Sunday, March 1, 2015

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 accomplishments.  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. 

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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 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 is a critical analysis of existing infrastructure.  There is nothing more frustrating to teachers and students when an activity incorporating technology fails because of poor WiFi connectivity.  In addition to WiFi, 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 enough.  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 along side 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 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 life in an ever-increasing digital world.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Looking at Teacher Accountability Through a New Lens

In case you haven’t noticed the education profession has been under attack as of late. The brunt of these attacks has been aimed at the very professionals who are tasked with positively impacting the lives of children each and every day – our teachers.  In my mind education is the noblest of professions.  Without education, at some level virtually all other professions would be non-existent. This places our teachers at the forefront of molding young minds into the next generation of doers, thinkers, creators, leaders, and entrepreneurs.  If there is ever a profession that should be revered as much as that of a doctor who saves lives it is that of a teacher.  

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Unfortunately there is a growing rhetoric and sentiment that the education system in America is broken and our teachers are to blame for this.  New accountability systems have been championed and adopted across the country that reduce teacher effectiveness to a mere number.  The algorithm adopted by many states, which quite frankly makes little sense, crunches data sets in an attempt to measure the quality of a teacher against his or her peers. Each state has different factors that go into their value-added measurement (VAM) of a teacher, but the dominant component is standardized test scores.  Teachers are the true catalysts of change that can create schools that work for kids. Even though countless studies have debunked this means to truly assess teacher effectiveness states have moved full steam ahead ignoring the research.

With such a focus on standardization in schools, many teachers feel compelled to prepare students for a litany of exams, as the data extrapolated from them will be used for high-stakes evaluation. Administrators are also intimately tied to these results as well, so as a knee-jerk reaction an environment that resembles a test-taking factory is created.  The sole focus becomes one that emphasizes performing well on a test as opposed to learning.  What results is the proliferation of an industrialized model of education that reformers claim they want to get away from, but the policies they support only help to sustain it. This gloomy depiction of what is happening to schools across the country by people that have no business enacting education policy is forcing teachers to leave the profession at alarming rates. 

The structure and function of the majority of schools in this country is the exact opposite of the world that our learners are growing up in.  There is an automatic disconnect when students, regardless of their grade level, walk into schools due to the lack of engagement, relevancy, meaning, and authentic learning opportunities.  Our education system has become so efficient in sustaining a century old model because it is easy and safe.  The resulting conformity has resulted in a learning epidemic among our students as they see so little value in the cookie-cutter learning exercises they are forced to go through each day. The bottom line is that they are bored.  It is time that we create schools that work for our students as opposed to ones that have traditionally worked well for the adults.

Creating schools that work for students requires a bold vision for change that not only tackles the status quo inherent in the industrialized model of education, but also current education reform efforts. Even though Common Core is not a curriculum, many schools and districts have become so engrossed with alignment and preparing for the new aligned tests that real learning has fallen by the wayside.   We need to realize that this, along with other traditional elements associated with education, no longer prevail.  How we go about doing this will vary from school to school, but the process begins with the simple notion of putting students first to allow them to follow their passions, create, tinker, invent, play, and collaborate.  Schools that work for students focus less on control and more on trust. 

There is a common fallacy that school administrators are the leaders of change. This makes a great sound bite, but the reality is that many individuals in a leadership position are not actually working directly with students.  Teachers are the true catalysts of change that can create schools that work for kids. They are the ones, after all, who are tasked with implementing the myriad of directives and mandates that come their way. Leadership is about action, not position. Schools need more teacher leaders who are empowered through autonomy to take calculated risks in order to develop innovative approaches that enable deeper learning and higher order thinking without sacrificing accountability. If the goal in fact is to increase these elements in our education system then we have to allow students to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.  

