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How to realize ed tech’s game-changing potential

The move toward digital education comes with a number of important considerations.

During a recent webinar, the nation’s director of educational technology highlighted how technology can support more effective instruction—and a North Carolina superintendent revealed how his district has successfully made the shift to a digital teaching and learning environment.

With support from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and modeled by local school districts across the country, school district leaders can identify goals that will help them make this shift themselves, while at the same time boosting student access, learning, and engagement.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in February that U.S. schools should transition to digital learning in the next five years, and in 2010 ED released its latest National Education Technology Plan (NETP), spearheaded by Karen Cator, director of ED’s Office of Educational Technology.

The plan has three aims. The first focus is on learning, which Cator said includes examining how people learn, opportunities for learning during and outside of school, and personalized learning environments. Teaching is the second aim, and this includes the changing role of the teacher as ed tech expands students’ learning opportunities, teachers’ ability to use data to inform their instruction, and the ways technology can help increase teacher-student interaction and engagement. The plan’s third focus is assessment, and how this can give teachers valuable data to hone instruction to students’ needs, identify specific groups of students who need more support or who need to be challenged further, and provide daily pictures of how students are performing instead of once- or twice-yearly reports.

Infrastructure plays a crucial role as well, Cator said, because school leaders and policy makers must ensure that students have access to broadband internet both inside and outside of school, and that they have access to devices that facilitate learning.

Cator pointed to a number of trends that are making it possible to give students, teachers, and community members the tools and resources they need to improve teaching and learning.

Those trends are…

  • Mobility: Students can take personal or school-owned devices between home and school to have 24/7 access to learning. Taking device and broadband access issues into account, this kind of increased mobility gives students access to rich learning opportunities both in and out of school.
  • Improvement of social networking for learning: Networks of experts on any given topic are available online through communities, message boards, and forums to answer questions and give their input. Students can gain access to valuable expert opinions, and many experts or enthusiasts are happy to help students who have questions about a problem or assignment.
  • Digital content: There is a proliferation of much better, highly-produced digital content from massively open online courses, free educational videos, and video tutorials such as the Khan Academy.
  • Quantity and quality of data: “We’re at the front end of figuring out how to leverage this,” Cator said. Data-driven decision making has been a buzz word for some time, but in reality, educators have had very few data to stand on, and these data have not been connected to other data. Information on administration, assessment, and student engagement, when connected, can completely change instruction. “As students begin to use digital environments, we’ll have a plethora of new data,” Cator said.
  • Real-time feedback: Teachers can receive much better feedback more frequently. This will help them adjust instruction to ensure that students understand concepts.
  • College and career standards: Most of the nation’s states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards, and assessment consortia are currently working to develop assessments to go along with the standards. Cator said that fewer-but-deeper standards will combine with the power of the internet to make available an amazing resource bank that has been tagged and optimized for use.

Equity of ed-tech access and opportunity is critical, Cator noted, and can improve learning for so many more Americans.

“[Equitable access] is probably the most important part of this entire conversation,” Cator said. “Make sure every student, regardless of socio-economic status, has access [to technology resources] at school. The second thing is to begin to work on home access. … Try to figure out how all of your students can get home access.”

Take-home one-to-one computing initiatives, programs that provide free community broadband access, leveraging cellular data networks, and “bring your own device” initiatives are just some of the ways schools might be able to ensure that students have access to high-speed internet, she said.

The Mooresville Graded School District near Charlotte, N.C., has used the NETP as a model to move toward a school environment that focuses on stakeholder buy-in and equal learning opportunities for everyone.

Building a school culture that ensures students have access to personalized learning opportunities and project-based work, giving students 21st-century tools (students in grades 3-12 have in-school access to laptops, and those in grades 4-12 take their laptops from school to home), working to connect data to instructional practices and student needs, building school leaders’ and classroom teachers’ ed-tech capacity, and fostering a sense of complete commitment among all district employees and community members are the district’s key goals, said Superintendent Mark Edwards. a 2002 winner of the Tech-Savvy Superintendent Awards from eSchool Media.

The district is in its fifth year of trying to move toward a more digital-based classroom environment, and Edwards said school leaders “see it clearly as an evolutional opportunity” within the district.

“Our teachers have a level of precision, with detailed information about individual students and groups of students, that enables them to be much more effective and precise in their endeavors,” he said.

Teacher competency is changing for the better, and with that comes an increase in creativity and real-world learning experiences for students.

The district has dedicated a portion of its budget—roughly 2.4 percent, Edwards said—to provide for hardware, maintenance, and essentially everything except infrastructure, in the move toward digital teaching and learning.

“From a financial standpoint, it’s absolutely doable for other districts to use this model,” he said.

The district’s professional development is aligned with a focus on student achievement, using digital resources, and ultimately on building a stronger learning culture for all involved.

More than 90 percent of the district’s teachers attended an optional summer professional development program, and Edwards said district leaders work hard to create opportunities for continuous learning.

Cator said school district leaders should talk to teachers about how they use technology in their personal lives, and leverage that in the classroom. Examining the definition of what it means to be connected, and what it means to be technology-literate, can help guide professional development moving forward, she said.

“Technology is not a silver bullet—education is, and we have to make sure that every American as the extended opportunity to learn, every single day,” Cator said.

The webinar was hosted by, a community website focused on digital teaching and learning.

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