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3 Lessons American Districts Can Learn From Foreign Schools

Countries around the world are embracing innovative approaches to technology. Here are some best practices that U.S. educators can adopt from Singapore, Mexico and Japan.

With thousands of domestic K-12 institutions to cull information and advice from, schools in the United States have seldom looked overseas for help selecting and integrating educational technology. However, as the Internet continues to erode traditional geographic barriers — and as international schools post impressive results from their tech initiatives — reaching out to colleagues in other countries for advice and support is becoming more commonplace.

Consider Plymouth-Canton Community Schools in Ann Arbor, MI, for example. There, Elliot Soloway, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor at the University of Michigan's College of Engineering, works with Superintendent Michael Meissen to create connections between his institutions and schools in Singapore. According to Soloway, "Singapore schools have traditionally improved test scores through the 'drill, drill, drill' approach, but now they're realizing that this is no longer the right model for education."

Empowering Entrepreneurial Learners
Instead, Soloway explained, schools in Singapore are using a five-year master plan centered on moving institutions away from direct instruction and towards an inquiry-oriented approach that's focused on two key 21st Century skills:  self-directed learning and collaborative learning. As part of this initiative, Soloway said that students use school-owned smartphones (partially funded through a Qualcomm grant) as search tools as well as communication devices.

"Smartphones fit in the palm of your hand," Soloway said, "which means the third-grader who is walking home, thinking about her recent classroom lesson on roots and plants, can use her phone to become a 'root detective' on the spot — rather than waiting until she gets to a computer."

The schools also provide students with University of Michigan's MyDesk, an application suite designed for self-directed, creative and effective learning. The app grew out of the "Learning Apps for Primary Education" course at the university and includes productivity, concept-mapping, charting, writing and animation apps that students can use across different subject areas.

Soloway pointed out that Singapore's new approach to education and educational technology has been particularly effective when working with low achievers. "These students need an edge and some leverage, and the mobile devices are the key," said Soloway, who said he sees countrywide positive results in store for Singapore as its schools continue to deploy technology and lean toward more self-directed learning. "It's such a small country and its economics (namely, the fact that Singapore lacks any significant natural resources) dictate that all citizens must be leaders," said Soloway. "This is a great way for it to develop more entrepreneurial-minded learners." 

Using High Tech To Prepare for High Turnover
When the Atid School in Mexico City rolled out its 1-to-1 program four years ago, it steered clear of iPads. The school also chose the BYOD route over school-owned laptops, insisted on using a robust mobile device management (MDM) platform, and placed a priority on both introductory and ongoing professional development for its 200 instructors. The school, which has 1,200 students in pre-K through grade 12, worked closely with Apple to establish student pricing on MacBooks, which would become the devices of choice for the program.

Christian Hernández, the school's IT and ed tech director, said that the school opted out of the tablet craze because the mobile devices didn't have the capability to handle CAD design or 3D printing. "The iPad isn't powerful enough yet for the applications we're using in middle and high school," said Hernández. He added that today, some elementary classrooms use iPads and other students can bring their tablets to school if they want, "but only if they are running the Apple operating system."

Because it went the BYOD route, the Atid School also had to come up with a plan for accommodating those students whose families couldn't afford to purchase devices, even at Apple's discounted student rate. For those pupils, the institution offers a monthly rental plan and also provides roughly 300 school-owned laptops across various labs and classrooms.

The school also implemented Apple's Mavericks Server Profile Manager mobile device management (MDM) platform to track the 1,500 or so total devices connected to its network . "Using the MDM and our own servers," said Hernández, "we can deploy school policies and monitor the software and content for all devices that are on our network."

Before rolling out its 1-to-1 program in 2010, the Atid School set up a comprehensive professional development program that would not only be used by the current teaching staff, but also by the following school year's crop of new instructors. "Here in Mexico, the teacher rotation through the schools is very high, so every year we work to get new teachers to the same level of their predecessors," Hernández said. "The high turnover can be difficult on the tech department."

To combat this ongoing issue, the school evaluates all new teachers on their technology use as it applies to teaching strategies. After being placed into one of six different levels, teachers enroll in training courses and one-on-one coaching sessions. "In the sessions, we help them implement technology according to their respective subject areas," said Hernández. "Thanks to the coaching, our teachers are on track when it comes to using technology in the classroom." As an added layer of PD, teachers are also encouraged to participate in and earn their certifications from the Apple Distinguished Educators Program. 

With about four years of successful 1-to-1 program administration under its belt, the Atid School has not only managed to cultivate a group of tech-savvy teachers, but it has also improved teaching and learning. "We've been measuring standardized test results and seeing good results so far," said Hernández, "particularly in the area of language acquisition."

Leadership That Promotes STEM
Patrick Adams' international ambitions began two years ago when the science teacher from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, CA, flew to Japan to participate in Toshiba's Tomadachi STEM Leadership Academy, an annual one-week, cross-cultural STEM exchange and leadership program for 16 high school students and eight teachers from Japan and the U.S.

During Adams' overseas trip, he observed at the academy and gave input on how more science, technology and cultural activities could be integrated into a shared scientific approach. For example, he began looking at the similarities between Japan's Super Science Academies (upper secondary schools that prioritize science, technology and mathematics) and America's science-focused charter schools. He toured some of those focused high schools in Japan, looked at their current projects, and got to meet several teachers while there.

"It was interesting for me to see how these highly-specialized schools can really focus in on being cutting-edge with science and technology," said Adams. "It's an approach that's been very successful in Japan, and it creates an emphasis that permeates everything they do at the schools."

At one school, for example, students were working in rice paddies, studying plant genetics and mixing traditional Japanese culture with modern science. When Adams returned to the U.S., he started talking to other teachers about how to transform a half-acre garden on Bellarmine College Preparatory's grounds into a useful component of the institution's science curriculum. "The idea of giving students that type of interface is pretty exciting," said Adams.

In return, Adams said he was able to share information about his school's learning management system (LMS) with his Japanese counterparts, many of whom lacked knowledge of and hands-on experience with such systems. "LMS is fairly new in the U.S. and really hasn't taken off in Japan yet," said Adams, who uses the Canvas by Instructure platform. "It was nice to be able to share that piece of technology with them and show them how our students and teachers use the LMS to keep track of activities, calendars, assignments and discussion groups."