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Digital is the plumbing; ‘One to the World’ is the vision

“I thought the phrase ‘one to the world’ was right on target, because when you connect students with authentic, challenging problems in the world, that’s a game-changer, whereas connecting students with a device itself is not a game-changer.” —Dr. Eric Williams, Superintendent of Louden County Schools, Virginia

Observing the wonderment of kindergarten kids as they discover the world with the help of digital learning can be magical. In the kindergarten classes at Newton-Lee Elementary School in Loudoun County, Virginia, wonderment is at an all-time high as the students squeal with delight. Their eyes are glued to the Skype session with a zookeeper in Texas. The camera is projecting the live images of orangutans as they play with puzzles that the kindergarten students actually designed and shipped to the zoo for testing by the primates.

A few months earlier, the students had learned on another Skype call that orangutans can become naughty if they are not engaged with games and toys. One student in the class volunteered to become an orangutan puzzle designer. The whole class got behind the project and launched into a primate puzzle design team. Challenging five-year-olds to become orangutan puzzle designers is not in most lesson plans for kindergarten!

At Briar Woods High School in Loudoun County, high school students are researching the environmental damage caused by various de-icing agents that are applied after snow and ice storms. These students became a de-icing research group making recommendations to government agencies, private companies, and homeowners about what investments to make in order to minimize the negative impact of the de-icers applied to the county’s roads and parking lots in winter. Initial local success led the students to design a statewide public service campaign. Those high school students are on fire, looking for their next big design challenge.

Loudoun County administrators have created the expectation that educators will challenge students to contribute to the world. This goal comes out of a digital learning approach called “One to the World.” In One to the World thinking, the role of the student as a problem solver with a purpose is a critical tenet.

For years, I have been arguing that focusing on “on-to-one computing” as the name of our digital learning ramp-up to providing every student with access to a device does not naturally lead administrators to ask the most important questions about this historic transition to a connected world. The ratio of one student per one device simply does not capture the focus of the long-term transformation that we are all trying to figure out. While shifting a title does not solve the problem, I believe that words do count. By refocusing our work from “one to one” to “One to the World,” a new set of questions naturally emerges. For example, what should the relationship of our classrooms to the world look like?

Next page: How Loudoun County has created deeper learning through its One to the World initiative 

Loudoun County Superintendent Dr. Eric Williams has taken this advice to heart, and his school division’s One to the World initiative is leading to deeper learning and greater student engagement by empowering students to make meaningful contributions to the world.

Here is how Dr. Williams describes the thinking behind his approach:
“The language associated with a concept is incredibly significant, because it signals what’s important about the concept. The ‘one to one’ phrase inappropriately suggests that digital learning is about the device, as opposed to what the connectivity enables.”

He continues: “I thought the phrase ‘one to the world’ was right on target, because when you connect students with authentic, challenging problems in the world, that’s a game-changer, whereas connecting students with a device itself is not a game-changer. In fact, it can result in schools doing the same old things, perhaps more efficiently—but it doesn’t address issues relating to a lack of student engagement or the quality of student work. A one-to-the-world approach addresses those issues head-on.”

For Loudoun County, “One to the World” is about putting authentic, challenging problems at the heart of teaching and learning, and also connecting students with an audience beyond their teacher. The digital learning devices are simply a means to this end.

The difference between “one to one” and “one to the world” is about much more than semantics. Adopting the kind of approach to digital learning that Dr. Williams and his staff have taken requires leaders to ask a whole different set of guiding questions.

In planning one-to-one computing programs, the kinds of questions that leaders typically ask include: What type of device should we buy? How are we going to roll out the devices to our students? How do we make sure we have enough bandwidth to support students’ use of the devices? How do we train our teachers in using the devices to improve instruction?

Those are all relevant questions, and they need to be asked—but they only scratch the surface. Before considering those technical questions, leaders first should be asking more complex questions about the design of the learning process.

