Advice for districts seeking to become better at digital teaching and learning
Being Future Ready is about more than just signing a pledge or attending an event. It’s about taking measurable, sometimes scary, steps toward a digital future that is still very much uncertain, according to speakers at a recent ISTE panel discussion on the topic, “Is Your District Future Ready?”
The Future Ready effort, championed by the Department of Education and the Alliance for Excellent Education, hopes to permanently intertwine digital connectivity and learning in schools by getting administrators to think more broadly (and critically) about technology, PD, and the curriculum they use.
The backbone of the project is a short pledge superintendents take confirming their commitment to enlightened digital learning and advocacy (about 2,000 superintendents have signed it so far). There are also related regional summits that delve into how schools and districts can achieve Future Ready aims, such as empowering teachers, closing the digital divide, or supporting community efforts.
From that ISTE panel, here are several takeaways Future Ready-minded leaders should bear in mind.
The pledge alone is toothless. “Signing the pledge does not mean that you have made it,” said Katrina Stevens, a senior adviser in the Office of Educational Technology. “It just means, ‘We want to start moving toward this direction.'” Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, mentioned that Baltimore County Schools spent 18 months crafting their own personal plan spelling out how they were working toward a digital future and soliciting input from teachers, community representatives, and other stakeholders.
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It’s cliche, but it’s not about the device. “We all know it’s just the tool, but sometimes we forget,” said Tom Murray with the Alliance for Excellent Education. “I start out telling people ‘This is not about Chromebooks and iPads.’ We’re not talking about the right stuff. Day one of the [Future Ready] summits are all about leadership and culture. Once that’s in place, things can happen. Day two is about privacy and professional learning.”
Go beyond school walls. Among the biggest success stories, Cator said, were those districts getting beyond using digital tools during the school day. She pointed to Coachella Valley USD’s decision to put wi-fi on its school buses and park them in places where students could access the internet, and schools in New Jersey who have refashioned snow days as virtual learning days. (Other success stories, she said are being collected online at tech.ed.gov/stories).
Funding and sustainability are crucial. Without sustainability baked into any digital learning plan, it might not survive in the long run, and speakers pointed to raising long-term bonds to support a single refresh cycle of devices as particularly unwise. A better solution? “What can you stop doing,” asked Stevens. “Take a look at old initiatives you might not need anymore. Save money with solar panels. Cut back on storage and supplies if you can. Can you work with another school or district to share costs?” She also noted a funding advice page for schools is online at tech.ed.gov/funding.
Introduce more scrutiny to device and software selections. Now more than ever — when the discovery and implementation of digital tools seems to have gotten, if anything, faster — the need to properly vet education products is critical, Cator said. That means spurring researchers to take objective looks at technology and learning and encouraging districts to do comprehensive needs assessments before selecting products. “Otherwise, people tend to get sucked into the latest thing,” she said. “We need to align products to needs.” One place to start: designing and running more rigorous pilot programs that serve as true testbed environments.
Be open about privacy concerns. “In the summits, there is a lot of buzz around privacy and data,” said Richard Culatta, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology. “Parents are not comfortable because it’s not clear how data is being used.” Schools should instead be upfront and transparent — a key part of being Future Ready. If they are, parents may be more inclined to listen. If schools say they need data for some nebulous, long-term project, Culatta said, that’s less likely to resonate with parents. “If you say, we need this data because next week we’re going to send you a text message about your student, it might.”
Shifts in pedagogy and PD are necessary. The move toward providing personalized professional development is important, said Jeff Mao with Common Sense Education. “We talk about educating the whole child, but we don’t do that for PD. As adults there’s a bit of a steeper slope for us. We all have a different philosophy when it comes to teaching,” he said.
Create a culture where risk-taking is valued. According to Cator, “There’s a necessity to create a space where people can take risks and try things out… ‘Leadership is where you find it,’ Mark Edwards has said.” Additionally, “Maintaining that positive demeanor exudes confidence and makes stakeholders feel safe, that someone has their back. A culture of innovation is a place where people want to be.”
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