Much of the problem, South said, is that connectivity is available “at the front door” of schools, but doesn’t extend inside. Many districts aren’t savvy about how they buy and pay for that connectivity, and ED is working to educate schools on procurement issues to help them become smarter about how they fund connectivity.
“There’s a vast amount of digital content out there, but the quality and accessibility varies,” South said.
Creating accessibility and digital opportunity in districts is crucial, said Wanda Creel, superintendent of Barrow County Schools in Georgia.
Using videoconferencing technology, Barrow County students connect with Georgia Tech professors throughout the school year to work through labs and have conversations. Those same professors work collaboratively with district teachers to create and deliver digital instructional material.
While 60 percent of students met or exceeded standards in a middle school science class, now 100 percent of students meet or exceed state standards. And while 12 percent met the “exceed” standard on a state test in years past, now 85 percent meet that same standard.
“All of this, we believe, is the engagement that’s transpiring, and the use of technology,” Creel said. “It’s truly enhancing the way our students are learning.”
One problem with digital instruction is that it sometimes occurs under the radar, for fear that school administrators may not support teachers in their endeavors.
“A lot of times, the most innovative things teachers are doing are happening under the table,” said Steve Dembo, a school board member in Skokie School District 69 in Illinois and also Discovery Education’s director of social media strategy and online community.
“Many times, when teachers try something new or different, they aren’t quite sure whether they’re going to get slapped for it or heralded for it—so more often than not, even though they’re doing incredibly innovative things, they feel comfortable sharing it with the world via Twitter but not necessarily in the teachers’ lounge, which is kind of ironic,” he said.
In 2005, Arizona’s Vail School District opened a school that substituted laptops for textbooks. The district developed a digital system for sharing materials and lesson plans to encourage teacher collaboration and digital content creation.
“In 2005, everybody focused on what was happening with the kids and student engagement,” said Calvin Baker, Vail’s superintendent. “But what most people missed is what was happening with teachers and instruction. Three things happened—it completely broke us loose from being tied to a textbook, teachers had to find their own materials, and because they were doing these things on their own, it caused them to either collaborate or die—they had to either connect with the teachers around them and share materials, or they simply couldn’t survive.”