For change to be successful it must be sustained.   Teacher leaders must not only be willing to see the process through, but they must also create conditions that promote a change mentality. It really is about moving from a fixed to a growth mindset, something that many educators and schools are either unwilling or afraid to do. The essential elements that work as catalysts for the change process include the following:

  • Empowerment
  • Autonomy
  • Ownership
  • Removing the fear of failure
  • Risk-taking
  • Support
  • Modeling
  • Flexibility
  • Collaboration
  • Communication

What I have learned is that if someone understands why change is needed and the elements above become an embedded component of school culture he/she or the system ultimately experience the value for themselves.  The change process then gets a boost from an intrinsic motivational force that not only jump starts the initiative, but allows for the embracement of change as opposed to looking for buy-in.  We should never have to "sell" people on better ways to do our noble work nor rely on mandates and directives. These traditional pathways used to drive change typically result in resentment, undermining, and failure.

Even in the face of adversity in the form of education reform mandates, Common Core alignment, impending PARCC exams, new educator evaluation systems, loss of funding, and an aging infrastructure, at my school we have not only persevered, but proven that positive change can happen with the right mindset.  Teachers were put in a position to overcome these challenges and experience success.  Others can as well. Throughout the past couple of years I have seen improvements in the "traditional" indicators of success by mainly focusing on creating a school that works better for our students as opposed to one that has always worked well for us. Technology was a tool that my teachers harnessed and leveraged to do what they did better while creating a culture of learning that actually meant something to our students. My recent TEDx talk provides insight into how this was accomplished.  

My message is to everyone who has and continues to bash teachers by implementing accountability structures that will do nothing to help our students succeed in life and follow their dreams.  There needs to be more creative ways to hold teachers accountable so that a school-wide focus on relevant learning becomes the norm. Teachers should no longer be forced to prepare students for a world that no longer exists and be held accountable through one-dimensional means.  Teacher success should be judged on the products students create with real-world tools to solve real-world problems.  If teachers are allowed to innovate and allow students to create artifacts of learning to demonstrate conceptual mastery, the end goal should be the acquisition of higher-order thinking skills.  

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tips for BYOD Equity

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives are being adopted by districts and schools around the globe.  With the growing access that students now have to technology at home, educators are seizing this opportunity to increase access in the classroom.  For cash strapped districts BYOD seems like the logical solution to leverage the mobile devices students have to enhance learning, increase productivity, conduct better research, address critical digital literacies, and teach digital responsibility.  In theory this all sounds fantastic and there are many benefits that I have witnessed firsthand after successfully implementing a BYOD initiative over five years ago at my high school. However, in practice it is important to ensure that any initiative involving student-owned devices is well thought out with a resulting plan for action focused on student learning. For more information on how to implement a successful BYOD initiative make sure all of these drivers are firmly in place.

One issue that comes up frequently with BYOD initiatives is equity. The equity issue either haunts those who have or are in the process of going BYOD.  There are other times, however, that this issue stops the initiative from moving forward.  In any case the ones who suffer are our students.  In today’s digital age, who are we to tell a student that he or she cannot bring their tools to class to support learning? Don’t get me wrong; equity is a real issue that needs to be addressed when rolling out or sustaining any BYOD initiative.  It is our job as leaders and educators to provide the best possible learning environment for out students.  With this being said the equity issue should not be seen as an obstacle or challenge that cannot be overcome. Instead of using this as an excuse, or allowing the naysayers to use this as ammunition to derail the initiative, it is our job to find applicable solutions in order to create schools that work for today’s learners.  After all, it is not about our (adult) learning, but our students.

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In my community where we made the decision to roll out BYOD many years ago, we did so knowing full well that all of our students did not own a device. Through our planning we also discovered that some students had parents/guardians who would not allow them to bring them to school for fear of theft or breakage. Then there was a small group of students who flat out told us that they had no interest in using their technology in school to support learning. All of these challenges could have been excuses not to move forward, but we decided to find some solutions to benefit the majority while not excluding any student.

