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Common Core | Q&A

A Systemic Approach to Digital Learning Initiatives

As school districts prepare for the implementation of Common Core State Standards or Career and College Readiness standards, as well as online assessments, the Alliance for Excellent Education has released a report, "The Nation's Schools Are Stepping Up to Higher Standards," that identifies four interrelated challenges facing school districts and seven interconnected areas of education that the Alliance asserts can benefit from digital learning and technology.

Sara Hall is the director of digital learning for the Alliance. She is one of the people behind the Alliance's first annual Digital Learning Day, "a national campaign that celebrates teachers and shines a spotlight on successful instructional practice and effective use of technology in classrooms across the country." Through that event, the Alliance realized that school districts had an urgent need for support in their efforts to advance digital learning in the classroom, and it was the impetus behind the creation of the report.

Following up on this report and its suggestions, the Alliance plans to announce a new initiative called Project 24, "a district-level effort to provide school districts with useful tools that will assist them in reaching college- and career-ready standards through systemic planning for the effective use of technology and digital learning over the next twenty-four months," according to the Alliance. "The groundwork on Project 24 is currently being done, and the official call to action will begin on Digital Learning Day 2013," which will take place Feb. 6.

In this interview, Hall discusses the role of digital learning in education and how school districts can effectively plan their digital learning initiatives.

Leila Meyer: How do you define digital learning?

Sara Hall: When people in ed tech read "digital learning," they morph that into online or virtual learning, and that is one specific piece of what we're talking about, but we actually define digital learning as any instructional practice that effectively uses technology to strengthen the learning experience.

So it's a very broad definition of digital learning and it really does encompass data, the use of time, professional learning, all of those pieces. But I always have to remind people that our definition is a very broad definition. It includes that one pillar of online learning but many, many other pillars as well.

Meyer: What is the main benefit of digital learning?

Hall: The biggest benefit is that it allows teachers an opportunity to personalize instruction using real time data, using more robust more engaging content, and really being able to tailor the instructional experience for each kid, whereas five years ago that kind of technology just didn't exist.

Meyer: How do you think the Common Core State Standards affect the role of digital learning in the classroom?

Hall: What we're seeing is that the higher standards in Common Core can be a real opportunity for districts to think through digital learning in a way that's very systemic. So as they're thinking about how they need to achieve these higher standards ... in the curriculum, the data and assessment, the professional learning, and the supports, they can think about how digital learning can connect all of those dots. And that's what we're really hoping that people will think about as they're thinking through Common Core implementation.

Meyer: In your opinion, are any particular digital learning technologies that have a bigger impact on student achievement than others?

Hall: Each district has to assess the goals for their student achievement and figure out what pieces they need. There's not one silver bullet that's going to solve every district's issues. Being able to think about it more systemically is really important.

Meyer: The report identifies seven areas of the planning framework for digital learning. Are there any of those seven areas that you think have more importance than others?

Hall: They're all interrelated. As you're looking at curriculum and instruction, you absolutely have to think about data and assessment, professional learning supports, academic supports, and the need to have all of the data on the whole child. They're all equal and interrelated. It's like a puzzle, and you really don't have the whole picture if you're missing a piece.

Meyer: How do you envision school districts using this planning framework?

Hall: We're in the process right now of creating a self-assessment for districts. Our hope is that when they hear about this framework, they'll create a team (and we'll give them a really good idea of what that team should look like at the district level) and then take the self-assessment, which should take about an hour for the team to submit all of the questions. Within 24 hours, they'll get a report that explains where they are within each one of those tiers or the puzzle pieces and offers some ideas about how to interact with the content. They might see that they're doing okay in curriculum and instruction, but they haven't done anything in the use of time area, so that's where they'll want to focus most of their effort.

The report is really a precursor, and we're going to be building a lot more content around it, as well as the self-assessment.

One of the things that we think the Alliance is specifically suited to do is convene leaders who have already done this really well. So we've actually identified a team of experts who are going to be helping us build all of this content. So if some people at the district level have already done this and have learned some lessons and can share, we'll be providing all of that to the districts free of charge.

Meyer: How can districts find out when those resources will be available?

Hall: If they go to the Alliance's Web site, there's a place for them to sign up and get more information. As soon as that self-assessment is ready, we'll be sending out a link so people can get started right away.

Meyer: Are there some common mistakes that you've seen school districts make in the early adoption of digital learning technologies?

Hall: Sometimes they lead with the device, or they lead with the technology itself, instead of taking a step back and really thinking about the instructional goals and what technologies will support them. That's probably the most common mistake, just not thinking it through systemically.

Meyer: What are some examples of school districts that have done a particularly good job of implementing digital learning?

Hall: Each district is a little bit different, but what we see in most of the successful districts is that they've created a team at the district level that includes curriculum, technology, and professional development, so everybody is moving toward that same goal. Generally there's a strong leader in that mix as well, but being able to make sure the right hand is talking to the left hand and everybody's working in concert with the vision for the district.

Meyer: Do districts need to have a complete plan in place before they begin implementing any part of it?

Hall: I think it's actually a very nonlinear experience. There are going to be some districts that come in and rank really high on professional learning and very low on data and assessment, and vice versa. Districts are going to have to implement in chunks just because the budget and resources won't always be there, but it's very important to look at all of the interrelated parts and think it through systemically so all of the pieces are being recognized at each step of the implementation process.

Meyer: When do school districts need to start planning for digital learning in order to be ready for Common Core?

Hall: It needs to be now. It's really important because as these higher standards are being expected, we've got lower budgets, we've got online assessments coming along very soon, and we have the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waivers. This is the opportunity to really take a step back and plan systemically and think about using those Common Core State Standards or Career and College Ready standards, depending on the state you're in, using that as a real opportunity to plan systemically for technologies because it's key and urgent.

Meyer: Once they've begun implementation, how often do districts need to review their digital learning strategies?

Hall: It should be an ongoing process. Oftentimes, I think people make a technology purchase and check off the box and say, "Okay, that's done." But really, in most successful enterprises like business, there's an ongoing process for technology and innovation, and that's what I think schools need to move to is a consistent ongoing process for improvements.

Meyer: If teachers are resistant to digital learning, how do you convince them of the benefits?

Hall: I think most teachers who feel supported in this, and don't feel like it's just something that's layered on top of their other duties, find this to be an incredibly valuable experience. I think where people start feeling a little bit worried about it is when it feels like it's not part of the bigger vision, and that it's just layered on top of other standards or other things that they need to teach or learn themselves. I think the key is making sure that everybody at the school level knows the vision and is trained and feels supported. I think when they don't feel supported, they do feel like it can be a distraction as opposed to a help.

Meyer: What is the single most important take home message from this report?

Hall: It's so important for districts to use these Common Core State Standards and Career and College Ready standards as an opportunity to take a step back and to really think systemically about how technology can help them achieve these higher standards. Through this framework we're really hoping that people can see the interrelations between all of the different topics and really think about it systemically, but also urgently. Now is the time to really act.

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