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Creating systemic change? There is no app for that

The rise of educational apps has impacted classrooms across the nation, but there’s one major change that apps can’t implement

apps-K12Today, most schools realize the critical nature of technology in preparing our students for college, careers, and citizenship; however, only 10 years ago, when I served as technology director for an Intermediate Unit in upstate Pennsylvania, the conversation on educational technologies centered largely on the question of “Should we?” Now, I find that in my conversations with school leaders across the country, our conversations focus on “How?”

This shift, driven in part by a host of social, political, economic, and technical forces, has made it easier than ever to introduce technology into the classroom environment. The ease with which we can apply technology to academic challenges has created an unprecedented time in education that I call the “There is an App for That Era.”

In this era, there seems to be an endless supply of apps. Want to improve your spelling? There is an app for that. Want to practice multiplication tables. There is an app for that. Want to create online flash cards? There is an app for that.

(Next page: What an app can’t fix)

However, there is no app for creating a true learning initiative that systemically integrates technology into the classroom, improves instruction and increases academic success. No online flash cards will provide the answers. It simply is not that easy to create whole school change. Yet, there are district and school leaders who have strategically built a plan for this complex integration of technology and forged the will to follow it through.

In school systems like Mooresville Graded School System, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Forsyth County Schools, to name a few, school leaders did not in a piecemeal way apply hardware here and software there. Rather, they created true learning initiatives in which technology is a component of a larger cultural shift aimed at improving student outcomes.

While the challenges facing schools and the initiatives they implement to meet those challenges will differ, each successful technology-powered learning initiative I’ve seen was composed of a few key elements. Those elements are, in order:

A clear articulation of educational goals. In each instance of a thoughtful, technology powered learning initiative I’ve seen, district leadership has, in a unified voice, been able to succinctly describe what they are trying to accomplish and their vision for meeting their goal. In addition, this cohesive message has been conveyed to teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members and others, creating a sense of unity and purpose around district efforts.

A clear plan aligning professional development to goals. Preparing educators to change their classroom practice to incorporate new resources and meet new goals is a critical component of any learning initiative. A plan to provide customized, job-embedded professional development that aligns to district-wide efforts and implemented with fidelity empowers teachers to support new initiatives and more effectively incorporate new technologies into classroom instruction.

An updated content strategy. Digital content gives educators the media they need to create rich, authentic digital learning environments that engage today’s students. A strategy to give teachers high-quality, standards-based digital content that is embedded in district pacing, scope and sequence documents, and can be accessed from all platforms, is essential.

An access strategy. All the stakeholders know and understand the plan. A strategy is in place to provide educators the professional development they need to make it happen. The district’s instructional content has been updated with new digital content aligned to curriculum. Only now, with those plans in place, is it appropriate to create a strategy to get content into the hands of students.

At this point in the planning process, it is important to consider the entire spectrum of access issues. Is the wireless infrastructure adequate for what we want to accomplish? Is internet security adequate? What types of devices should we use? Should we go 1:1? Should we go BYOD? The educational goals of the learning initiative should dictate these types of technological decisions.

Evaluation/continuous improvement plan. With the key elements of the learning initiative in place, it is time to consider how success will be measured. A rigorous process that celebrates successes while addressing deficiencies should be designed and implemented to ensure continuous improvement.

While we live in an age where there is an app for everything, when it comes to designing district-wide learning initiatives powered by educational technology, there is no app. Each school system is different, facing unique challenges that require distinct solutions.

To achieve lasting change that improves academic achievement, a multifaceted approach that engages stakeholders, builds human capacity, thoughtfully introduces technology, and leaves room for evaluation and course correction is the solution. Only when these elements are combined do the systemic changes our students need and deserve become possible.

Scott Kinney is Senior Vice President for Discovery Education.

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