Great teachers use digital content—but what needs to be in place to encourage that use?
During the 2014 National School Boards Association  conference in New Orleans, a panel of experienced educators sought to answer that very question.
“We’re undergoing a cultural change in our country, and it’s broader than just schools,” said moderator Joseph South, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Educational Technology. “Digital is part of every aspect of our lives. In some places, digital is embraced wholeheartedly, and in other places, it’s kept at bay.”
(Next page: Preparing staff for digital content)
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.”
Many people will focus on devices or students when it comes to a digital transition, but as Baker pointed out, teachers need much of the focus.
“Our transition to digital is more about teachers, and how they connect and deliver instruction, than it is about devices in the hands of students,” he said.
Digital content is driving the creation of repositories where educators can locate resources tied to standards, content areas, and grade levels—because, as the panelists pointed out, wading through online content to find one perfect resource is time-consuming and exhausting.
“When the internet first appeared, we treated it like a content system,” South said. “When the internet exploded, it became a communication system. We’re seeing the same thing in our schools—as we get more comfortable with digital, it moves from a content system to a communication system.”
To that end, learningregistry.org and free.ed.gov are two places educators can turn to when they need to locate free, searchable resources.
“Once you unbundle things from the textbook, you’ve done some really challenging things and some really great things,” South said. “The problem with digital resources is that the amount is paralyzing. Teachers get 2 million hits—they need one that matches a standard and means something to their kids.”
“Teachers need to be given a framework,” Baker said. “Be specific about telling teachers what, exactly, must be taught, and the level of rigor, and be very specific on the ‘what’ and ‘when.’ Too much choice paralyzes us. Teachers need a framework and the opportunity for limited choices so they can function, do their jobs creatively, and come up with good stuff for their kids—not so they can spend hours or days trying to map out how to get it done and try to select, from thousands of resources, which ones they should use.”
The idea of open educational resources (OERs) is appealing, South said, “but unless they come in some sort of a package, some sort of organizational structure,” they aren’t necessarily useful to teachers. Some states, such as Washington and Utah, are creating organized OER resources on the state level. The Georgia Virtual School is pursuing such a resource as well. School districts, too, are organizing digital content into free and searchable repositories—for instance, South said, Arizona’s Sunnyside School District maintains a Google Doc which teachers use to search and upload their own digital standards-aligned resources.
Some of the challenges in a move to digital content, however, include issues of equity and access.
In Barrow County, Creel said school leaders ask their local community members to donate older, internet-equipped devices to schools.
District educators also recognize that not every student will have a device, despite questions pertaining to how the district addresses such a dilemma.
“Our greatest advantage has been not only collaboration among teachers, but also collaboration among students,” Creel said. “Students share devices, and it does not become an issue. Our children are sharing, and I think it’s important that we are teaching the art of collaboration.”
Above all, digital content is the goal, and devices are simply the tool to deliver such content—teacher support and instructional plans must be in place.
“There’s digital content and then there are devices,” Dembo said. “How do you use devices to learn? What do you want to learn? It’s the shift in the experiences that students receive. They learn important skills, but digital content allows them to interact with experts, they’re using digital tools and creating digital content, and it’s [about] adding these digital layers to learning.”
“What are you really trying to accomplish?” South asked. “Make sure the digital solution accomplishes this.”
Staff support is critical, and can be a make-or-break issue.
“You have to give your staff some instruction,” Baker said. “If all you do is train teachers to use technology, you’re going to get to the wrong place faster. Instructional systems have to be lined up first, before you start dumping lots of other change on teachers.”