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Careful Planning, Broad Outreach Seen as Sound Ed-Tech Strategies for Schools

By guest blogger Audrey Armitage

The school districts that benefit the most from technology will be the ones that combine careful planning and investment in digital tools with teacher training, the wise use of data, and outreach to the community, a think tank argues in a new paper.

The paper, released by the Center for Promise, the research division of America's Promise Alliance, examines technology efforts in five school districts around the country and offers recommendations for schools looking to expand their use of technology to help improve teaching and learning.

The paper was released this week by America's Promise Alliance, a Washington-based organization focused on improving the lives of young people. 

While the districts examined in the report vary greatly in terms of locale, size, demographic composition, and type of digital learning plan they are attempting to put in place, five strategies were found to be prevalent at all the schools studied, explained researcher Michelle Sedaca at a press briefing this week, held at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association headquarters. The report recommends that districts that  want to implement a digital learning plan should:

  1. Carefully plan and invest in broadband and wireless connectivity to build the infrastructure necessary for new technology;
  2. Provide ongoing professional development and technology training for teachers;
  3. Restructure teacher and student roles, and even classrooms, to personalize learning;
  4. Develop creative strategies by connecting with groups outside of the classroom, such as libraries, universities, foundations, and local businesses; and 
  5. Systematically use data to measure the effectiveness of digital initiatives and make improvements.

Researchers studied technology initiatives at school districts in Elizabeth Forward, Pa., Lewisville, Texas, Mobile, Ala., San Jose, Calif., and West Allis-West Milwaukee, Wis. 

The activities of the West Allis-West Milwaukee district were highlighted during the press briefing. Using videoconferencing tools, the presenters showed some of the ed-tech tools used in the classroom after the school's digital transformation. Students demonstrated using apps and digital content on district-provided tablets, which allow teachers to utilize a blended learning approach and help students build personalized learning plans.

Jennifer Cyskiewicz, a teacher at Walker Elementary, praised the digital education system, and said during the videoconference that although using technology in the classroom can create more work for teachers, the payoff is seeing "students taking ownership of learning—and learning at their own level."

"It's not just about having broadband access," said Jon Zaff, executive director of Center for Promise, "It's about creating new pedagogies to teach effectively."

Officials from the center noted the major inequities in students' access to technology inside and outside classrooms, which in turn can limit students' academic opportunities.

To help ensure students are able to access the digital tools they need, Zaff emphasized the importance of community support for digital learning, and the need to include parents in decisions about adopting educational technology. Sedaca described efforts underway in the Mobile, Ala., school system to provide training for parents on new classroom technologies, and how the rural Elizabeth Forward, Pa., school district partnered with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to provide students opportunities to engage with technology through game design.

Sedaca also discussed schools' struggles to pay for new technologies, and how schools are overcoming those obstacles through a mix of federal funding, borrowing money through bonds, and seeking assistance from external organizations and foundations. She also mentioned the recent increase in the E-rate spending cap as a promising sign for schools' digital expansion efforts, and is optimistic about future sources of funding for digital learning increasing as more research is conducted on the positive outcomes of K-12 digital education.

Digital learning is "an opportunity for rethinking what the educational environment is supposed to be," Zaff said.


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