways, Henderson said.
Math achievement has increased as a result of the blended learning program, and Henderson said English/language arts performance has benefited as well.
“Teachers and school leaders sometimes find innovative approaches before we do, and we support them when they try new things,” she said.
Steps to success
During a session on integrating digital resources into the classroom, panelists shared their advice and tips for digital conversion success.
If school leaders can personally model technology for effective use in learning and enlist others, such as teacher leaders, to do the same, technology adoption and integration will be more impactful, said Eric Williams, superintendent of Virginia’s York County School Division and a 2011 eSN Tech-Savvy Superintendent.
Leveraging professional learning resources and communities, including the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) community, can link educators and school leaders with colleagues and experts who can help them initiate and navigate the digital transition, said ISTE CEO Brian Lewis.
Ensuring equity outside the classroom is especially important, said Zach Leverenz, CEO of EveryoneOn. Ensuring access to high-speed internet and working to close achievement and access gaps will go a long way in making sure that lack of home internet access will not impede the digital transition.
School leaders shouldn’t be afraid to work with experts who can help design district-wide implementations in a strategic manner, said Cynthia C. Elsberry, superintendent of South Carolina’s Horry County Schools. Having an expert to rely on often helps schools implement initiatives in a much more effective way.
“This isn’t about grabbing a device,” said Rep. George Miller, Senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. “This is about planning, about phasing in the implementation. If you think this is just putting in an order for 2,000 iPads, then you won’t be crossing this bridge.”