For instance: How can we harness technology’s power to support teaching and learning in truly transformational ways? How can we change the problems our students solve, and the audience for their work, in ways that will engage and inspire students and take their learning to deeper levels? (For a more comprehensive list of these learning design questions, see this earlier article.)

These learning design questions speak to why school systems should be investing in technology. Loudoun County began with these why questions, and only after answering these did Dr. Williams and his staff address the what and the how.

In what Dr. Williams describes as an “inclusive” process, Loudoun County convened a group of about 80 stakeholders for meetings to discuss the type of graduate they wanted to create. The school division collectively decided they wanted to develop “knowledgeable critical thinkers, communicators, collaborators, creators, and contributors” to the world.

Loudoun County drew up a new mission statement, which is to “empower students to make meaningful contributions to the world.” To do this, educators are creating learning experiences that include four key elements: (1) Students work on significant content and competencies. (2) Students engage with authentic, challenging problems. (3) Students create public products for an audience beyond the teacher. (4) Students connect with the world to improve the quality and amplify the impact of their work.

The kind of paradigm shift taking place in Loudoun County is only possible with strong leadership system-wide, and Dr. Williams and his staff have placed a great deal of emphasis on building-level leadership.

“Not only do we integrate discussions about leadership for our One to the World initiative in every single one of our principals’ meetings, but separate from those we also hold three leadership institute days a year,” he says. “Before these institutes, we ask our principals to do something, like spend three hours shadowing a typical student through the day, or interview a typical student. In these exercises, we are constantly returning to the ‘why’ piece—why we are embracing One to the World in the first place.”

Addressing the “why” is a critical component of helping teachers overcome their fears of trying something new and failing, and these leadership institutes aim to help principals do this effectively. “We literally had our principals practice a one-minute elevator speech to give to their staff and parents about why we have implemented our One to the World framework,” Dr. Williams says.

Loudoun County’s One to the World approach is resulting in powerful learning experiences for students. Dr. Williams describes in detail the process the high school students followed when they took on the challenge of influencing their community to implement the least harmful de-icing practice.

“Instead of just asking students to experiment and write a lab report, our teachers arranged for students to share their thoughts with a wider audience,” Dr. Williams says. “They brought in people from homeowners’ associations who make decisions regarding de-icing, they brought in people from the state Department of Transportation, and they brought in newspaper reporters who might be able to write articles about the issue. When the students realized they were going to present the findings of their scientific research to experts in the field and make the case for alternative de-icers, they really stepped up their game.”

He explains: “The students did their own original research, chose a grass that’s common in the county, and did a test with how calcium chloride and salt affect the growth and germination of those seeds. Different student groups came up with different alternatives to rock salt. Many students created social media accounts to get the word out about using particular alternatives to rock salt. Some students were so invested in the project, they took the initiative to write an article for their homeowner’s association newsletter encouraging residents to use calcium chloride instead of rock salt as a de-icer.”

Both the teachers and the students reported that giving students an authentic problem to solve, and an audience beyond the classroom, made a big impact on their work. “I asked the students to tell me about the experience, and one student said there was more at stake in her work—she knew people would be listening to her because they’d be using the information she provided, and it wasn’t just a teacher listening to give a grade,” he says. “Another student said she did a lot of double-checking on her work, because she knew she’d be presenting to people who had been working in the field for years, and she wanted to get her facts and her analysis and conclusions right. The teachers both said the same thing. They said the outside experts pushed their students to think more deeply about cost and effectiveness.”

He concludes: “What I hear time and time again from teachers is they’re amazed at how hard students are working to bring their A game. The amount of time they spend on projects is far beyond what’s necessary. One mother joked with a teacher, ‘Geez, my daughter will not stop creating videos for your class YouTube channel. What have you created here?’ That’s just an indicator of their commitment.”

Loudoun County is an example of what is possible when leaders ask the right questions before investing in technology. By leading with the “why” and seeking to create authentic challenges in which students produce work for a more global audience, the school division is creating transformational learning experiences that engage and inspire students.

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Laura Ascione

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