Any successful BYOD initiative should focus squarely on how students can use mobile devices to support their learning.  If a lesson called for every student to use a device to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to a specific learning outcome it was our job to ensure this.  Here are some practical tips that we utilized to ensure BYOD equity:
  1. Know Your Students – Once a decision has been made to implement BYOD in your school/district and proper professional development has been provided find out who are the haves and have nots.  One suggestion is to use Google Forms to curate this information.  Going forward this will allow you to focus on those students who need access.
  2. Advance Planning – Notify students the day before that they will need to bring their device to class the following day if the learning activity calls for it. 
  3. Supplement School Technology – If a learning activity calls for every student to have a device then it is imperative that supports are put in place. Students will either forget to bring their device, not have one, or chose not to bring it into school. A successful BYOD initiative has ample technology on hand to make sure all students have access to tools. 
  4. Utilize Cooperative Learning – This archaic pedagogical technique is a necessity in a BYOD environment. There will be some cases where supplemental school technology is not available. Developing lessons where collaborative groups are established and all students have equitable access to a mobile device to accomplish the learning outcome is a sound practice.
  5. Engage Parents - Prior to going BYOD parent meetings should be planned and held to discuss the initiative as well as outcomes and expectations. These conversations should also clearly outline how the issue of equity will be handled.  
Device envy is another issue that is commonly referenced by BYOD critics as a reason for not implementing BYOD.  As children we all experienced some sort of envious situation in school.  For me personally it is when I wanted Air Jordan sneakers and my parents bought me Converse. Sure, it didn’t make me feel good, but I learned to deal with it.  Part of preparing our students for life is helping them to deal with envy in positive ways.  As educators the last thing we want to do is make students feel bad about the type of device he/she has, but we also don’t want to use this excuse to exclude the potential of mobile learning.  The best way to avoid any envious situation is to keep the focus on learning. Not only did we do this, but we also began signing out school owned technology to students who did not have access at all.  When it was all said and done we never received one complaint from our parents on the equity or envy issues.

So what are your thoughts on the equity issue? Would you add any tips that I might have missed?  For more BYOD resources visit this Pinterest board.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Administrating Your School With Success Using A Multi-Functional Communication System

The following is a sponsored post by DialMyCalls.

If long lists of numbers and phone chains are still part of your school’s communication system, it is time for an upgrade. There are hundreds of people you may need to contact at any given time, and dozens of different groups. Luckily our modern technologies have included amazing communication systems that can make your important job of over seeing a school so much simpler.

General Messages

Are you still relying on notes sent home and paper calendars to let students and parents know what is happening in the upcoming year? If you set up a website for your school, all of that information can be kept in one place where a distracted student can’t lose it. 

A comprehensive calendar can be set up to show school events and holidays for quick reference. You can even grant your teacher's access to post messages about necessary supplies and upcoming tests. A website lets school officials and families communicate effectively, and at their convenience.

Urgent Matters

Of course unplanned events happen with frequency at a school, and you need a quick method of contacting the affected individuals immediately. This is where a school notification system like DialMyCalls will become your communication central. All of the phone numbers your school needs to stay connected are stored in a central online database. Here they can be grouped into whatever categories you need, like teachers and staff and class by class. This makes it a breeze to pick out the right people you need to reach when time is critical.

DialMyCalls offers a variety of ways to communicate, depending on the situation: 

  • Voice message: When you want to remind a class of parents about an upcoming field trip, or your teachers of tomorrow's meeting, you can record a message and then send it to their phones. The calls are made instantly through your account, and when answered, the right recipient will hear your message. Consider the time you save by only having to say your spiel once, instead of having to make repeated calls during your busy day.
  • SMS text message: More and more people are relying on texts to communicate and now your school can too. Text messages get immediate attention when you have emergent information to share. Is snow causing your school to close early today? Let the parents know right away with an urgent text. An automated text message broadcast is the fastest way possible to get an important message across to hundreds at the same time.
  • Email messages: You can all use a special email feature for when you just need to send gentle reminders. Maybe your PTA wants to let parents know about their fundraising schedule, or you need to make a change on the calendar. An email can be used to direct parents to your website to get any updates about the school.

With the right technology at your fingertips you can completely modernize the way your school communicates. There are dozens of issues that need your attention daily, make them your priority by making communication quick and easy.