The following blog comes to us courtesy of Eric Sheninger, a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) and Scholastic Achievement Partners (SAP). It originally appeared on Eric’s blogspot column, “A Principal’s Reflections.” Eric also serves as the K-12 Director of Technology and Innovation in the Spotswood School District (NJ). He was previously an award-winning principal at New Milford High School, which became a globally recognized model for innovative practices under his leadership. His latest book, Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, focuses on leading and learning in the digital age as a model for moving schools and districts forward.
Digital Learning Prospers with the Right Culture
As of late I have been doing a great deal of work with schools and districts on how to effectively implement digital learning across the curriculum. When it comes to technology in general, the overall goal is to support learning, not drive instruction. Where digital learning initiatives miss the point is a focus on how technology actually accomplishes this. Schools invest billions of dollars to purchase technology with no real thought as to how it is actually impacting learning. When I routinely ask school leaders how they determine or measure the impact of their technology on student learning, I get blank stares or open declarations that they have no idea. This is a problem.
The right culture focuses on technology as a tool to enhance learning in a variety of ways. When technology is integrated with purpose, students can create artifacts to demonstrate conceptual mastery, apply an array of acquired skills, illustrate the construction of new knowledge, and be empowered to take ownership over their learning. It can also increase relevance and make the curriculum more contextual. This is just a sample of how digital learning can complement the work that is already taking place in schools, while allowing students to clearly see the value in their learning. As with any holistic initiative, the key is sustainability and a resulting change that sees all aspects of digital learning become an embedded component of school culture. Without the right culture in place for digital learning to be embraced and thrive, there will only be isolated pockets of excellence. The following are some suggestions on how to ensure that digital learning initiatives in your district or school don’t fall flat:
- Build a shared vision – This important aspect is notably absent in many digital leaning initiatives. Efforts must be made to developing a shared vision with a variety of stakeholder input, including students. This is vital if the goal is sustained, cross-curricular application on a routine basis. The vision should be established in a way that clearly articulates how technology will be used to support/enhance student learning.
- Develop a strategic plan backed by action – Begin to form a plan for digital learning using some essential questions that add perspective for the change: Why is this change needed? How will it be implemented? What resources are needed? How will we monitor progress and evaluate on a consistent basis? What other challenges have to be overcome? By focusing on these questions and others that you develop, a concrete plan for action can be created.
- Access matters – During the planning process, it is imperative that there be a critical analysis of existing infrastructure. There is nothing more frustrating to teachers and students when an activity incorporating technology fails because of poor Wi-Fi connectivity. In addition to Wi-Fi, it is important to ensure there are enough devices and associated software if the goal is integration across the curriculum. To increase access, give some thought to a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiative, if there is not enough funding to go 1:1. An audit of available resources during the planning process would be a wise idea.
- Ensure ongoing professional development – I cannot overstate the importance of this suggestion. Teachers need training on how to develop pedagogically sound lessons and quality assessments aligned to higher standards. They also need to be exposed to a variety of tools and ways that they can be seamlessly integrated to support specified learning outcomes. School leaders need professional learning opportunities that assist them to effectively observe and evaluate digital learning in classrooms. Professional development should be ongoing and embedded throughout the school year.
- Monitor with intent – The vision and planning process provides the focus, but consistent monitoring helps to ensure sustainable change leading to transformation. School leaders need to consistently monitor and provide feedback on digital learning activities through observations, evaluations, walk-throughs, and collecting artifacts.
- Provide support – Throughout the initial implementation stages, and well after the initiative gains steam, ongoing support needs to be provided. Support comes in many ways, such as empowering teachers to be innovative through autonomy, giving up control, being flexible, and encouraging risk-taking. Budget allocations will also have to be made each year to not only sustain current digital learning initiatives, but to also move forward.
- Model the way – To put it simply, don’t expect others to do what you will not. Attempt to model at a basic level the expectations that you have when it comes to digital learning. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and work alongside your colleagues.
- Honor student voice and choice – Digital learning initiatives are all about creating schools that work for students. When developing lessons, allow students to decide which digital tools they want to use to show you what they have learned. The key is being able to assess learning, not knowing how to use thousands of tools. Put students in the driver’s seat when it comes to allowing them to determine the right tool for the right task. Also encourage them to consistently provide input to improve digital learning initiatives.
The whole premise of digital learning is to increase relevance, add context, acquire and then apply essential skills, construct new knowledge, and enhance critical literacies. Regardless of what standards you are accountable for, digital learning can be integrated seamlessly to foster deeper learning. Education today should not prepare students for a world that no longer exists. It is time to not just prepare students for college and careers, but also for life in an ever-increasing digital world.