Districts share progress toward 21st-century learning

Student access to technology is top priority as educators implement 21st-century learning.

Incorporating technology to enhance student learning and creating teams of stakeholders to drive innovation in all school endeavors are two of a handful of best practices that educators from across the nation shared during a recent webinar on how to develop engaging learning environments.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a principle that has factored largely into Indiana’s Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation’s instructional strategy. UDL is “a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn,” according to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning.

“Our entire framework is focused on UDL; this isn’t just something that we do for children who might have special needs—it really drives all of our instructional decisions,” said Mike Jamerson, director of technology for BCSC, during an Oct. 11 Consortium for School Networking webinar.

In BCSC, UDL influences project-based learning and 21st-century skills.

“Technology really is the supporting role for this, and not the reason we’re doing these things,” Jamerson said. “We have technology in place hand-in-hand with the instructional program.”

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Best Practices in School Technology

“We’ve taken the approach that UDL is a framework that can be applied in an environment whether or not you have technology available,” said Loui Lord Nelson, BCSC’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) coordinator. “We don’t want our teachers to feel limited by that, and [we want them] to know that you can be just as creative and create that widely accessible environment for students, no matter what.”

BCSC opened the Columbus Signature Academy (CSA) in 2008, which Jamerson said takes a systemic approach to K-12 instruction using project-based, standards-driven instruction.

CSA is patterned after the New Tech model, which focuses on project-based learning and the smart use of technology to support instruction and student drive.

The school also implemented New Tech methods in its elementary and middle school levels, and students from kindergarten up through 12th grade are in a one-to-one laptop environment. CSA is STEM-focused and offers academic programs through partnerships between the school and nearby universities and businesses.

“We got there through collaboration at some of the absolute earliest stages of our decision,” Jamerson said, pointing to ongoing cooperation and participation between the district’s technology team and instructional team.

BCSC created a project team that included faculty, administrators, and technology leaders, and it also engaged the business community along the way.

The district is on track to implement a successful “bring your own technology” initiative, which Jamerson said should launch soon.

“Our teachers are focused not only on implementing a program, but on collecting the kind of information we’ll need to move forward,” he said.

Moving forward, Jamerson said school leaders hope to create a “technology-pull” environment where technology is driven by the district’s instructors.

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Best Practices in School Technology

Early stakeholder engagement, frequent collaboration, frequent communication, and mutual respect are all essential in creating a technology-rich, learning-focused environment, he said.

“Without mutual respect and a shared vision, you really can’t achieve the kind of collaboration that we’ve achieved,” Jamerson said.

When it came time for Georgia’s Douglas County School System to introduce various technology initiatives, including a bring-your-own-technology initiative, Todd Hindmon, the district’s director of information technology, said he knew it was important for all stakeholders to remain informed.

A stakeholder committee of more than 120 people, which eventually broke into subgroups, was formed.

“The biggest challenge in setting up a committee is buy-in,” said Cathy Magouyrk, the district’s associate superintendent for student achievement. Magouyrk said parents needed to understand what initiatives were on the table and what they meant, that stakeholders needed to keep track of state education initiatives, and that businesses also should be in the loop, because students graduating from the district’s high schools may immediately or eventually make their way into community businesses.

Committee members used Moodle to connect and collaborate even when meetings weren’t scheduled, and Magouyrk said that a small number of students attended committee meetings and remain involved.

The committee also is working to create and design 21st-century classrooms. All the classrooms will meet minimum requirements to ensure equitable access for students, but will be different depending on the need. The district has plans to open STEM and performing arts high schools, both of which will be designed differently.

“Transparency and communication between all groups is essential,” she said, adding that the technology department can’t operate without the curriculum and instruction department, and the curriculum and instruction department can’t operate without communication with the technology department.

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“The economy is, of course, challenging everything that we’re doing,” Hindmon said. “We have to take into account funding and the budget. We knew we couldn’t achieve everything at one time; we knew we needed to have a plan in place so that when we did find funding, or when people did get grants, that we had the plan ready.”

“We have to plan in advance for what we don’t have, and that’s our budget,” Magouyrk said. “We might not be able to afford it right now, but we know where we’re going.”

Moving forward, the district hopes to give students more access to digital content, as well as open a STEM school. A continued focus will be changing instruction in the classroom, real-time technology integration, and offering ongoing professional development to teachers.

“Budget restraints are usually the limiting factor when it comes to technology,” said Mike Donaldson, the tech coordinator for Cullman City Schools (CCS) in Alabama.

Despite its small size—five schools and 3,000 students–CCS offers wireless facilities with access to laptops for all students. The district’s middle school is in its sixth year of a one-to-one computing initiative, and a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission has helped the district stay on track with many of its technology goals.

Implementing a course management system allowed for student-teacher interaction and ongoing teacher professional development, Donaldson said, and parent access to student grades and progress updates helped contribute to a 30 percent paper usage reduction in the first year after implementation.

The district uses a shared network drive, Google Docs, and Paperless Board.

Donaldson said that teachers locate digital content for classroom use online, as well as create their own content. They also have realized the benefits that come with collaborating and sharing resources.

The district’s high school used to run a one-to-one initiative before moving to a system where each classroom has its own set of laptops, which teachers and students acclimated to without complaint.

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Best Practices in School Technology

In the next few months, Donaldson said he estimates that completed iPad classroom sets will begin to appear. Currently, classrooms have a few of the devices, with some offering as many as 10 iPads in one room for student and teacher use.

CCS implemented a “bring your own technology” initiative at the high school, and 83 percent of students have their own computers, said Superintendent Jan Harris. Harris is one of 10 2010 winners in the eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards program.

High school students are able to check laptops out from the library if the need arises. The city received a grant that provides internet access at strategic locations throughout the city, which expands internet access to students who may not have it at home. When that grant expired, the city elected to keep funding the internet access, Donaldson said.

In 2011, CCS students averaged an ACT score of 23.2, nearly three points above the state average and two points above the national average, Donaldson said.

Laura Ascione

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